Calusa Culture

Thousands of years ago, indigenous people called the Calusa inhabited much of coastal Southwest Florida. The Calusa culture was a complex society that thrived on the bounty of the estuary as opposed to agriculture, which was the primary means of subsistence for many other early American people. Numerous Calusa settlements were developed along the Collier County coastline and were occupied from 400 to 2,500 years ago.

Changing their landscape on many fronts, the Calusa people left behind traces of their way of life on the shell mound complexes they built. The size and locations of the settlements, many of which are in the Ten Thousand Islands, indicate that large communal groups flourished on the abundance of coastal resources with fish and shellfish accounting for up to 70 percent of their diet.

The Calusas regarded mollusk shells, as well as other animal parts, as important resources because of the lack of workable stone and building materials in their environment. They utilized bones, spines and teeth as tools for sewing, piercing or spearing. And, their homes were built on large mounds of discarded shells, like modern building foundations, to provide protection from extreme high tides and storms.

Prehistory | Rookery Bay Research Reserve | Blue

Several Calusa mound complexes are protected within the Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve’s 110,000 acres. These cultural resources belong to the people of Florida, and their continued existence is instrumental for future research and education.

Archaeologists studying the Calusa culture look closely at artifacts (items made or carved by humans) to learn about what life was like for prehistoric peoples. Within each mound complex are middens (smaller mounds) that served specific purposes. The “kitchen middens,” or refuse piles, tend to provide the greatest clues to the mysteries surrounding their lost culture. In addition to shell tools, pieces of broken pottery are, by far, the most commonly found remnants of the Calusa civilization. These artifacts have provided valuable insights into their social evolution.

In the Calusa culture, women made the pottery and finished the rim of each piece with their finger nail or other object in a distinct pattern representing a sort of regional, tribal trademark. By studying pottery remnants found in different middens along the coast, archaeologists have determined that either the pots, or their makers, were traded between regions.

Prehistory | Calusa | Mounds | Rookery Bay Research Reserve

Connecting with the Past

There is still much to learn about our Floridian predecessors. Rookery Bay Reserve’s cultural resource monitor, Steve Bertone, has been working with archaeologists to curate an inventory of prehistoric artifacts found during grant-funded surveys at some of the shell mounds in the reserve.

Since 1978, the reserve has cataloged more than 200 artifacts in its inventory, which also includes shell tools, shell net weights, carved bones and remnants from pioneer settlers who squatted atop the abandoned mounds in the 1880s. Each artifact in the inventory has been recorded in a database along with the GPS coordinates of the location where it was found and other details about the find.

With help from Rookery Bay Reserve educator and photographer Dave Graff, each record in the database is now accompanied by a photo of the actual artifact. High resolution, close-up images enable close inspection of the artifact virtually, and the photos show clear details such as embedded fibers and fingernail marks.

This database serves as an incredible resource for archaeologists and other researchers who are studying at the reserve. Expanding our collective knowledge of the local history and land use is essential to guiding management efforts, educating the community and planning for trails or other recreational opportunities.

Prehistory Artifacts | Dave Graff | Rookery Bay | Research Reserve

Early 1880's

Pioneer Era

The Little Marco Settlement was established between Naples and Marco Island, shortly after the Homestead Act began encouraging Americans to spread out across the country and carve out their piece of paradise. Located along the banks of Henderson Creek and Hall Bay, from Shell Island to Little Marco Island, dozens of homesteads formed this waterfront community that pre-dated the City of Naples. People primarily made a living off the richness of the estuary, catching fish, harvesting shellfish, and also growing small plots of winter vegetables.

As in any rural community, these islanders laid their loved ones to rest in a central location on high ground on the mainland near what is now known as Shell Island Road. This historic sir cemetery 250 cemetery is one of the unique cultural resources of the Rookery Bay Reserve. Modest shell tabby slabs identify some of the older graves, with the earliest marked graves dating back to 1888.

Some graves do not have dated markers, while others may not be marked at all. The boundaries of this cemetery have never been officially documented, and another site nearby is suspected of housing more unmarked remains, based on an oral account received from a family matriarch still living in the area.

Pioneer Era | Family | Rookery Bay Research Reserve


Recent History

With farms, buildings, roads and canals springing up across coastal Collier County, residents started to take notice that the once pristine bays and estuaries were showing the effects of development upstream. A 10-mile loop road through Rookery Bay proposed in 1963 would have opened up unbounded opportunities for coastal development, but a new perspective emerged in the community.

Read more.

Monument | 1960's History | Rookery Bay Research Reserve


Concerned citizens block “Road to Nowhere.”
Loop Road | History | Marco Island | Rookery Bay Research Reserve


The Collier County Conservancy is formed and $300,000 raised to begin purchase of the Rookery Bay properties.
History | Rookery Bay Research Reserve | Lavern Gaynor Family | Collier Conservancy


The Conservancy purchased an additional $150,000 of Rookery Bay property and deeded it to the National Audubon Society. They loaned money to buy one mile of beach near Wiggins Pass until the State could purchase it.
Rookery Bay Research Reserve History | Deed Given to Audubon in Naples


Acquired entire western boundary of Rookery Bay for $240,000 and received from the Collier families a gift of 390 acres of islands guarding south entrances
Rookery Bay Research Reserve History | Rube Allyn's Fishing Map


Purchased 2,000 acres in the Ten Thousand Islands area for $245,000 and presented the land to the state for protection. Area designated as Cape Romano – Ten Thousand Islands Aquatic Preserve. Also bought 40 acres of land and buildings on Henderson Creek and used the purchase to establish a Marine Research Facility at Rookery Bay.
History 10,000 Islands | Rookery Bay Research Reserve


Raised $800,000 in eight weeks to pay for past and future land purchases. Acquired Shell Point for $235,000, completely enclosing Rookery Bay.
Shell Point Aerieal | History | Rookery Bay Research Reserve


Continued making purchases around Rookery Bay.
Continued Purchasing | History | Rookery Bay Research Reserve


Obtained 258 more acres near Rookery Bay.
History | Rookery Bay Research Reserve


Persuaded the state to buy a large portion of Cape Romano
History | Rookery Bay Research Reserve


Won a three-year battle to deny permits to Deltona Corporation which would have destroyed 3,200 acres of Marco wetlands
History | Rookery Bay Research Reserve


Completed work to get Rookery Bay declared National Estuarine Research Reserve.
History | Rookery Bay Designated National Sanctuary | NOAA | Rookery Bay Research Reserve


Orchestrated land exchange after 14 years of negotiations with Deltona. Deltona swapped 13,000 acres of wetlands and islands surrounding Marco for equally valuable uplands.
Deltona Corporation | History | Rookery Bay Research Reserve


Conservancy efforts led to acquisition of Cannon Island by the State of Florida.
Cannon Island | History | Rookery Bay Research Reserve


95 percent completion of CARL identified properties surrounding Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve. Effort underway to expand boundaries of Rookery Bay Reserve to include the Cape-Romano – Ten Thousand Island Aquatic Preserves and all CARL, Florida Department of Environmental Protection, and Conservancy acquisitions.
History | Rookery Bay Research Reserve


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