Freelance Writer & Editor
By Susan Ladika | On The Trail Of Florida’s Indian Heritage | Summer 2014 | American Archaeology
Amid the theme parks and interstates, beachfront hotels and strip malls, remnants of ancient Florida remain. Native Americans lived in Florida as far back as 12,000 to 15,000 years ago, millennia before the first Spanish explorers arrived in the 1500s. By following a stretch of the Trail of Florida’s Indian Heritage, you’ll get a sense of what life was like along the Gulf Coast centuries ago.
You can begin your 200-mile journey in Tampa, the largest city on Florida’s west coast. The first known white settlers arrived in the early 1820s, and the U.S. Army established Fort Brooke to protect the strategic harbor of Tampa Bay. That area now is the heart of a thriving city of nearly 350,000 residents. Located near the site of that long-ago fort is the Tampa Bay History Center, which is perched along Garrison Channel, providing a stunning view of downtown Tampa.
As you enter the museum, you’ll find artifacts and reproductions of tools, weapons and pottery from the Tocobaga and Calusa Indians. The Tocobaga lived in small villages at the northern end of Tampa Bay from the A.D. 900s to 1500s, while the Calusa dominated southwest Florida for centuries. The film “The Winds of Change” recounts the Tocobagas’ initial encounter with Spanish explorers, led by Panfilo de Narvaez in 1528, and the violence that erupted. Following their clashes with the Spanish, the Tocobaga captured four explorers, and chief Hirrihigua ordered them put to death. His daughter, Ulele, begged her father to spare the life of one of them, an 18-year-old named Juan Ortiz. Ortiz was spared as a result, and he lived among the Indians before being rescued by Hernando de Soto, who landed near Tampa in 1539. Ortiz then served as de Soto’s guide and interpreter.
A second set of exhibits focuses on the Seminole Indians. These were generally Creeks who migrated to North Florida in the 1700s as Europeans moved into Alabama and Georgia. They were joined by members of other tribes and runaway slaves. Seminoles ran cattle ranches in those early days. “In Florida, our cowboys were Indians,” says Rodney Kite-Powell, curator of history at the Tampa Bay History Center. Conflicts with settlers led in 1817 to the first of three U.S. wars against the Seminoles in what was then Spanish territory. The war, led by General Andrew Jackson, pushed the Seminoles farther south.
Spain ceded the land to the United States in 1821, and the U.S. government tried to force the Seminoles to relocate to Indian Territory in present-day Oklahoma. Some Seminoles agreed to move, while others remained firmly entrenched, leading to the Second Seminole War, with less than 3,000 warriors staving off more than 30,000 U.S. troops. A multimedia presentation at the history center, with mannequins giving it a Disneyesque touch, presents “Coacoochee’s Story.” It draws on the diaries of Army officer John T. Sprague, who was stationed at Fort Brooke, to tell the tale of Coacoochee, the son of a Seminole chief who fought the Americans but eventually agreed to resettlement in Arkansas with some of the Seminoles.
After the Third Seminole War a few hundred Indians escaped to the swamps of South Florida, where they eked out a living as hunters, guides and workers in the tourist trade. You’ll see a replica of a typical Seminole structure, known as a chickee hut, as well as dolls, cooking implements, baskets, weapons, and the patchwork patterns used in Seminole clothing.
When it’s time to depart the history center, head down Bayshore Boulevard, with its miles-long sidewalk along Hillsborough Bay. You’ll see plenty of bicyclists, joggers and walkers, and if you stop for a stroll, you might be lucky enough to see dolphins or waterfowl. Then follow Gandy Boulevard across Tampa Bay to reach Weedon Island Preserve Cultural and Natural History Center in St. Petersburg.
This 3,700-acre nature preserve was home to four prehistoric cultures. The best known is the Weeden Island culture, which created distinctive pottery featuring incised and punctated designs. Many pieces were shaped like animals or people. A number of reproductions are on display, as much of the original pottery was sent to the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History.
