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Approximate Calusa core area (red) and political domain (blue)

The Calusa (pronounced "ka LOOS a") were a Native American group that lived on the coast and along the inner waterways of Florida's southwest coast. At the time of European contact, the Calusa were the people of the Caloosahatchee culture. Calusa territory reached from Charlotte Harbor to Cape Sable, and may have included the Florida Keys at times. Calusa influence and control also extended over other tribes in southern Florida, including the Mayaimis around Lake Mayaimi (now Lake Okeechobee), and the Tequestas and Jaegas on the southeast coast of the peninsula. Calusa influence may have also extended to the Ais tribe on the central east coast of Florida.[1]



Calusa came into use in English early in the 19th century, and is based on the Creek and Mikasuki (languages of the present-day Seminoles and Miccosukees) name for the people who had lived around the Caloosahatchee River (another Creek language name). Early Spanish and French sources refer to the tribe, its chief town and its chief as Calos, Calus, Caalus, and Carlos. Hernando de Escalante Fontaneda, a Spaniard held captive by the Calusa in the 16th century, said that 'Carlos' meant fierce people in their language. Juan Rogel, a Jesuit missionary to the Calusa in the late 1560s, while giving the chief's name as Carlos, said that the name of the "kingdom" was Escampaba, with an alternate spelling of Escampaha. Rogel also stated that the chief's name was actually Caalus, and that the Spanish had changed it to Carlos. Marquardt quotes a statement from the 1570s that "the Bay of Carlos ... in the Indian language is called Escampaba, for the cacique of this town, who afterward called himself Carlos in devotion to the Emperor" (Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor). Escampaba may be related to a place named Stapaba that was shown in the area on an early 16th century map.[2]


Paleo-Indians entered what is now Florida at least 12,000 years ago. By around 5000 BCE people started living in villages near wetlands and favored sites that were likely occupied for multiple generations. Florida's climate had reached current conditions and the sea had risen close to its present level by about 3000 BCE. People commonly occupied both fresh and saltwater wetlands. Large shell middens accumulated during this period. Many people lived in large villages with purpose-built mounds, such as at the Horr's Island. People began creating fired pottery in Florida by 2000 BCE. By about 500 BCE, the Archaic culture, which had been fairly uniform across Florida, began to fragment into regional cultures.[3]

Some Archaic artifacts have been found in the region later occupied by the Calusa, including one site classified as early Archaic, prior to 5000 BCE. There is evidence that Charlotte Harbor aquatic resources were being intensively exploited before 3500 BCE. Undecorated pottery belonging to the early Glades culture appeared in the region around 500 BCE. Pottery distinct from the Glades tradition developed in the region around 500, marking the beginning of the Caloosahatchee culture, which lasted until about 1750, thus including the historic Calusa.. A complex society with high population densities developed by 800. Later periods in the Caloosahatchee culture are defined by the appearance of pottery from other traditions in the archaeological record.

The Caloosahatchee culture consisted of the Florida west coast from Estero Bay to Charlotte Harbor and inland about halfway to Lake Okeechobee, approximately covering what are now Charlotte and Lee counties. At the time of first European contact, the Caloosahatchee culture region formed the core of the Calusa domain. Artifacts related to fishing changed slowly over this period, with no obvious breaks in tradition that might indicate a replacement of the population. Between 500 and 1000 the undecorated sand-tempered pottery that had been common in the area was replaced by "Belle Glade Plain" pottery, which was made with clay containing spicules from freshwater sponges (Spongilla), and which first appeared inland in sites around Lake Okeechobee. This change may have resulted from migration from the interior to the coastal region, or may reflect trade and cultural influence. There was little change in the pottery tradition after this. The Calusa were descended from people who had lived in the area for at least 1000 years prior to European contact, and possibly for much longer than that.[4]

Calusa society

The Calusa had a stratified society, consisting of "commoners" and "nobles" in Spanish terms. A few leaders governed the tribe, and were supported by the labor of the majority of the Calusa. The leaders included the tribal chief, or "king", a military leader (capitán general in Spanish), and a chief priest. In 1564, according to a Spanish source, the priest was the chief's father, and the military leader was his cousin. In four cases in which succession to the position of paramount chief is known, Senequne succeeded his brother (name unknown), and was in turn succeeded by his son Carlos. Carlos was succeeded by his cousin (and brother-in-law) Felipe, who was in turn succeeded by Carlos' cousin, Pedro. The Spanish reported that the chief was expected to marry his sister, although MacMahon and Marquardt suggest this may have been a misunderstanding of a requirement to marry a "clan-sister". The chief also married women from subject towns and allied tribes. This use of marriages to secure alliances was manifested when Carlos offered his sister in marriage to the Spanish explorer Pedro Menéndez de Avilés in 1566.[5]

