The Shell Indians

Shell collectors make seashells their hobby and their consuming interest, but an Indian culture in southwest Florida made shells and mollusks their tools, ornaments, food, building material, and even the foundations for new dry land on which to build their cities! That land exists today as many small islands off the coast of Southwest Florida. It is possible to visit them today and see the traces of these ancient and vanished “Shell People.”

A few years after their discovery of the New World, Europeans arriving in South Florida in the early 1500’s encountered the “Calos” or “Fierce People” who ruled all the southern half of the state. They are known today as the Calusas, and alternatively as the Shell Indians for their many uses of the seashells that abound in the warm, shallow waters of the Gulf of Mexico. They are also known for their steadfast refusal to be conquered or converted to Catholicism, remaining free and true to their gods until the end.

As artisans, these Shell People were highly proficient. Florida anthropologist Marion S. Gilliland says that artistically the Calusas were “sophisticated and sensitive . . . never yet surpassed.” Their carved ceremonial objects, often of shell, commonly were ornately engraved, then painted in striking hues with natural pigments. Working with shells, and also with wood, plant fibers, clay and bone, Calusa craftsmen made tools, canoes, baskets and fishnets, pottery, clothing and houses.

Where did they come from? Primitive and nomadic Indians moved into a much colder and differently shaped Florida peninsula about 12,000 years ago. At that time the area was a hardwood forest and the coastline was about 60 miles further out into the Gulf of Mexico. These Paleo-Indians were hunter-gatherers, taking sloths, giant tortoises, woolly mammoths, cave bears, saber-toothed tigers and other inhabitants of these cool forests. They made projectile points, fishing gear, and other useful objects, the artifacts from which have been unearthed at many sites along the southern Gulf coast. Over time, as the climate changed and the peninsula shrank, these peoples were attracted by the abundant food near the coast, and especially near river mouths. They grew more sedentary, especially in the southern portion of the state, and colonized dry land near bays, becoming fishermen in these rich waters. One branch of their descendants were the Calusas, dwellers of the islands and coastal areas from Charlotte Harbor to south of Marco Island from the time of Christ. They were a highly civilized, complex and powerful culture, and held sway over much of south Florida.

In their heyday, at about the time Europeans came on the scene in the mid 1500’s, the Calusa population of south Florida may have reached 50,000 people, and they held sway over everything from just south of Tampa Bay, across the peninsula to the east coast and the Atlantic, and south to the Keys and beyond. They remained fisher-hunter-gatherers, but their rich food supply freed them from the intensive and time-consuming hunt for food that their forebears had found necessary. This comparative leisure allowed them to develop a complex political system of nobility-commoners-slaves with a centralized government. A canal system, massive earthworks and a flourishing of technology and art followed, as did elaborate religious practices. Tribute from outlying areas, in the form of food, slaves and ornament, pottery and building materials and trade with other areas of the realm were important components of their civilization.

An elaborate assortment of carved, painted and worked objects were religious in purpose: plaques, amulets, masks, totems and other objects dedicated to their deities were made of shell, bone, wood and, later, after contact with the Spanish, of gold and silver; these were carved, wrought, painted and worked to a high degree. Their religion demanded sacrifice, and was often especially bloodthirsty. Many of the sacrifices in historic times were captured Spaniards, but in earlier times or on the death of a great chief, servants and even village children were put to death to satisfy a god who “ate human eyes.” Victims’ heads were paraded in religious dances, and skulls were heaped into piles near villages.

One of the most characteristic features of their civilization, their mounds, or traces of them, can be found on every sheltered shore across their former range, and there are some very extensive sites at Marco, Galt Island, Demere Key, Pineland, Josslyn Island, Punta Rassa and Sanibel. But the 125 acre Mound Key, inside Estero Bay near Fort Myers and Sanibel , appears to be the capital of the Calusa nation. It is not certain why the Calusas found mound-building a desirable employment for their talents. One possible answer may lay in the fact that this is a hurricane-tormented coast, and raised mounds for their temples and the homes of their nobility may have protected them somewhat from the damaging storm surges of hurricane winds. Also, at about the time the Calusas were developing their culture, about 1,500 years ago, there were several major fluctuations of the sea level, rising four feet, and then dropping six feet in a 200 year span. What devastation that must have wreaked on their coastal settlements! High and stable ground must have looked very attractive, and mounds may have been their response.

Mound Key is an entirely artificial construction, built up from shallow sea bottom by the hands of men whose only building material was shell and marl. Like other shell middens, much of Mound Key is composed of discarded shells the Calusas used for tools, ornament and weapons, and the empty shells accumulating from the shelled mollusks they ate. But the Calusa mounds were of an intentional and purposeful construction in the beginning. Where shifting sand is moved about by every tide, a stable construction required some ingenuity. These industrious people constructed the first layer of an island or land mass by driving shells, usually whelks and conchs, siphonal canals down, into a sandy or muddy shallows. Next they carried in loads of clay-like marl which they then packed closely around these foundation shells. As the marl dried and settled, it hardened over time into a cement which held the entire structure together.

