History of Shelling on Sanibel Island

Visitors who come to this balmy and breezy little island that shares its size with Manhattan, New York are immediately swept up by its untamed natural beauty. Passing over the bridge that connects the island with the mainland, the fast-paced world is transformed into a place of quiet solitude. Sanibel is a place visitors of all ages do not soon forget.

The island is situated at a special place in the Gulf of Mexico – it has an east/west alignment. From the south comes a prevailing wind and strong currents that cause this eleven mile-long, 3 mile-wide island to become a scoop for seashells (Scherman, 159). It is one of the top places in the world to observe, collect and admire these natural treasures.

Interestingly, modern-day islanders and visitors are not the only ones who have benefited from the island’s abundant natural resources. Through archaeological studies, it is known that indigenous peoples lived on Sanibel Island long before the arrival of the first European explorers, thriving on the abundant fish and shellfish. When Europeans first arrived, the Calusa Indians inhabited the Southwest Gulf Coast of Florida within a diverse ecosytem, abundant with many species of fish, other animals, and plants. Politically dominant over most of south Florida, they lived in a highly stratified society, complete with extensive navigable canals that linked towns together. The abundant nature of shells on the island was incorporated into the Calusa culture and had both utilitarian and aesthetic purposes.

An Island For All Senses – Tropical Sun by Day, Starry Sky by Night

A Sunset Walk on a Beach in Sanibel Island, FL. If sunset walks like this one captured by award-winning Sanibel photographer, David Meardon, is your idea of slipping into a calm, relaxing tropical evening, Sanibel is the place to be. Even after dark, take a good look upward into the dark sky – it will be absent from bright city lights. The Sanibel sky is strewn with a palette of thousands of bright stars.

The Milky Way announces itself as the real thing – not a projected image from a seat at the planetarium or the fruitless search for the first star to come out at dusk in the city. Gathering your senses, you hear an invisible chorus of crickets in the seagrapes, singing the same songs their ancestors had before them, the way they were heard by the Calusa thousands of years ago.

Standing at the water’s edge, on this island ten miles out into the Gulf of Mexico, the white sand is soft as powder underfoot. The only sound you can hear is the gentle lull of the waves and the windchime of thousands of seashells being coaxed back into the Gulf.

Sanibel Inside Scoop: Filter Outside World

If you are one of the many people who prefer to park their car and travel to their destinations by bicycle, you will enjoy peddling along bike paths nestled by seagrapes and other island vegetation. One main path runs parallel along Periwinkle Way, the main street, that runs the length of the island. Efforts to filter the outside world are apparent – streets are named after shells (e.g., Donax, Pen Shell, Paper Fig) and, complementing the theme, there are no street lights. Many visitors make a point to visit the island’s lighthouse, which began as a government project when the island was first inhabited by settlers in the 1880’s. Many years later, the lighthouse is still in operation, but the former keeper’s quarters are leased to the City of Sanibel from the U.S. Coast Guard and serve as private dwellings.

The Economy of Seashells

Seashells have created an economy for Sanibel’s residents since the time of the Calusa Indians and are highly integrated into the culture and the economy of Sanibel. As many as 20-30,000 visitors come to Sanibel and its neighbor island Captiva each week at peak season, drawn by the desire to walk Sanibel’s beaches and its shells. Nearly 15,000 seasonal visitors travel to Sanibel in the escape of the cold winter weather in the northern regions, including Canada.

No matter where they come from, tourists of all ages spend their time learning about the island’s history at the Sanibel Historical Museum, learning about the diverse wildlife that inhabits the island at the J.N. Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge, or the ecology of the most famous island inhabitants, mollusks, during their visit to the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum. Visitors also enjoy the art of local artists in many cozy little boutiques and shops that sell wind chimes, jewelry, lamps, paperweights, decorative boxes, and ornaments. And of course, conversations in these shops are usually centered around shelling. They provide a good stopping point between a day’s activities and a good place to catch up on island news and the tide report!

Of the many expeditions that sailed to the New World, shells were among the items brought back to Europe. The pages ahead address the significant uses and meanings of shells in societies in addition to the Calusa Indians of southwest Florida.