The area came to the attention of the Smithsonian in the 1920s, when Eugene Elliott contacted the museum after purchasing the land and planting artifacts in mounds on the site. The Smithsonian’s archaeologists immediately spotted the fraud, but they also recognized the importance of the site and began excavations, uncovering pottery and hundreds of skeletons.
In 2001, a resident came across a dugout canoe buried in the sand. At 40 feet long and about 12 inches across at its widest point, it’s the longest prehistoric canoe found in Florida and dates back about 1,100 years. The canoe was removed from the sand in 2011, and now is undergoing preservation so it can be displayed by the summer of 2015.
In addition to these exhibits there are trails and boardwalks that wind around the preserve from which you can view the flora and fauna. You also can rent kayaks and canoes and paddle through the mangroves and across seagrass flats.
From Weedon drive west on Gandy Boulevard to Interstate 275 going south, and you’ll cross the magnificent Sunshine Skyway Bridge, the world’s longest cable-stayed bridge, that arcs over Tampa Bay. Past the Skyway, I-275 runs into I-75, and you’ll continue south to U.S. 301 and head west through Palmetto. You’ll come to Emerson Point Preserve, located where the Manatee River empties into Lower Tampa Bay. There you’ll find the roughly 1,300-year-old Portavant Temple Mound, the largest Native American mound in the Tampa Bay area. In times past the mound overlooked a natural cove, which has since been filled in, and a building that might have been a longhouse once crowned it.
From there, go east along U.S. 301 to Business U.S. 401. This section of the state is interlaced with waterways, and you’ll cross the Green Bridge over the Manatee River into Bradenton, and then travel west to the De Soto National Memorial, which commemorates the landing of de Soto’s expedition in 1539. This was the starting point of a four-year, 4,000-mile journey to find gold, establish colonies and Christianize the Native Americans.
The memorial has walking trails and boardwalks, with life-size cutouts of Indians and Spanish explorers tucked into the scrub along the pathways. It also has remnants of 11 shell middens. The visitor’s center shows a film on de Soto’s journey through the South, and during the busy tourist season from December to April guides in period attire offer living history demonstrations that describe the lives of the Spanish explorers and the Indians they encountered in the Tampa Bay area. When de Soto died in 1542 his men abandoned their efforts and fled to Mexico.
To reach your next destination, the South Florida Museum, drive east on State Road 64 to downtown Bradenton. The museum features the Tallant Collection, an extensive array of Native American artifacts unearthed by Montague Tallant in the 1930s. He visited approximately 170 sites, recovering an estimated 5,000 items, including pottery, tools, jewelry, metal objects and even Venetian glass beads. Some of these items came from trade with Northern tribes, as well as tribes from Central and South America, and Europeans.
The museum also has fossils of the state’s ancient mammals and marine life, and it’s home to Snooty, who, at 65, is the world’s oldest manatee. The museum’s website has a Snooty Cam that allows you to follow him throughout the day.
The next stop is Historic Spanish Point, which is located on U.S. 41 along Little Sarasota Bay in Osprey. Here you’ll have a rare opportunity to step inside a shell midden. In the 1920s, workers cut into the Shell Ridge midden so a local resident, who was unaware of the midden’s historical value, could park his car there. Decades later the property became a museum, and the midden was excavated by a team of archaeologists and volunteers. Within the midden you can see shells, bone and other debris behind glass walls. The midden is about 15 feet high and dates back 1,000 years. A multimedia presentation gives you information about this remarkable feature.
Historic Spanish Point also has another large shell midden that you can’t enter, as well as a burial mound where the remains of more than 400 people, along with four dogs and an alligator, were uncovered during excavations in the late 1950s and early ‘60s. The bones were transferred to the University of Florida’s Museum of Natural History. A tram tour takes you around the site, which includes a 1901 home, a packing house, chapel, and extensive gardens.
