The Calusa People: A Lost Tribe of Florida that Early Explorers Wrote Home About
The Calusa (said to mean fierce people) are a Native American tribe that once inhabited the southwestern coast of Florida. The Calusa are said to have been a socially complex and politically powerful tribe, and most of southern Florida was controlled by them.
Additionally, it has been suggested that the population of this tribe may have reached 50000 people at one point of time. The men of the Calusa are recorded to have been powerfully built, and let their hair grow long. Additionally, they had (as their name suggests) a fierce, war-like reputation. When the Spanish explored the coast of Florida, they soon became the targets of the Calusa, and this tribe is said to have been the first one that the explorers wrote home about.
Early Calusa Days
The Calusa are said to have been the descendants of Palaeo-Indians who inhabited Southwest Florida about 12000 years ago. The ancestors of the Calusa are said to have survived by hunting prehistoric animals such as woolly mammoths and giant tortoises, and collecting fruits and other edible plants. At some point of time in their history, this tribe discovered that there was a wealth of fish in the waters, and began to exploit this resource.
Map of Calusa territory in Florida. (Public Domain)
It has been proposed that as fishing was a less time-consuming means of obtaining food than hunting and gathering, the Calusa were able to devote more time to other pursuits, such as the establishment of a system of government.
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When the Spanish arrived in Florida in the early 16th century, the Calusa were already in possession of a complex centralized government. At the top of the hierarchy was the chief, who had control over the life and death of his subjects, and was believed to have the ability to communicate with the spirits.
Calusa beliefs included a trinity of governing spirits. Rituals were believed to link the Calusa to their spirit world (Art by Merald Clark. Credit: Florida Museum of Natural History)
By interceding with these spirits, it was believed that the chief was ensuring that his people would be well-supplied by the land. Additionally, it has been pointed out that tribute was sent to this chief from other tribes in south Florida. Directly beneath the chief was the nobility. This class was supported by commoners, who provided them with food and other material goods. Slaves occupy the lowest level in Calusa society.
One illustration of the sophistication of the Calusa can be found in eyewitness accounts of an event in 1566. It is recorded that in that year, the Calusa chief formed an alliance with the Spanish governor, Menéndez de Avilés.
Spanish admiral Pedro Menéndez de Avilés (1519-1574) by Francisco de Paula Martí (1762-1827) (Public Domain)
Certain ceremonies were performed to seal the alliance (and perhaps also as a display of the might of the Calusa), and was witnessed by over 4000 people. The chief is said to have entertained the governor in a building so large that it could hold 2000 people in it.
In addition, elaborate rituals with synchronized singing and processions of masked priests were also carried out on that occasion. It has also been stated that the Spanish were brought into a large temple, where they saw carved and painted wooden masks covering its walls.
A diorama of a Calusa chief in the Florida Museum of Natural History. (Public Domain)
Despite the social complexity and political might that the Calusa attained, they are said to have eventually went extinct around the end of the 18th century. One of the causes of this was the raids conducted by rival tribes from Georgia and South Carolina. Many Calusa are said to have been captured and sold as slaves. Furthermore, new diseases such as smallpox and measles were introduced into the area by European explorers. The Calusa, who had no immunity against such illnesses, were wiped out in large numbers.
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A Calusa alligator head carved out of wood, excavated at Key Marco in 1895, on display at the Florida Museum of Natural History. (Public Domain)
Although the Calusa came to an end, some remains of their achievements can still be seen today. The shell mounds are an example of these remains. Shells and clay were used by the Calusa to create the foundation of their cities. One example of a shell mound can be found at a site known as Mound Key at Estero Bay in Lee County. This site is believed to have been the capital of the Calusa, as well as its military stronghold and ceremonial center. Apart from that, shells are said to have been used by the Calusa to make all sorts of things, including tools, jewelry, utensils, and even spearheads for fishing and hunting. Hence, the Calusa are sometimes called the ‘Shell People / Indians’.
A reconstruction of a Calusa home and terraces, on display at the Florida Museum of Natural History. (Public Domain)
Featured image: Calusa people fishing. Photo source: Moving to Tampa
By Wu Mingren
Florida Center for Instructional Technology, College of Education, University of South Florida, 2002. The Calusa: "The Shell Indians". [Online]
Available at: http://fcit.usf.edu/florida/lessons/calusa/calusa1.htm
Florida Museum of Natural History, 2016. The Calusa Domain. [Online]
Available at: https://www.flmnh.ufl.edu/sflarch/research/calusa-domain/
floridahistory.org, 2016. Florida of the Indians. [Online]
Available at: http://floridahistory.org/indians.htm
Marquardt, W. H., 2014. The Calusa—People of the Estuary. [Online]
Available at: http://www.calusalandtrust.org/who_were_the_calusa/who_were_the_calusa.htm
Ripley, K., 2016. The Shell People. [Online]
Available at: http://www.funandsun.com/1tocf/inf/nativepeoples/calusa.html