The mass production of material goods during the Industrial Revolution made available countless products, including shells. These treasures of the sea became immortalized. They have been advertised, bagged, boxed, cast, collected, etched, glued, molded, mounted, painted, photographed, sealed, sculpted, stamped, studied – in other words – incorporated into our everyday lives as symbols of nature.

Wherever you decide to stop on your visit to Sanibel, you will be embarking on an adventure in a place filled with history – and shells!


Explorers: Arrival of the Spanish Ptolemy representing the Old World

Over the expanse of time, the sea brought life to Sanibel Island in the form of hundreds of species of birds and plant life. The sea also brought the Spanish, who left an unfortunate record of the destruction of culture for material wealth and social power. When the first Europeans landed in the New World, the inhabitants called them Awaunageesuck: the strangers (Cleary, Foreward).

Florida: Claimed by Spanish Government

Drawn during Amerigo Vespucci’s voyage, the Cantino map of 1502 gave evidence of both coasts of Florida and in 1510 the Spanish government claimed Florida through the rights of discovery. With few exceptions, secular priests and missionaries accompanied every Spanish expedition of discovery.

Whereas our principle intent in the discovery of new lands is that the
inhabitants and natives thereof, and become Christians and be saved,
and this is the chief motive that you are to bear and hold in this affair,
and to this end it is proper that religious persons should accompany you.

Source: newadvent.org

Spanish Conquistadors: León, Narvaez, and DeSoto

Unquestionably, Sanibel’s geographical position pointed it out as a landmark to passing discovery ships. Twelve years after the discovery of Haiti and Puerto Rico, the Spanish Conquistadors had killed over one million Indians on the two islands. Forewarned by the fleeing souls of the cruelties of the Spanish, the Calusa killed every Conquistador traveling northward in search of enriching their personal wealth and finance for a future expedition.

The Spanish called the Calusa Pescadores grandes, referring to their superb skills as a fisherman. The waters in Spring and Fall were filled with the thundering sound of hundreds of thousands of kingfish, mackerel and mullet in the midst of their seasonal migration (Fritz, 162).

Juan Ponce de León

Although records vary greatly, Juan Ponce de León was born in Spain around 1460 and is said to have served as a squire as a young man. In 1493 he joined Christopher Columbus on his second voyage to America. He became a military commander and deputy Governer. He discovered Puerto Rico and then persuaded the king to grant him ships View Source and men in another discovery voyage in search of the fountain of youth. Ponce’s list also included gold, spices and rare wood.

He landed on the Spanish Easter holiday and called Florida Pascua de Florida (feast of flowers). Ponce de León made his most authentic discovery in 1513 – the Gulf Stream. He named the Gulf Stream The Great Ocean River. Previous to this famous voyage, Indians told legends to explorers of mermaids (presumably manatees) and a fountain that would recapture youth (presumably natural springs).

Despite being greeted with fierceness, Ponce fell in love with the island and named it Santa Isabella and it later became Sanibel (Fritz, 20). The first mass in the U.S. is thought to have been given by Ponce de León’s second expedition in 1521. Seven years before this journey, he had been granted a royal patent to Florida by Ferdinand (Fritz, 21).

His efforts to conquer came to an abrupt end when he was pierced in the side with a fish bone tipped arrow. He died from his wound nine days later upon returning to Cuba. In contrast to his successors, Ponce did not want to exterminate the Calusa, in contrast with his successors.

Pánfilio de Narváez

Pánfilio de Narváez was granted the land of Florida by Emperor Charles V in 1526. After conquering Cuba, he led an expedition to Florida with 300 men, including Cabeza de Vaca. After surviving a hurricane near Cuba, his expedition landed on the west coast of Florida (near Tampa Bay) in April, 1528, claiming the land for Spain.