Material culture



The Calusa diet at settlements along the coast and estuaries consisted primarily of fish, in particular pinfish (Lagodon rhomboides), pigfish, (Orthopristis chrysoptera) and hardhead catfish (Ariopsis Felis). These small fish were supplemented by larger bony fish, sharks and rays, mollusks, crustaceans, ducks, sea and land turtles and land animals. When Pedro Menéndez de Avilés visited in 1566, the Calusa served only fish and oysters to the Spanish. An analysis of faunal remains at one coastal habitation site, the Wightman site (on Sanibel Island), showed that more than 93 percent of the energy (kilocalories) from animals in the diet came from fish and shellfish, less than 6 percent of the energy came from mammals, and less than 1 percent came from birds and reptiles. At an inland site, Platt Island, mammals (primarily deer) accounted for more than 60 percent of the energy from animal meat, while fish provided just under 20 percent. Some authors have argued that the Calusa cultivated maize and Zamia integrifolia (coontie) for food, but Widmer argues that the evidence for maize cultivation by the Calusa depends on the proposition that the Narváez and de Soto expeditions landed in Charlotte Harbor rather than Tampa Bay, which is now generally discounted, and no Zamia pollen has been found at any site associated with the Calusas, nor does Zamia grow in the wetlands that made up most of the Calusa environment. Marquardt notes that the Calusa turned down the offer of agricultural tools from the Spanish, saying that they had no need for them. The Calusa gathered a variety of wild berries, fruits, nuts, roots and other plant parts. Widmer cites George Murdock's estimate that only some 20 percent of the Calusa diet consisted of wild plants that they gathered. However, no evidence of plant food was found at the Wightman site. There is evidence that as early as 2000 years ago the Calusa cultivated papaya (Catrica papaya), a gourd of the species Cucurbita pepo and the bottle gourd, the last two of which were used for net floats and dippers.[6]


Calusa carving of an alligator's head

The Calusa caught most of their fish with nets. Nets were woven with a standard mesh size; nets with different mesh sizes were used seasonally to catch the most abundant and useful fish available. The Calusa made bone and shell gauges used in net weaving. Cultivated gourds were used as net floats, and sinkers and net weights were made from mollusk shells. The Calusa also used spears, hooks, and throat gorges to catch fish. Well-preserved nets, net floats and hooks were found at Key Marco, in the territory of the neighboring Muspa tribe.[7]

Mollusk shells and wood were used to make hammering and pounding tools. Mollusks shells and shark teeth were used for grating, cutting, carving and engraving. The Calusa wove nets from palm-fiber cord. Cord was also made from Cabbage Palm leaves, saw palmetto trunks, Spanish moss, false sisal (Agave decipiens) and the bark of cypress and willow trees. The Calusa also made fish traps, weirs and fish corrals from wood and cord. Artifacts of wood that have been found include dugout canoes, paddles, bowls, ear ornaments, masks, plaques, "ornamental standards," and a finely carved deer head. The plaques and other objects were often painted.[8]


The Calusa lived in communal houses. In a report from 1697, there were just 16 houses in the Calusa capitol of Calos for 1,000 residents. The chief's house, which apparently also served as a council house, was large enough at the time of Pedro Menéndez de Avilés' visit in 1566 to hold 2,000 without crowding. When the chief formally received Menéndez in his house, the chief sat on a raised seat surrounded by 500 of his principal men, while his sister-wife sat on another raised seat surround by 500 women. The chief's house was described as having two big windows, implying that it had walls. Five friars who stayed in the chief's house in 1697 complained that the roof let in the rain, sun and dew. The chief's house, and possibly the other houses at Calos, were built on top of mounds.[9]

Clothing and personal decoration

The Calusa wore little clothing. The men wore a deerskin breechcloth. The Spanish were less clear on what the Calusa women wore, although in most tribes in Florida for which we have information the women wore skirts made of Spanish moss. The Calusa painted their bodies on a regular basis, but there is no report of tattooing among the Calusa. The men wore their hair long, and the missionaries recognized that cutting his hair upon converting to Christianity would be a great sacrifice for a Calusa man. Little was recorded of jewelry or other ornamentation among the Calusa, but at the time of Menéndez de Avilés's visit in 1566, the chief's wife wore pearls, precious stones and gold beads around her neck. The heir of the chief wore a gold ornament on his forehead and beads on his legs.[10]


