Growing up with a love and interest in history, my curiosity always seems to lead me towards the history of the Calusa Native American tribe and their past in Southwest Florida. If you’ve never heard of the Calusa’s before, they were fierce warriors who once resided in Southwest Florida before the devastating arrival of the Spanish caused their culture to become extinct in the mid-eighteenth century. Their population was well near 50,000 people, and they were known to be politically powerful and distant, according to the Spanish and smaller tribes who encountered them. Their appearance was distinct, as Calusa men were built tall and powerful with long hair that reached their hips. They didn’t wear much clothing due to Florida’s warm weather, however Calusa men wore tanned deerskin breechcloths and belts that indicated their position in society, while Calusa women wore woven skirts made from palmetto leaves and spanish moss. The Calusa were one of the few tribes known to be shell collectors. Since the soft limestone that surrounded them was unfitting for tool and weapon production, they decided to use shells, wood, fish teeth, and bone for tools. The fishing nets they used to catch food were made from palm tree fibers. The Calusa also used shells for utensils, ornaments for shrines, jewelry and other necessities. Living on the shell mounds in their stilt homes made from palmetto leaves, the Calusa lived primarily off of food from the coastal area. Unlike other Native American tribes, the Calusa didn’t farm – instead, they fished and ate shellfish. With so much more to learn and discover about the Calusa tribe, I can’t help but wonder what their life was like living in the Everglades before being forced to extinction.
While riding through the Ten Thousand Islands on our boat, I always glance over at Sandfly Island, known for being the home to many Calusa natives centuries ago. It is one of the islands within the Ten Thousand Islands that contains higher ground caused from shell mounds built by the Calusa. The other day my parents and I decided to venture out to Sandfly Island and see what adventures await us.
We pulled up to the island and I quickly jumped off the bow of the boat to guide it onto the crunchy sand while the waves gently rolled in to kiss my feet. After helping my mother off, we started our trek up the island and came across an Everglades National Park sign containing information about the island. The Calusa engineered Sandfly Island to be in the shape of a horseshoe; the reasoning behind the shape is unknown but my parents and I agreed it could have been something to do with keeping intruders out. Another interesting thing about the history of Sandfly Island is that after the Calusa no longer inhabited the island, Anglo-American settlers began occupying it and built certain things that still stand there today! Charlie Boggess and his family built their two-story, nine-room home here in 1912. Although the home is gone from the island, you can still see the concrete foundation blocks where the home once sat overlooking the water. As you walk further, you’ll come across a large cistern filled with water, which once collected rainwater off the roof of Mr. Boggess’ house. I remember coming to the island as a little girl and seeing the cistern filled with water, and to know that it still sits there to this day with water in it blows my mind. Something even more mind-blowing is the artesian well around the corner from the cistern that the Collier Corporation dug back in 1922. The well is nearly 384 feet deep and fresh water still seeps from it constantly. Many birds and other wildlife gather near the well in order to get freshwater, which is rare for the area. Aside from this, the island contains a long boardwalk through a mangrove forest that leads you to the beginning of Sandfly Island Trail. The trail is a 0.9-mile trek and usually takes about 40-minutes to complete. My dad and I started the trail but quickly realized we should’ve brought repellent for the bugs, as they began biting us (hence the name of the island). We turned around and started back to the boat and agreed to do the entire trail another day when were prepared with bug repellent. One thing that I did want to share is the feeling of being on the island. After learning the history behind it, as well as the history of the Calusa, I’ve grown a deeper appreciation for the time spent there. While on the boardwalk, I stopped and listened to the wind dancing through the trees above me. The sound felt like something out of a dream, almost as if I was being brought back in time to when the Calusa inhabited the island. I saw children running along the shoreline playing in the sand, while a few women sat together under the trees making jewelry from shells and pottery. In the water stood several men holding nets, waiting for mullet to swim by and looking out onto the brackish waters of the Ten Thousand Islands. The history of the Calusa tribe is so important to the history of the Everglades, and I can’t wait to discover more about their life by walking Sandfly Island Trail soon. This time with bug repellent in hand!