How to pronounce
Calusa (kah LOOS
Link to Calusa Art
Shell mounds, called midden, 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
In Palm Beach County the most famous midden mound is
found near the Jupiter Lighthouse. The Dubois home on the Loxahatchee
River is built on an old Indian mound.
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.
Shell Indians (with attitude)
For thousands of years, Southwest
Florida’s Calusa Indians paddled the rivers and back bays of this area.
These earliest residents were well adapted to their land and fierce warriors (Calusa
means "the fierce people"). But the 16th century brought the
Spanish, Ponce de Leon among them, and the Calusas’ way of life was
changed forever. This would be a recurring theme.
By the mid-18th century, through a combination
of war, disease, and dissemination, the Calusa were lost to history. A
culture went extinct.
Indians, believed by many to be descendants of the Mayans, lived on the sandy shores of the southwest coast of Florida. These
Indians controlled most of south Florida. The population of this tribe has
been estimated at 10,000 to 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. That would turn
out to ultimately be a very bad stroke of luck.
They were a big and powerful lot!
They were powerfully built men, often four inches taller than
their European counterparts. In the warm Florida sun, they let their hair
grow hip length and wore only tanned breech clouts of deerskin fastened
with fancy belts indicative of one's position in the tribe. The women
dressed in garments of woven Spanish moss and palmetto leaves.
The Calusa were great sailors. Their large canoes of hallowed out
cypress logs were capable of reaching Cuba, perhaps Mexico. Their language
indicated they may have traveled to Florida from the islands. They did
little farming, but were outstanding hunters and fishermen. Due to their
warrior reputation, the Calusa also gained tributes of food from smaller
tribes. They were the bully on the block, so to speak.
The Calusa lived on
the coast and along the inner waterways. By looking at the remnants of
Calusa villages it was discovered that they built their homes on stilts
and wove Palmetto leaves to fashion roofs, but they didn't construct any
The Calusa Indians
did not farm like the other Indian tribes in Florida. Instead, they fished
for food on the coast, bays, rivers, and waterways. 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 fish bone arrowheads to hunt for animals such as deer. The women and
children learned to catch shellfish like conchs, crabs, clams, lobsters,
The most prominent aspect of the island and the highest elevation is a
32-foot shell mound, thought to be the location of
the cacique’s, or ruler’s, house. Such a mound was found in the middle of
Mound Key (pictured here.)
Some forty coastal villages spread along the
Florida Gulf Coast, with Mound Key near the mouth of the
Caloosahatchee River the largest village. Despite the lack of domesticated
animals and heavy tools, the Calusa built huge mounds of shell and deep
moats to protect their villages of raised huts. Burial mounds and a temple
mound for ceremonies encircled the village.
The Calusa's reputation was well established. The
hereditary chief and the dolman or priest ran the villages. They practiced
sacrificial worship and demanded obedience from all villagers. The Calusa
had a rather closed society and the Spanish would discover little interest
in missionary activity from the Calusa.
The Caloosahatchee River ("River of the Calusa")
was the main highway of the Calusa into the interior. Its banks teamed
with small game and its waters were abundant with fish and shellfish.
Calusa canoes could circumvent Lake Okeechobee and travel up the Kissimmee
River into other tribal areas.
The Calusa as Shell
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
The Calusa as
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, you'll remember, 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
What happened to
these fierce sailing Indians? The Calusa tribe died out in the late 1700s.
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 remaining Calusa Indians
left for Cuba when the Spanish turned Florida over to the British in
1763. This truly is a history mystery.