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Above: Painting, entitled Discovery of the Mississippi, by William H. Powell, 1847, is located in the Rotunda of the Capitol in Washington, D.C. Right: Giovanni de Verrazzano, 1889, engraving by F. Allcarini, Tocchi, courtesy Wikipedia Commons.
Pre-Revolution Timeline - The 1500s
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Detail - 1500
1500: Indian culture flourishes in Florida as exemplified by the woodcarving in the Calusa culture. The Calusa had been living in this area for 1,000 years prior to European contact.
It would be more than a decade before the first European contact with the Calusa, or Caloosahatchee, when Ponce de Leon landed for his exploration into their territory. It would be more than fifteen years before they encountered Francisco Hernandez de Cordoba on his return from Mexico. On all of those occasions, the Calusa were defiant, mortally wounding Ponce de Leon when he returned in 1521 eight years after his first encounter. Ponce de Leon was wounded in a skirmish and died from those wounds upon his return to Cuba. But the more amazing accomplishments of the Calusa would not be in those ten to thirty years in the future when Europeans branded Florida's southern peninsula with their conquistadors, it would be in the one thousand year culture in the region that they had built.
Residing in southwest Florida since 500 A.D. from Charlotte Harbor to Cape Sable, including much of the Florida Everglades, the Calusa influenced an even larger area, with powerful political ties to the tribes of the Mayaimi, Tequesta, Jaega, and Ais. Within three hundred years, a high population had grown in the Caloosahatchee region, with a society based on estuary fishing, not agriculture. They were considered a tribe of hunter gatherers. Pottery has been found from the time period 500 A.D. to 800 A.D. There is evidence from archaic times back to 3500 B.C. that Charlotte Harbor had been inhabited even further back.
But what was their culture like and how many people were part of the Calusa at their height? The Caloosahatchee were mound building people, shell middens up to thirty-one feet high, with Mound Key (carbon dated to 1150 B.C.), in the center of Estero Bay, covering up to eighty acres. Mound Key is today a Archaeological State Park of over one hundred acres, accessible only by boat, and thought to be the site of the capital of the Calusa known as Calos. When Europeans arrived, the Calusa numbered over ten thousand, with some estimates triple to five times that number.
The Calusa lived in a stratified society, with commoners and a few leaders who governed the tribe. The Calusa also had slaves. They lived in two story houses that the Spanish noted could house up to two thousand people. This may be an exaggeration. In 1697, the Spanish noted that there were sixteen houses in the capitol of Calos, which had one thousand residents. They were great sailors, and fished with nets in dugout canoes up to fifteen feet in length.
What did the term Calusa mean? In their language, Calusa meant fierce people.
What Happened to the Calusa?
Although evidence of their existence, or the forerunners to the tribe, reach into archaic times deep into B.C., the Calusa are thought to have existed as a tribe from 500 A.D. to 1750 A.D. They do not exist today.
Once Spanish settlement breached the region in the mid-16th century, the decline of the Calusa was precipitous. Mound Key was the site of the appointment of the first Spanish Governor, Pedro Menendez de Aviles, in 1566 with four thousand witnesses, (he would marry the sister of the Calusa King, King Carlos); a fort, the first Jesuit mission known as San Antonio de Carlos founded by Juan Rogel, and colonized settlement would follow. Although that colonized settlement would be abandoned three years later, the disease brought by the Europeans would not dissipate among the Calusa. In 1711, it was thought that one thousand seven hundred remained of the Calusa in Florida. In less than two hundred years, the Calusa civilization, once numbering tens of thousands, was gone. It had succumbed to that disease, war with the Spanish and tribes from Georgia and South Carolina who sold the Calusa into slavery, and forced relocation to Cuba, both by the Spanish and later by the English after Florida was ceded to them in 1763. It is possible that a few Calusa remained, absorbed into the Seminole tribe, but no evidence supports that theory.
Image above: Diorama of a Calusa Chief at the Florida Museum of Natural History on the campus of the University of Florida in Gainesville, 2008. Courtesy Wikipedia Commons. Below: Lock on the Caloosahatchee River near Ortona, Florida, in territory once part of Calusa culture, 2000, Richard T. Bryant, Historic American Buildings Survey. Courtesy Library of Congress. Source info: Florida Museum of Natural History; Floridastateparks.org; Exploring Florida, Calusa "The Shell Indians"; ancient-origins.net "The Calusa People: A Lost Tribe of Florida that Early Explorers Wrote Home About" by Wu Mingren; Wikipedia Commons.
History Photo Bomb
Ponce de Leon meeting the Indian tribes of Florida. Courtesy Wikipedia Commons.
Christopher Columbus, by Ridalfo Ghirlandaio, 1520. Courtesy Wikipedia Commons.
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