The Calusa believed that three supernatural people ruled the world, that people had three souls, and that souls migrated to animals after death. The most powerful ruler governed the physical world, the second most powerful ruled human governments, and the last helped in wars, choosing which side would win. The Calusa believed that the three souls were the pupil of a person's eye, his shadow, and his reflection. The soul in the eye's pupil stayed with the body after death, and the Calusa would consult with that soul at the graveside. The other two souls left the body after death and entered into an animal. If a Calusa killed such an animal, the soul would then migrate to a lesser animal, and eventually be reduced to nothing.

Calusa ceremonies included processions of priests and singing women. The priests wore carved masks, which were at other times hung on the walls inside a temple. Hernando de Escalante Fontaneda, an early chronicler of the Calusa, described "sorcerers in the shape of the devil, with some horns on their heads" who ran through the town yelling like animals for four months at a time.

The Calusa remained committed to their belief system in the face of Spanish attempts to convert them to Catholicism. The "nobles" resisted conversion in part because their power and position were locked into the belief system; conversion would have destroyed the source of their authority and legitimacy. The Calusa were able to resist the Spanish and their missionaries for almost 200 years, until the tribe was destroyed by Creek and Yemassee raiders early in the 18th century.[11]

European contact

The first recorded contact between the Calusa and Europeans was in 1513, when Juan Ponce de León landed on the west coast of Florida in May, probably at the mouth of the Caloosahatchee River, after his earlier discovery of Florida in April. The Calusa knew of the Spanish before this landing, however, as they had taken in refugees from the Spanish subjugation of Cuba. The Spanish careened one of their ships, and Calusas offered to trade with them. After ten days a man who spoke Spanish approached Ponce de León's ships with a request to wait for the arrival of the Calusa chief. Shortly thereafter twenty war canoes attacked the Spanish, who drove off the Calusa, killing or capturing several of them. The next day 80 "shielded" canoes attacked the Spanish ships, but the battle was inconclusive. The Spanish then returned to Puerto Rico. In 1517 Francisco Hernández de Córdoba landed in southwest Florida on his return voyage from discovering the Yucatán, and was attacked by the Calusa. In 1521 Ponce de León returned to southwest Florida to plant a colony, but the Calusas drove the Spanish out, mortally wounding Ponce de León.[12]

The Pánfilo de Narváez expedition of 1528 and the Hernando de Soto expedition of 1539 both landed in the vicinity of Tampa Bay, north of the Calusa domain. Dominican missionaries reached the Calusa domain in 1549, but withdrew due to the hostility of the tribe. Salvaged goods and survivors from wrecked Spanish ships reached the Calusas during the 1540s and 1550s. The best information about the Calusas comes from the Memoir of one of these survivors, Hernando de Escalante Fontaneda. Fontaneda was shipwrecked on the east coast of Florida, likely in the Keys, about 1550, when he was thirteen years old. Although many others survived the shipwreck, only Fontaneda was spared by the tribe in whose territory he had been shipwrecked. He lived with various tribes in southern Florida for the next seventeen years before being found by the Menendez de Avilés expedition.[13]

In 1566 Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, founder of St. Augustine, made contact with the Calusa and struck an uneasy peace with their leader, Carlos or Caluus. Menéndez married Carlos' sister, who took the baptismal name Doña Antonia. Menendez left a garrison of soldiers and a Jesuit mission, San Antón de Carlos, at the Calusa capitol. The Spanish soldiers killed two Calusa chiefs and several of the "nobles" before the fort and mission were abandoned in 1569.[14]

There was little contact between the Spanish and Calusa for more than a century after the Avilés adventure. Spanish forces attacked the Calusa in 1614 as part of a war between the Calusa and Spanish-allied tribes around Tampa Bay. A Spanish expedition to ransom some captives held by the Calusa in 1680 was forced to turn back when neighboring tribes refused to guide the Spanish for fear of retaliation from the Calusa. In 1697 Franciscan missionaries established a mission to the Calusa, but left after a few months.[15]