More marl and soil raised the level of the land, and as time passed, soil accumulated from the refuse, leaf litter and twigs that fell to the ground. Seawalls were constructed of whelk shells, siphonal canals driven in semi-horizontally, spires outward, with marl packed around them. Some mounds had altar-like platforms which were faced with large whelk shells, their spires forming a mosaic pattern. Smaller platforms and their approaches were paved with large clam shells, convex side up. Shells were used to build elaborate series of embankments, canals accessible by canoes, and water courts.

These water courts may have been stocked with fish. Archaeologists are finding evidence (tiny fish bones in quantity) that fish was a more important component of their protein diet than was formerly believed. In 1895, the first anthropologist to examine these structures, Frank Hamilton Cushing, watched a large school of fish pursued by sharks and porpoises, swim into these man-made shoals, where hundreds of pelicans, herons and cormorants and other predators were waiting. The fish were attacked from above, below and the sides. This sight led Cushing to the conclusion that men may once have driven fish into these traps and speared or netted them.

Abundant shell artifacts are found in the mound areas. Hundreds of Busycon whelk hammers and picks have been unearthed, as well as shell pendants, necklaces, scrapers, dippers, awls, fishing sinkers and weapons of all descriptions. Fishnet mesh was made of palm fiber using spacers of shell. Sometimes bone and shell were worked into a composite artifact, like fish hooks, or axes and hammers composed of whelk shells with wooden handles affixed by rawhide lashing. The Fighting Conchs, Strombus alatus and pugilis, and Melongena corona, the Kings Crown shells, also served as hammers and assorted tools. Bivalves such as the Mercenaria mercenaria, Quahog Clam, were used as anvils, choppers, knives, scrapers, and even weights for nets. The whelks too, Busycon contrarium, came in for such uses, as well as spinning tools, sinkers, anchors, cutting tools and beads. The columella of whelks of various sizes had many uses, as awls, Strombus gigas, the Queen Conch, and Cassis species, the Helmet Shells, were used as hammers to knock apart oyster clusters and pulverize shell or food. The Sunray Venus, Macrocallista nimbosa, as well as being one of the most delicious of clams, was used, as was the more plentiful and mundane Surf Clam, Spisula solidissima, as knives and scrapers. Perforated bivalves of all descriptions could be used as net weights and decoration. Those found as artifacts include Codakia orbicularis, Crassostrea virginica, Mercenaria campechiensis, Argopecten irradians, Noetia ponderosa and Dinocardium robustum vanhyningi. Busycon and Cypraea zebra, the Measled Cowry, were used as spoons, scoops, or dippers.

What became of this great civilization of the Calusa Indians? Spaniards landed on the Calusa coast first, possibly, in the person of Ponce de Leon. He encountered the Calusas when he landed near Charlotte Harbor on May 24, 1513, and attempted to trade with them for, of course, that Spanish grail, gold. The Calusas sent 80 war canoes against the Spaniards and repelled them. But, even though the Calusas successfully resisted the Spanish incursions for over 200 years, never giving up their land or their religion, the inevitable followed. Missions and disease and battles over the years weakened the empire of the Calusa and its central chief, giving rise to a flock of vassal chiefs, and the interruption of trade, which further debilitated the civilization. When the British and their Creek and Yamassee allies stormed into Florida in the 1700’s, they brought measles, smallpox and influenza. By the 1750’s the culture was gone, and the people dispersed, enslaved, or dead of disease.

Mound Key itself has fascinated archaeologists and historians for decades. It has been the object of intense excavation and investigation. Lying in forests of beautiful red and black mangrove trees, the mounds and ridges of Mound Key rise high out of the waters of Estero Bay. A central canal leading between the two main mounds is still visible. The high point of Lee County, Mound Key stands now at about 31.5 feet. Today, state and charitable contributions sustain a steady thrust to learn more about these vanished People of the Shell, their culture and their structures.

Some Selected References:

  • Arrington, Arden. 1992. “The Enigmatic Calusa. South Florida’s Lost People Parts 1 and 2,” Gulfshore Life July/August/September. p. 58-62, p. 34-39.
  • Dormer, Elinore M. 1987. The Sea Shell Islands: A History of Sanibel and Captiva. Rose Printing Company, Tallahassee, Florida. 273 + xii pages. Line drawings.
  • Marquardt, W.H., 1992. “Shell Artifacts from the Caloosahatchee Area.” Culture and Environment in the Domain of the Calusa. IAPS Books. Gainesville, FL.

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