THE CUBAN FISHERFOLK OF SOUTHWEST FLORIDA
During the seventeenth, eighteenth and early part of the nineteenth centuries, there was an
extensive and lucrative fishing industry between Cuba and the coast of Southwest Florida
which included the waters of Estero Bay and our own Mound House site. Semi-permanent
seasonal fishing camps or "ranchos" were established along the coast, many of which
occupied the abandoned shell mounds of the Calusa . The abundance and accessibility of
this tremendous shallow water fishery that had enabled the Calusa to establish a vast and sophisticated kingdom, now supported a new group of people, the Cuban fisherfolk. The protected back bays and expansive sea grass flats of our area lent themselves to the simple
fishing technology of the day. Using handmade woven nets and shallow draft sailboats,
these Cuban fishermen harvested up to two million pounds of fish a year from our waters.
Without refrigeration, fish had to be smoked ,or dried and salted before being packed for
shipment to market.
For centuries, South Florida was more closely tied to Havana than to any other port or
capitol in North America. It is roughly one hundred miles by water from Estero Island
to Key West, and another 90 miles to Havana. As a Spanish possession, "La Florida"
had no gold or silver for the conquistadors, but Florida is rich in natural resources, and
in the long run provided many colonial benefits to Spain.
With the ascendancy of Spanish influence in the western hemisphere, Havana became
a populous port city and soon the productive fishing grounds along the north coast of
Cuba had become depleted. Feeding the growing colony of Cuba was a lucrative enterprise
for the commercial fishing industries of the day. The Spanish Crown leased exclusive
fishing rights to Cuban businessmen who set up seasonal, and sometimes permanent,
ranchos upon the old Calusa shell mounds. In the fall, fishermen would target species
such as redfish ,snapper, trout, pompano ,and particularly the mullet which begin to
fatten up in the fall in preparation for the winter spawn in which vast schools of mullet
assemble in the tidal creeks and back bays of our estuaries, making them accessible to the
Cuban nets. As these fish were harvested,they were smoked or dried upon racks, salted and
packed for shipment to Cuba. Around March, at the end of the fishing season, these fishermen
would then sail to the Bahamas to harvest salt collected from seawater evaporation pools.
This salt was then brought back to the fishing ranchos in preparation for another season.
As trade became more established, many Cuban fishermen ended up marrying local Indian
women. Historians and other observers of the day referred to the descendants of these people
as "Spanish Indians". These families often joined the Catholic church and sent their children
back to Cuba for education.
For 200 years Cuban fishing ranchos operated along the coast of Southwest Florida, many
of them, like the Mound House site, established atop ancient Calusa mounds .Ultimately,
Spain ceded control of Florida to the United States in 1821, and in 1835 the Second Seminole
War ended the era of Cuban fishing ranchos in Florida as the United sought to end foreign
settlement of its new territory.