After the outbreak of open war between Spain and England in 1702, slaving raids by Uchise Creek and Yamasee Indians allied with the Province of Carolina began reaching far down the Florida peninsula. The Creeks and Yemasees were supplied with firearms by their English allies, while the Calusa, who had isolated themselves from Europeans, had none. Ravaged by diseases introduced to the Americas by Europeans and by the slaving raids, the surviving Calusa retreated south and east. In 1711 270 Indians, including many Calusa, were evacuated from the Florida Keys to Cuba (where almost 200 soon died), but another 1700 were left behind. A mission on Biscayne Bay was established in 1743 to serve survivors from several tribes, including the Calusa, who had gathered there and in the Florida Keys, but the mission was closed after only a few months. The last remnants of the tribes of south Florida were evacuated to Cuba in 1760 to 1763, when Florida was transferred to the Kingdom of Great Britain. While a few Calusa individuals may have stayed behind and been absorbed into the Seminoles, there is no hard evidence for it.[16] Some of the 'Spanish Indians' (often of mixed Spanish-Indian heritage) that worked at Cuban fishing camps ("ranchos") along the southwest Florida coast into the middle of the 19th century may have been descended from Calusas.[17]

See also


  1. ^ MacMahon and Marquardt:1-2
  2. ^ Marquadt 2004:211-2
    Hann 2003:14-5
  3. ^ Milanich 1994:32-5
    Milanich 1998:3-37
  4. ^ Milanich 1993.
    Milanich 1995.
  5. ^ MacMahon and Marquardt.:78-9, 86
  6. ^ Widmer:224-31
    Marquardt 2004:206
    Hann 2003:31-2
  7. ^ MacMahon and Marquardt:69-70
    Marquardt 2004:206-7
  8. ^ MacMahon and Marquardt:69-71
    Marquardt 2004:206-7
  9. ^ Hann 2003:35-6
  10. ^ Hann 2003:33-5
  11. ^ MacMahon and Marquardt:82-85, 87
  12. ^ MacMahon and Marquardt:115-6
  13. ^ Bullen.
    MacMahon and Marquardt:116-7
  14. ^ MacMahon and Marquardt:86, 117
  15. ^ MacMahon and Marquardt:117-8
  16. ^ MacMahon and Marquardt:118-21
  17. ^ Marquardt 2004:211


  • Bullen, Adelaide K. (1965). "Florida Indians of Past and Present", in Carson, Ruby Leach and Tebeau, Charlton. Florida from Indian trail to space age: a history. (Vol. I, pp. 317-350). Southern Publishing Company.
  • Goggin, John M., and William C. Sturtevant. (1964). "The Calusa: A Stratified, Nonagricultural Society (With Notes on Sibling Marriage)." In Explorations in Cultural Anthropology: Essays Presented to George Peter Murdock. Ed. Ward H. Goodenough. New York: McGraw-Hill, 179-219.
  • Hann, John, ed. & trans. (1991). Missions to the Calusa. University of Florida Press.
  • Hann, John H. (2003). Indians of Central and South Florida: 1513-1763. University Press of Florida. ISBN 0-8130-2645-8
  • MacMahon, Darcie A. and William H. Marquardt. (2004). The Calusa and Their Legacy: South Florida People and Their Environments. University Press of Florida. ISBN 0-8130-2773-X
  • Mahon, John K. (1985). History of the Second Seminole War 1835-1842 (Revised Edition). University Presses of Florida.
  • Marquardt, William H. (1992). ed. Culture and Environment in the Domain of the Calusa. Institute of Archaeology and Paleoenvironmental Studies Monograph #1. University of Florida.
  • Marquardt, William H. (2004). "Calusa". In R. D. Fogelson (Ed.), Handbook of North American Indians: Southeast (Vol. 14, pp. 204-212). Smithsonian Institution.
  • Milanich, Jerald. (1993). ed. "Chapter 10. The Caloosahatchee Region". Florida Historical Contexts. State of Florida Division of Historical Resources. in [1] - retrieved March 29 2006
  • Milanich, Jerald T. (1994). Archaeology of Precolumbian Florida. University Press of Florida. ISBN 0-8130-1273-2
  • Milanich, Jerald T. (1995). Florida Indians and the Invasion from Europe. University Press of Florida. ISBN 0-8130-1360-7
  • Milanich, Jerald T. (1998). Florida's Indians From Ancient Time to the Present. University Press of Florida.
  • Widmer, Randolph J. (1998). The Evolution of the Calusa: A Nonagricultural Chiefdom on the Southwest Florida Coast. University of Alabama Press. ISBN 0-8173-0358-8


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