Native Americans known as Calusa, were a non-agricultural, hunting and gathering chiefdom. They dominated the coastal zone and waters of southwest Florida for over 2,000 years. Mound Key is believed to have been a ceremonial center. Thickly covered in forests of mangrove trees, the shell mounds and ridges rise more than 30 feet above the waters of Estero Bay. When Spaniards first attempted to colonize southwest Florida in 1566, the governor established a settlement on the island with a fort and the first Jesuit mission in the Spanish New World. The settlement was abandoned three years later after violent clashes with the Calusa.
Mound Key is rich in early Florida history. The island was developed for over 2,000 years by the Calusa civilization. The site likely began as a flat, mangrove-lined oyster bar that barely rose above the shallow waters of the Estero Bay. Located in the center of an estuary, food was easy to find. As the native population grew, the remains of their food were collected and heaped into middens. Mound Key is believed to have been the cultural center for the Calusa. They had their first encounters with Europeans in the early 1500s when the Spaniards were exploring the Caribbean and peninsula of Florida. The first recorded contact with the Calusa was in 1513 when Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon landed in the area.
In 1566 Spain’s first Governor of Florida, Pedro Menendez de Aviles, was appointed at this site. This was also the site of the first Jesuit mission to the new world, San Antonio de Carlos. The Spanish period of the site was hard fought and short lived. They abandoned the island by 1569. However, with the Spaniards came diseases for which the natives had no immunity. This, combined with continued warfare with local tribes, would contribute to the decrease in their population, bringing an end to the Calusa's once great society around 1750.
After the Calusa period, the island was frequented by pirates and fisherman. In 1891, Mound Key was homesteaded by Frank Johnson. The Johnsons brought in other families to farm the site until the property was sold to the utopian Koreshans in 1905. The site on the island was added to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places on August 12, 1970. Today, the whole island is preserved as a Mound Key Archaeological State Park.
page information credit: Florida State Parks, University of South Florida
photos from the sources listed above, as well as publicly posted online sites with thanks to the contributors (special thanks to artist David Meo)