He was sent by the governor of Cuba to arrest Hernán Cortés, but failed and in doing so, he lost one of his eyes (View Source). In the next devastating blow to the Calusa in 1529, de Narváez brought four hundred men in a storm of bloody violence. Losing 396 men on his expedition, it is said he cut off noses, ears and threw the chief’s wife to his dogs (Scherman, 168). After failing in his attempts to conquer the Calusa, he escaped alive with the only four remaining men, one of them was Cabeza de Vaca, who later became a famous explorer in his own rite.

Hernando De Soto

Hernando De Soto brought priests in an attempt to evangelize the native tribes during the expeditions of 1527-28 and 1539-42. In the beginning, De Soto attempted friendliness. He raised a flag on the island, but a flag did not hold a sliver of symbolic meaning to the embittered Indians. Without intention, De Soto left behind the wake of seeds that would become Florida’s future; orange pips were carelessly dropped into the fertile ground and escaped cattle multiplied on inland prairies (Scherman, 168-169).

Timucuan, an Acuera chief wrote to De Soto in 1539:

I am king in my land, and it is unnecessary for me to become the subject of a person who has no more vassals than I. I regard those men as vile and contemptible who subject themselves to the yoke of someone else when they can live as free men. Accordingly, I and all my people have vowed to die a hundred deaths to maintain the freedom of our land. This is our answer, both for the present and forevermore.

source unknown

He failed to make friends with the chief and ordered their thatch houses burned and forced a few Calusa into guides. After being led into the swamps and finding neither gold nor silver nor anything of value, he asked the King permission to enslave or exterminate the natives (Scherman, 169).

Pedro Menéndez de Avilés

Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, the last Spanish conqueror, arrived in 1565 with the blessing of the Spanish Crown after establishing the first permanent settlement on the North American continent, St. Augustine. He stated his mission was to pacify the southern coast, to protect shipwrecks of treasure ships and galleons.

Impressed with the array of renaissance performers Menéndez greeted him with, the chief offered his sister for marriage (he was already married) to the explorer, enabling a relationship whereby Menéndez could leave Jesuit priests on the island between trips to convert the people and establish colonies of religious natives among them. The King had agreed previous to his voyage that he could keep almost everything he could take in his conquest, with the inclusion of fisheries and one or two towns. To avoid offending the chief, he accepted and had his new wife baptized and immediately removed from his presence (Scherman, 170).

In failing to win control of the people and the beautiful shore, in 1573 he wrote to King Philip II, that the Indians of South Florida are bloodthirsty – a menace to the Spanish, and asked permission to exterminate or enslave them” (Scherman, 170).

Sailing on A Spanish Galleon

Spanish Galleons were large ships with at least three masts, multiple sails and were faster than earlier warships that had been rowed. Galleons were made from oak, a strong, hardwood that lasted a long time. It took more than 2,000 trees to make some of the larger galleons. The average weight of a galleon was 400 tons, the weight of two jumbo jets. Being so heavy, the galleon traveled at around 4 to 8 knots, or 41/2 to 9 miles per hour View Source.

Effects of Acculturation

No inhabitants on the island since the Calusa utilized the abundance of resources nature had provided with such efficiency. Despite any good intentions, missionaries had become dismayed after discovering that they could not easily convert the Indians to the Catholic religion, although a number of them eventually did adopt the lifestyle of Europeans, including their religion. The cultural influences the Spanish impinged upon the Calusa and their neighboring tribes in years prior had been spreading through the Calusa culture like a terminal disease.

The spirit of the Indians deteriorated and they exiled into the interior and were noted to be exterminated by the Seminoles in the late eighteenth century, at such time the island became a perfect hiding place for pirate ships. Others who may have survived dealt with slave-raiding by tribes in the north and the non-stop spread of introduced diseases.

All cultures change, but the Calusa eventually succumbed to the pressures of acculturation. Through the actions of the Spanish and the steady integration of material culture introduced from the outside world on trading routes, this highly evolved culture disintegrated after flourishing for a great length of time.

The natives were united by such common bonds as their respect for nature and kinship and had highly developed skills as hunters, farmers, gatherers, fishermen, and artisans.

These skills and beliefs were maintained through centuries of adversity and passed on to new generations despite dwindling numbers and resources and the ever-increasing pressures of social and cultural changes.

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