“A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin, and culture are like a tree without roots.” – Marcus Garvey
Spending my first week in Fort Myers Beach, I’m quickly reminded how popular this area is. Backed up traffic and densely packed condo developments are the first indicators seconded by the sprawl of shopping plazas and eateries. Tourists, retirees, and snowbirds are drawn to this area for the tropical climate and white sand beaches. They’re here to enjoy moments in the sun, sand, and on the seashore. It’s the very reason why I’m here.
But, I also know that it wasn’t always this way. The climate, fauna, and seashore have been constants, but much of the development we see today in Fort Myers, and much of Southwest Florida, is relatively young. Unlike other areas of the east coast, development and settlement in this area didn’t start until the late 1890’s. Tourism didn’t get started until the early 1920’s.
In the past two years, I’ve been learning more about the history of Fort Myers. I want to know more about the area than just what I see on the beaches and roadways. It’s been a slow process visiting sites, looking at old pictures, and reading books. But, I’ve learned a few things and thought that I’d share some of the interesting facts and info.
This post isn’t a narrative history of the area. There are plenty of books that already do that. Instead, I’ll just share some of the more interesting stuff in a bullet list.
The Early Inhabitants
- Paleo-Indians entered southwest Florida around 5,000 BC. They lived near the shores and around wetlands. They were hunter-gatherers subsisting on fish and shell-fish.
- The Calusa people inhabited southwest Florida from 500 BC to the 1750’s. One theory is that they derived from the original paleo people. Another theory is that the Calusa migrated from the Yucatan peninsula. It’s estimated that at one time there were over 50,000 Calusa living in the area.
- The Calusa lived in villages near wetlands. They constructed huge earthen mounds and built their villages on these mounds. Some of these mounds still exist today near Fort Myers (on Estero Island and Pine Island). The people did little cultivation and instead subsided on fish and shell-fish.
Under Spanish Control (1550 – 1819)
- The first arrival of Europeans to the area occurred around 1550 when Spanish explorers visited the area. In trying to settle the area, the Spanish ended up fighting with the Calusa (the Calusa were a war-like people). Ponce De Leon died in Cuba from an arrow wound that he got while fighting the Calusa in Florida. The Spanish enlisted other tribes to fight the Calusa and took captives as slaves. Small pox and other diseases decimated the Calusa and by 1763 the last remnants of the Calusa people were shipped off to Cuba.
- It’s a sad fact but the Calusa lived in the area for almost 1,200 years. But within 200 years of their first contact with Europeans, they were gone from southwest Florida. All that they left were the mounds they built, some artifacts, and a couple of names. Chief Carlos had his name used for an island (San Carlos), a bay (Carlos Bay) and a street (San Carlos Blvd).
- For the next 60 years, not much happened in the area while it was under Spanish control. Spain could not afford to settle the area or staff garrisons. In 1821, the US took control of Florida from Spain as part of the Adams-Onis Treaty of 1819.
US Control (1821 – 1904)
- The US efforts to settle Florida began with a series wars to subdue and remove native people from northern Florida. From 1821 to 1858 there were three Seminole Wars. Each one ended with the Seminoles loosing more territory and being moved lower into Florida. By 1858, the wars were settled and the last of the Seminoles were shipped off to Oklahoma.
- Some of the original towns in south Florida (like Fort Myers, Fort Pierce, Fort Lauderdale) began as military outposts constructed during the Seminole Wars. Fort Delaney was the first fort established in 1841 on the mouth of the Caloosahatctee River. The fort was abandoned at the end of the second Seminole War.
- During the third Seminole war, a second fort was built in 1855 on the same site. It was named Fort Myers after Colonel Abraham Myers, the army quartermaster for Florida. That fort was used as a base for military operations and to provide protection to the area. In 1858, the fort was abandoned but later reoccupied by Union Troops during the Civil War.
- After the war, the area around the fort was slowly settled by a few farmers and ranchers. Southwest Florida doesn’t have a lot of arable land. But parts of it were good for cattle grazing and there was plenty of open range. The cattle were raised and then shipped on boats to be sold in Cuba, Key West, and the Bahamas. Some limited farming and logging were also economic mainstays until the 1890’s.
- There were no roads or railroads into southwest Florida until late into the 1800’s. The most common way to get to the area from the northern states was to take a train to Fernandina Beach (near Jacksonville) and then take another train to Cedar Key on the gulf coast. From Cedar Key, boats sailed down the coast to Tampa and Fort Myers. The railroad didn’t make it to Fort Myers until 1904. One of the first roads to the area (the Tamiami Trail) wasn’t built until 1915.
Modern Development (1904 – Present)
- Thomas Edison sailed down to Fort Myers in 1885. When he arrived the town had a whopping population of 349. Edison was captivated by the area and purchased 13 acres south of the town along the banks of the Caloosahatchee River. He built a home on the property to use as a winter retreat. Edison planted royal palm trees along the road that fronted his property (McGregor Blvd). These trees still exist today and led to Fort Myers being called the City of Palms.
- With roads and railroads to the area, the 1920’s saw an interest in the area as a tourist destination. Some of the original inhabitants of Estero Island used the Homestead Act to acquire large tracts of land on the Island beginning in the late 1890’s. Many of these early settles lost interest in the island after repeated storms flooded the island and destroyed their property. These large tracts were later subdivided for development
- In 1921, the first bridge was built to Estero Island (present day Fort Myers Beach). The bridge was a manual swinging bridge. Prior to the bridge, Estero Island had just a few cottages and fishing shacks. The beach had little development during the Great Depression and WWII. In 1950, the swinging bridge was electrified and subdivision and development of the island began. The current Matanzas Pass Bridge (aka Sky Bridge) was built in 1979. The first bridge to Sanibel Island was built in 1963.
So, what one see’s in the present day Fort Myers area is all relatively new. For hundreds of years, it was the land of the Calusa and the Seminole before they were driven off. Then cattle grazing, fishing, and logging were mainstays for the few who found their way into the area.
Florida didn’t partake in the early settler migrations. There wasn’t a gold rush in Florida and the swampy sandy soil didn’t draw settlers looking for free land. So, much of the area and landscape remained unchanged up until the 1920’s.
But, once the roads gave access to the area, the prosperity of the 1950’s brought the retirees, tourists, and snowbirds. All wanting to spend idle time enjoying the warm climate and the seashore.
My guess is that the roots of many Floridians don’t grow that deep because most everyone I meet here is from somewhere else. But for this snowbird, it’s been good to learn what was here before all the condos snowbirds arrived.