Photo credit to Main Sail Video Productions, Inc.

From the water, Mound Key looks like any other mangrove island in Estero Bay, yet hidden within the native vegetation is a little-known piece of national history, with a 31-foot-high mound of a shell and fish bones at the core. I recently joined archaeologist Theresa Schober on a boat tour to this historic island to learn more about the Calusa Indians who dwelt there for hundreds of years before an unwelcome visit from a famed Spanish conquistador named Juan Ponce de León in 1513. As Schober aims to prove in a documentary she is producing, Mound Key is “where the new and old worlds collided.”

The excursion launched from the West Bay dock on a clear Monday morning, with a group of 28 aboard Capt. JR Trepper’s Banana Bay Tour Company vessel.

As we boarded, the gregarious archaeologist welcomed her guests – including one couple who traveled 600 miles from South Carolina to hear Schober tell of Calusa Indian culture while standing on the very shell mounds these natives constructed. We watched waterfowl and waived to kayakers as we cruised our way through the mangroves on a course for Mound Key. When we arrived, Schober set the stage for our trek around this 125-acre island built of the shell.


“Everywhere your feet are dry, we will thank the Calusa,” Schober said. And since the Calusa believed two of their three souls were passed on to smaller animals after death, she added, “If you’re bit by a mosquito, that’s just the Calusa saying ‘hello.’” The native vegetation includes wild cotton, cactus and agave plants. The Calusa would dry the strands inside the agave to make a long, thin rope, then attach it to the natural needle of the plant’s pointed tip for sewing, Schober explained. Although there is no written record from the Calusa capital – which the natives called Stababa – it is named on the 1514 Freducci Map, documenting Ponce de León’s earliest voyage to Florida. During the last two decades, Schober and others have conducted small-scale excavations at Mound Key. A team from the University of Florida, funded by National Geographic, returns this summer to fi nish ground-penetrating radar to image the subsurface.

“This part of Florida is still a little bit of a frontier for archaeology,” says an enthusiastic Schober, who has been exploring Calusa territory since 1998. “What we leave behind doesn’t lie.” Ponce de León first sighted land somewhere on the East coast – traditionally St. Augustine – 500 years ago. He continued sailing along the coastline, coming into the Calusa territory of Southwest Florida in May. On June 4, his men killed some of the natives and took hostages at the “Isla de la Matanza,” or “Island of the Slaughter,” which may have been Matanzas Pass near present-day Fort Myers Beach, Schober said.

With her detailed descriptions, she paints a picture of Ponce de León overwhelmed by a Calusa counterattack, which the Spanish explorer reported as involving 80 war canoes (carrying 800 to 1,600 fighting men). Although
Schober thinks he may have exaggerated, the attack was enough to keep him away for eight years, killing a third of his men. At that time, Mound Key was the thriving capital of the Calusa nation – the largest group of aboriginal people, extending up to Charlotte Harbor – housing a village of about 1,000 people, according to Schober’s estimates. As we hiked up the steep incline, Schober explained the hierarchal society of the Calusa, with the chief, high priest and members of the ruling class undoubtedly occupying the tall mounds while the commoners were fisherfolk, living near the water’s edge.

The four documents which tell historians the most about Mound Key are the accounts of Ponce de León’s voyages; a biography from Pedro Menendez de Aviles, who established a Spanish outpost in 1566; letters from Jesuit Father Juan Rogel who operated the first mission at Mound Key; and the memoir of Hernando de Escalante Fontaneda, a Spanish teenager who was shipwrecked and taken captive by the Calusa. The Calusa later brought Fontaneda along to greet Menendez, as a translator to make an alliance. The resulting oyster feast is the first documented meal shared between Europeans and an indigenous people, occurring long before the pilgrims’ 1621 feast with the natives at Plymouth Rock.

One memoir Schober would love to read if it existed would be from Doña Antonia, the Christian name given to Chief Carlos’ sister, whom he gifted to Menendez as a bride to cement the alliance. “Doña Antonia was one of the first Calusa to be baptized, and she was a quick study in Spanish,” Schober explained. The archaeologist suspects Doña was used as a liaison, or spy, by both the Calusa and the Spanish during the short-lived peace before Spanish soldiers killed Chief Carlos – and his successor – for refusing to convert.

As we reached the top of Mound One – the highest point in Lee County apart from the county dump – a refreshing breeze greeted us, along with a gopher tortoise who didn’t take much notice of the strange visitors to this normally quiet island, weaving his way through the dusty path. We also sighted a well constructed by the Koreshans in the early 1900’s, along with the unnatural presence of fenced-in goats. Descendants of the pioneer Hanson family still own a 9.6-acre parcel of Mound Key, the only landowners unwilling to sell to the state in the 1990’s. They’ve since tried selling through Lee County’s Conservation 2020 program, but so far, the county and the owner have not been able to come to terms on price. “They have been stewards of this property for 100 years,” Schober mused.

ears,” Schober mused. West Bay residents Jerry and Connie Hines marveled at the little known history so close to home, along with fellow trekker Shelley Young of Bonita Springs. “There really is a lot more history here than I would’ve known,” she said, making her way back to the boat. “Theresa paints a vivid picture.” Schober is hoping to thrust Mound Key into the national spotlight through a documentary sponsored by the College of Life Foundation and the Friends of Koreshan State Historic Site. She’s received a grant from the Florida Humanities Council and hopes to air the documentary on PBS by early 2015. Boat trips to Mound Key will resume in the fall, and they fill up fast. To reserve a spot, contact Schober at Without a guide, it’s little more than another mangrove island, but with Schober, the age-old shells beneath your feet tell a story of culture, conquest and a connection to people of the past.

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