The Calusa (kah LOOS ah) lived on the sandy shores of the southwest coast of Florida. These Indians dominated most of south Florida, from Charlotte harbor to Cape Canaveral, through Lake Okeechobee all the way down to the Florida Keys. Some experts believe the population of this tribe may have reached as many as 50,000 people. Spanish explorers describe the Calusa men as tall and well-built with long hair. Calusa means “fierce people,” and they were seen as a fierce, war-like people. Many smaller tribes were constantly watching for these marauding warriors. As European explorers tried to invade the Calusa lands they too became targets of the Calusa attacks.
How the Calusa Lived
The Calusa lived on the coast and along the inner waterways of Southwest Florida, relying on the water for transportation and food. They built their homes on stilts and wove Palmetto leaves together in order to fashion roofs, but their houses did not have any walls. The Calusa Indians did not farm like most of the other Indian tribes in Florida. Instead, they fished for food on the coast, bays, and rivers. The men and boys of the tribe made nets from palm tree webbing to catch mullet, pinfish, pigfish, and catfish. They used spears to catch eels and turtles. They made arrowheads from shells and bones to hunt for animals such as deer and raccoon. The women and children gathered shellfish like conchs, crabs, clams, lobsters, and oysters. The Calusa also collected wild fruit from trees like sea-grape, prickly pear, and the seven year apple.
The Calusa as Shell Indians
The Calusa can be considered the first “shell collectors.” Shells were discarded into huge heaps. They used the shells for tools, weapons, utensils, jewelry, ornaments, and even built huge mounds to live on out of the shells. Shell mounds can still be found today in many parts of southern Florida. Environmentalists and conservation groups protect many of these remaining shell mounds because so many have been destroyed by development. One shell mound site is Mound Key at Estero Bay in Lee County. Its construction is made entirely of shells and clay and the top is the highest location in the county, 31 feet! This site is believed to be the capitol of the Calusa, where their king, Carlos lived. Archaeologists have excavated many of these mounds to learn more about these extinct people. One of the mounds archaeologists excavated is at Mound House on Fort Myers Beach, today you have the opportunity to enter the mound in their underground exhibit. Artifacts uncovered during digging such as shell tools, weapons, and ornaments are on display in many Florida history museums. However, removing these artifacts destroys the site forever. That is why it is important that you leave any artifacts you find in place and allow a professional archaeologist to examine them.
The Calusa as Sailors
Living on the coast caused the Calusa to become great sailors. They defended their land against other tribes and Europeans that were traveling through their territory. What is today called the Caloosahatchee River, which means “River of the Calusa,” was their main highway. They traveled by dugout canoes, which were made from hollowed-out cypress logs about 15 feet long. They used these canoes to travel as far as Cuba. Europeans reported that the Calusa attacked ships that were anchored close to shore. The Calusa were also known to sail up and down the west coast salvaging the wealth and sailors from shipwrecks.
What Happened to the Calusa?
What happened to these fierce sailing Indians? The Calusa people disappeared in the late 1700s. Enemy Indian tribes from Georgia and South Carolina began raiding the Calusa territory. Many Calusa were captured and enslaved by the British. In addition, diseases such as smallpox and measles were brought into the area by Europeans and these diseases wiped out entire villages. It is believed that the few remaining Calusa Indians left for Cuba when the Spanish turned Florida over to the British in 1763 and any that remained in Florida likely joined with the Indian groups pushed south by the British and eventually become the Seminoles.