The Calusa of Southwest Florida

The Calusa (kah LOOS ah) lived on the sandy shores of the southwest coast of Florida. These Indians controlled most of south Florida.

The population of this tribe may have reached as many as 50,000 people.

The Calusa men were tall and well built with long hair. Calusa means "fierce people," and they were described as a fierce, war-like people.

Many smaller tribes were constantly watching for these marauding warriors.

The first Spanish explorers found that these Indians were not very friendly. The explorers soon became the targets of the Calusa attacks. This tribe was the first one that the Spanish explorers wrote home about in 1513.

The Calusa lived on the coast and along the inner waterways. They built their homes on stilts and wove Palmetto leaves to fashion roofs, but they didn't construct any walls.

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 are considered to be the first "shell collectors." Shells were discarded into huge heaps.

Unlike other Indian tribes, the Calusa did not make many pottery items.

They used the shells for tools, utensils, jewelry, and ornaments for their shrines. Shell spears were made for fishing and hunting.

Archaeologists have excavated many of these mounds to learn more about these extinct people.

Artifacts such as shell tools, weapons, and ornaments are on display in many Florida history museums.

Hidden Gems: Fort Myers Beach’s Mound 

Mound House on Fort Myers Beach on a recent October morning. 

"We're a 2,000-year-old archeological site," explains Parke Lewis, an environmental consultant, who comes to volunteer a few days a week at the Mound House to give tours.

"You are standing on top of millions of shells. This mound complex is one of about 50 towns and villages that were built out of mound complexes by the Calusa Indians."


calusa-shell-mound-pine-islandcalusa-shell-mound-pine-island

The Calusa as Shell Indian can still be found today in many parts of southern Florida. Environmentalists and conservation groups protect many of these remaining shell mounds.

One shell mound site is Mound Key at Estero Bay in Lee County. Its construction is made entirely of shells and clay. This site is believed to be the chief town of the Calusa, where the leader of the tribe, Chief Carlos lived.

Calusa Indians were Warriors and Sailors

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The Calusa as Sailors Living and surviving on the coast caused the tribesmen to become great sailors.

They defended their land against other smaller tribes and European explorers that were traveling by water.

The Calooshahatchee River, which means "River of the Calusa," was their main waterway.

They traveled by dugout canoes, which were made from hollowed-out cypress logs approximately 15 feet long.

They used these canoes to travel as far as Cuba.

Explorers reported that the Calusa attacked their ships that were anchored close to shore.

The Calusa were also known to sail up and down the west coast salvaging the wealth from shipwrecks.

What Happened to the Calusa?

What happened to these fierce sailing Indians? The Calusa tribe died out in the late 1800s.

Enemy Indian tribes from Georgia and South Carolina began raiding the Calusa territory. Many Calusa were captured and sold as slaves.

In addition, diseases such as smallpox and measles were brought into the area from the Spanish and French explorers and these diseases wiped out entire villages.

It is believed that the few Calusa Indians left for Cuba when the Spanish turned Florida over to the British in 1763.

While these Seminoles were not direct participants in the Creek Wars of 1813, their ability to adapt to such European ways as wheat farming and cattle raising aroused the anger of Georgia farmers who accused them of stealing their cattle.

Most of the Seminole herds appeared to be wild Spanish stock. More significantly, planters noted that the Indians welcomed and accepted the arrival of runaway African-American slaves.

When Florida became a Territory in 1821, its first Governor Andy Jackson considered the some 7,000 Seminoles in Florida a major handicap in the development of Florida.

Busy with the settlement of Americans, Jackson did not have the time and manpower to curtail the arrival of even more Creeks along the Panhandle.

The more militant braves never complied with the Treaty of Moultrie Creek.

They had already been forced from their traditional hunting grounds, changed their livelihood from farming to cattle, and disliked any form of confinement.

Neamathia, a Mikasukis from North Florida, challenged Duval:

"Do you think . . . I am like a bat, that hangs by its claws in a dark cave, and that I can see nothing of what is going on around me?

Ever since I was a small boy I have seen the white people steadily encroaching upon the Indians, and driving them from their homes and hunting grounds . . .

I will tell you plainly, if I had the power, I would tonight cut the throat of every white man in Florida."

Neamathia's fears were quickly realized

Neamathia's fears were quickly realized as conflict between Indian and white settler started almost immediately after the signing of the document.

By 1828, the Florida Legislative Council was urging Congress to remove all Seminoles from Florida Territory.

Andrew Jackson tops list of worst presidents for Natives

Northern Congressmen were reluctant to bring up the issue of the Smeinoles in committee, but the new President Andrew Jackson, not friend to the Indians, was firm in his plans to remove all troublesome tribes west of the Mississippi River.

Since Florida was a much needed slave territory, Southern Congressmen vigorously backed Jackson's plans.

Seminole Wars

No event hindered the development of the Territory of Florida and slowed the effort of Floridians to gain statehood more than the Seminole Wars.

The conflict between white man and Indian in Florida became the longest continuous war in which the United States Government engaged an enemy. To the Seminole, it is a war that never officially ended.


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