When you leave Historic Spanish Point, take I-75 south to State Road 78 and then west to Pine Island. En route you’ll pass brightly colored buildings housing shops and restaurants in the tiny town of Matlacha. On Pine Island you’ll find the Calusa Heritage Trail at the Randell Research Center, which is part the Florida Museum of Natural History.
The Calusa were the most powerful Indians in South Florida when the Spanish arrived. They were a thriving, complex culture, and having their own religion, they resisted Spanish attempts to Christianize them. One of the three largest Calusa towns was located on the island, and the site is dotted with middens, the oldest of which dates to A.D. 100. You can take a self-guided walk along the trail, or a guided walk during the tourist season.
There are traces of a canal the Calusa dug across the island, and a massive sand burial mound sits just outside the research center’s boundaries. It once reached 25 feet high and was ringed by water, but in the early 1900s part of it was destroyed to serve as fill. The Indians lived on the island till the 1700s, when the British in North Florida sent mercenaries and members of other tribes to remove them. A few of the Calusa who avoided death or enslavement made their way to Cuba.
From Pine Island, go back the way you came and then follow U.S. 41 south to Fort Myers and the Southwest Florida Museum of History. The museum is housed in the former Atlantic Coastline Railroad depot, and it offers reproductions of Calusa and Seminole artifacts, including shell tools, masks, weapons and a dugout canoe. You’ll learn about Seminole leaders, such as Billy Bowlegs, who was paid by the U.S. government to relocate with members of his tribe to Indian Territory in Arkansas. There are also replica skeletons of a giant sloth, saber-tooth cat and other beasts that once roamed the area at the end of the last major Ice Age.
From there, drive south on U.S. 41 and follow the signs to Fort Myers Beach, crossing the towering Mantanzas Pass Bridge and heading down Estero Boulevard to Mound House, which sits at the site of a former Calusa village. A house built here in 1906 was expanded and modernized over the years, and in the 1950s the owners dug into a shell mound to clear an area for a swimming pool. The city of Fort Myers Beach acquired the property and removed the pool in 2000.
You can now step inside the excavated area and see the layers of shell behind glass. Radiocarbon dating indicates the oldest layers date to 1,500 to 2,000 years ago, and the site was abandoned around 1,000 years ago. You’ll see shells, shell tools and pottery sherds jutting out of the layers. A multimedia presentation explains the history of Mound House and its swimming pool, as well as the various archaeological finds. The house itself is now undergoing renovation and is scheduled to reopen in October.
To crown your trip, head further southeast on Estero Boulevard to Mound Key Archaeological State Park, located off Fort Myers Beach. Mound Key is thought to have been the center of cultural life for the Calusa when the Spanish landed in Florida. At one time it was probably nothing more than an oyster bar peeking out of Estero Bay. But as the population of the Calusa, who lived on the surrounding land, grew, the oyster shells and other food remains they discarded accumulated into piles that grew and eventually formed Mound Key.
To reach the key’s mangrove-lined shores, you’ll need to rent a boat, kayak or canoe and put in from Lovers Key State Park on the Fort Myers Beach side, or Koreshan State Historic Site on the mainland. The key has seven mounds, with the tallest reaching 30 feet. You can now barely glimpse the Gulf of Mexico through the vegetation, but in the days of the Calusa, “you would have seen anyone coming for miles,” says park manager Robert Brooks. The Spanish wrote of a Calusa building on Mound Key that could hold 2,000 people.
The Spanish built a mission on the key in 1567, but abandoned it after two years, following violent clashes with the Indians. Later, Cuban fisherman and American settlers moved to Mound Key. Today the only residents are the wildlife and a group of goats that belong to a family that owns a small portion of the key. One of the residents is a gopher tortoise, which was burrowing into the main mound. “It’s a dilemma: an endangered gopher tortoise digging into a protected Indian mound,” Brooks joked.
Once you’re back in your boat, you’ll leave the quiet of Mound Key and return to Fort Myers Beach, with its throngs of residents and tourists – a scene so different from the days when the Calusa were the area’s sole inhabitants.