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Prehistoric Canals: Corridors of Trade

The Belle Glade Culture built the longest prehistoric canal system constructed in North America. The Ortona canals were dug by hand north from the Caloosahatchee River to allow canoes to reach a large earthwork complex. Totaling about five miles in length, the canals were dugs in two segments, each over two miles long. The canals bypassed the rapids of the Caloosahatchee River. The canal also served as a checkpoint that allowed the people of Ortona to monitor and regulate trade activity throughout the lake region. A similar canal and cultural center occurs at Pine Island on the Gulf coast indicating that the canals were important for the movement of people and goods between the Calusa capital at Pineland and Lake Okeechobee towns.

Lake Okeechobee was a major conduit for the movement of exotic resources into southern Florida, becoming a centuries-old route for moving local materials to the coast via the Caloosahatchee River and northward via the Kissimmee River. Imported materials that are not native to the area are found throughout the region, including chert, galena, basaltic celts, and copper. Local resources exported from the south via Lake Okeechobee included Busycon shell, shark teeth, ceramic pipes, bird feathers, and possibly volcanic pumice collected on Florida beaches. Exotica imports reached their height in AD 200–400 when Hopewellian culture reached its zenith in the Ohio River area, stimulating extensive networks of trade. New networks of trade also evolved during the Mississippian Period through European Contact (AD 900–AD 1513).

Ortona: Florida’s Ancient Canals
Ancient Florida canals were dug and used for many reasons including a quicker and safer canoe route, for ritual or political activities, trade routes, and access to mound complexes and burial mounds. Some canals were even carved through islands. The Ortona Canal was one of five artificial waterways in Florida. The others include Mud Lake-Snake Bight Canal on Cape Sable; Pine Island and Cape Coral Canals, which cuts through Pine Island; the Naples Canal in Naples; and Walker’s Canal on Florida’s Panhandle.

One of the largest mound sites in Florida is the Ortona Earthworks in Glades County which covers about 1,280 acres. The complex includes earthworks, mounds, ponds, causeways, and a baton shaped 450-foot-long pond. Also included is the longest ancient canal system in the nation. Two canals connect the Caloosahatchee River with the Ortona village. The canals, which were built over decades, date to about AD 300. The west canal running southwest to northeast is 2.3 miles long and the 2-mile east canal extends northwest to southeast. With the Caloosahatchee River as the base, the canals form a triangle meeting at the village.

The ancient workers used simple tools of wood and shell to construct the canals to a depth of three to four feet and about twenty feet wide. These aboriginal builders were skilled engineers to plan and build canals which extended or linked to natural waterways.

The placement of the Ortona Canals may have been built to control transportation routes on the Caloosahatchee River and north-south watery trails to Fort Center and Fisheating Creek. The location of the mound-village of Ortona also gave it control over land trade routes.

Canoes have been in use in Florida for about 5,000 years for travel throughout the watery landscape that is ever present in Florida. The construction of the Ortona Canals and others in Florida show that the ancient Floridians adapted well to their environment.

Ortona and Trade
Ortona was located on a major trade route that extended from Lake Okeechobee down the Caloosahatchee River to the Gulf of Mexico. From there, traders traveling in pine or cypress dugout canoes could paddle up the coast to the Florida Panhandle stopping at various coastal villages or south to Calusa villages in order to trade with other tribes.

Centrally located in south Florida, the lake area sat at the crossroads of trade. The Lake Okeechobee Basin was a major trading center with large quantities of raw materials and other goods arriving from coastal areas and from southern and northern locations. Some of the raw goods included stone. This may not seem important in other areas of the state but south Florida does not have the correct type of stone deposits for stone tool making. Chert is found in central and north Florida and elsewhere throughout the United States and the Belle Glade Culture had to trade in order to obtain it.

Other stone types brought to the lake area included basalt which would have come from Georgia, Alabama, or Mississippi. Stone trade items would have been traded down the Gulf Coast then up the Caloosahatchee River or down the Kissimmee River over Lake Okeechobee to the Caloosahatchee River to Ortona or to other villages on the lake or on Fisheating Creek.

Evidence from Belle Glade sites also shows that shell was brought in from Florida’s Gulf and Atlantic coasts. Large shells such as the Lightning whelk, Queen conch, and Helmet conch were traded inland from coastal regions. The Lightning whelk is normally found in tidal areas and mudflats along Florida’s west coast; the Queen conch is most often found in southeast Florida, the Keys, and the West Indies; and the Helmet conch is from bays, lagoons, shallow areas, and sea grass beds in the Keys, southeast Florida, and the Caribbean. These shell goods would have been traded along routes through the Everglades, Loxahatchee Slough, and the Caloosahatchee River.

Though the Belle Glade Culture had their own style of pottery, Belle Glade plain for example, they did trade with tribes in the St. Johns River area. Types of St. Johns pottery have been found at sites in the Okeechobee area. This indicates trade with northeast Florida tribes via waterways entering Lake Okeechobee to points on the lake or along Fisheating Creek or the Caloosahatchee River.

Items found in large quantities at locations in the Belle Glade Culture area clearly show long distance trade with inland people. Manufactured and raw goods arrived in the lake area and would have been fashioned by artisans into goods that would be traded to various locations in south Florida and back along trade routes reaching to the Ohio River Valley. The Lake Okeechobee region was clearly a major trade center.

For More Information
Ancient Canals of Ortona (audio discussion of the Ortona Canals)

Robert S. Carr, David Dickel, and Marilyn Masson. “Archaeological Investigations at the Ortona Earthworks and Mounds,” The Florida Anthropologist 48 (4): 227-264.

John M. Goggin. “Archaeological Notes on Lower Fisheating Creek," The Florida Anthropologist 4: 50-60.

George M. Luer. “Calusa Canals in Southwestern Florida: Routes of Tribute and
Exchange,” The Florida Anthropologist 42:89-130.

Gregory J. Mount. Prehistoric Trade Networks in the Lake Okeechobee Region: Evidence from the Ritta Island and Kreamer Island Sites. Unpublished Masters Thesis, Florida Atlantic University, 2009. Online edition at

Ryan J. Wheeler. “The Ortona Canals: Aboriginal Canal Hydraulics and Engineering,” The Florida Anthropologist 48 (4): 265-282.

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