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Mound Key Archaeological State Park, in Southwest Florida, was the ceremonial center for prehistoric Native Americans, the Calusa Indians, 2,000 years ago. Admission to the 125-acre island is free. Anyone with a boat, canoe or kayak can visit the island, year-round.

Mound Key sign at Estero Bay
Mound Key sign at Estero Bay
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

How to get to Mound Key

You can boat to Mound Key, in Estero Bay, from Fort Myers Beach or from the Koreshan State Historic Sites boat ramp, a distance of 3.5 miles. Koreshan State Historic Site manages Mound Key. Driving directions: From I-75, take exit 123. Drive west on Corkscrew Rd. then north on US-41 and turn right after the Estero River.

Boats can also depart from the ramp at Lovers Key State Park on Estero Island. Estero River Outfitters, located just off the Tamiami Trail (Route 41) between Fort Myers and Naples, rents canoes and kayaks. Hyatt Regency Coconut Point Resort & Spa, in Bonita Springs, offers guided tours of Mound Key.

When we stepped off our boat and waded onto the shore, we were only a few inches above sea level. There are, however, seven elevated areas on the island, with Mound 1 being the highest elevation in Lee County at 32 feet. It's where the Calusa king most likely made his home.

Visitors climb Mound 1.
Visitors climb Mound 1.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Shell mounds

We followed a trail, through subtropical jungle across the island, stopping to read the interpretive displays. The hill, we learned, was built entirely of shells, piled up after seafood meals, by generation after generation of Calusa Indians. We were, in fact, climbing the discarded shells of a giant oyster bar!

At the top, we crouched down to examine the components of the mound. Whelks, oysters, conchs and fish bones were scattered haphazardly everywhere.

It was the vast amount of seafood available in the estuary that enabled the ancient Calusas to become such a complex society. Instead of growing crops, they devised elaborate ceremonies, created lavish pieces of art and engineered canals, so that far-flung villagers could bring tribute to the king.

In the 1500s, when Europeans first encountered the Calusa tribe, they ruled an empire that ran from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf, from Lake Okeechobee to the Florida Keys.

Calusa canals

From the top of Mound 1, we looked out over the island to the surrounding Estero Bay, as the king must have done. There are three canals here, which allowed the Calusas to bring their dugout pine canoes right up to their houses. A long strip, where dark-leafed black mangroves intercept the apple green-leafed red mangroves, was the central canal.

Viewing archaeological site
Viewing archaeological site
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

There's a channel cut through the mangrove keys, on the other side of the estuary, which leads directly to the Gulf of Mexico. The Calusa king would travel by royal barge all over South Florida, then follow the central canal back to his home.

Just think, if you went shopping for groceries, you wouldn't stop the car at the edge of the subdivision and carry the bags all the way to your house. Neither did the Calusa people when they killed a large deer. Rather than dragging it through the mangroves, they'd load it on a canoe and transport it by canal to their kitchen door.

We looked out over the low-lying area, below Mound 1, where the common people lived. Spanish records tell us that 1,000 people inhabited the island. Mound Key is filled with things they used, like the century plant. They pounded off the flesh from the sword-like leaves, leaving 15 to 20 fibers, which they twisted into a thread, leaving a needle at the end.

Cochineal bug red dye

Tall papaya trees sprout above the shrubs. Mound Key residents ate papayas, as well as prickly pears. We pick up some cochineal bugs from the cactus. Crushing them stained our fingers red.

Calusa Indians mixed the cochineal bug juice with latex from strangler figs to make paint to color wooden sculptures carved with bone and shell tools. Archeologists discovered a beautiful Calusa cat sculpture, now at the Smithsonian, at Key Marco about 100 years ago. Among the 70 crates of artifacts, were painted ceremonial tablets.

Examining a century plan
Examining a century plant
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Walking toward Mound 2, we stopped to photograph the delicate pink and white blossoms of a butterfly orchid sprouting from the crotch of a tree.

Spanish settlement

We climbed a broken shell path to Mound Key's second-highest mound. Archaeologists dug seven pits here, when they surveyed the island in 1994. They wanted to find evidence to support their hypothesis that the first Jesuit mission in the Western Hemisphere was built on Mound 2. If they could prove the mission existed, they would confirm that Mound Key was the Calusa capital.

The scientists found wrought-iron nails, Spanish glass beads and even a shard of majolica, 16th-century enameled tableware. Their context, however, did not indisputably prove that Mound 2 was the mission mound.

After fierce battles with the Indians, the Spaniards abandoned their settlement in 1569. It was just three years later after the Spanish governor of Florida established a fort on Mound Key.

Black mangrove-filled water court used by Calusa Indians to trap fish or tie up canoes
Black mangrove-filled water court used by Calusa Indians to trap fish or tie up canoes
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Water court fish traps

We walked to one of the water courts, the mysterious ponds that the native Calusas used as fish traps, or perhaps, as parking lots for their canoes. The Calusas twisted fiber from sable palms into sturdy anchor lines for their boats, and plied finer fibers from wild cotton into cords for fishing twine.

Butterfly orchid
Butterfly orchid
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Water courts now contain black mangroves. Their breathing roots carpet the ground like thick shag rugs.

Calusa extinction

Mound Key brings Calusa culture to life. We could almost hear the paddles of the ancient canoes in the central canal. We walked where the Calusas walked. We listened to the sounds they heard, and we looked at the environment they inhabited.

The people of the Calusa nation were successful for 2,000 years because they understood their environment. They didn't burn up all the firewood, nor did they catch all the fish.

In spite of their environmental awareness, and the fact that they resisted European incursion for more than 200 years, longer than any other aboriginal culture, the Calusa Indians eventually succumbed to the Spanish. By the 1750s, they vanished, victims of war, disease and slavery.


Mound Key Archeological State Park: www.floridastateparks.org

Lee County Visitor & Convention Bureau: www.FortMyers-Sanibel.com

Visit Florida: www.VisitFlorida.com

More things to see & do in The Beaches of Fort Myers and Sanibel area:

Ding Darling Canoe Trips - Sanibel Island Florida

Protecting Sea Turtles at Fort Myers Beach

Captiva Cruises to Cabbage Key for Cheeseburgers