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Pineland – The Calusa Heritage Trail

Author: Eric Taubert
Date of Trip: December 2007

“In fourteen-hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue…”

That’s how my elementary-school teachers described Christopher Columbus “discovering” America. I’ve always wondered how someone could discover a place when there were already people living there…there’s also the small problem of the fact that Columbus never even set foot on the continent of North America at anytime during his four seaward journeys. Then we have Juan Ponce de Leon who “discovered” Florida in 1513, supposedly while searching for the Fountain of Youth.

Some guys get all the credit. Some guys have all the luck.

“In 1521 Ponce de Leon organized a colonizing expedition on two ships. It consisted of some 200 men, including priests, farmers and artisans, 50 horses and other domestic animals, and farming implements. The expedition landed on the southwest coast of Florida, in the vicinity of Caloosahatchee River. The colonists were soon attacked by Calusa Indians and Ponce de Leon was injured by a poisoned arrow to the shoulder. After this attack, he and colonists sailed to Havana, Cuba, where he soon died of the wound.”

This is just a piece of the major history that occurred right in our backyard. The guy who discovered Florida was apparently killed by the people who were already there.

And these are the circles my mind spun in as I pulled out of my southwest Cape Coral driveway and headed for Pine Island Road. Fighting my way through the utility expansion project and dodging diesel-fume spewing dump trucks, I drove across a stretch of land marked with all the signposts of modern development. All the signs of American progress littered the sides of the road, houses being built, parcels of commercially-zoned land with realtor signs on them, strip malls announcing “Grand Openings” and pickup trucks with weather-beaten migrant workers riding, like cargo, in the back.

We all see ourselves as pioneers in this tropical oasis on the Gulf coast…and in some ways we are. Many of us have left families, jobs and hometowns behind us and wagon-trained our Uhauls towards better weather and a different pace of life. We’ve staked our claims to this land and are living out the moments of our lives amidst its heat, palm trees, beaches and politics. But we aren’t the ones who discovered Southwest Florida, and we’re certainly not the first to call this piece of earth home. We’re just the most recent influx of residents making our mark here. We’re only writing the most recent page of a book already thousands of pages long.

Taking a left onto the western end of Pine Island Road turns back the calendar to a less hectic set of years. There’s still construction and new development, but on a smaller scale. Before long, mangroves line both sides of the road and quick glimpses of distant water lift the spirits.

Then it’s over the “fishingest bridge in the world” and into the pastel curiosity of Matlacha. Fish markets, restaurants and funky art studios blur their way by. Blink and you miss it, so be sure to set your watch to Island Time. Drive slowly and take it in. Stop for a quick beer on the dock at Bert’s. Sip it while basking in the hot Florida sun and million dollar views of Matlacha Pass.

Minutes later you’ll be on Pine Island, in all its “Old Florida” glory. Vast palm tree nurseries and tropical fruit trees inhabit the background scenery. Roadside stands and agricultural land bump shoulders with lots being cleared for condominium complexes (yes, the ugly giant even rears his head in quiet Pine Island).

Tucked in a hidden corner on the northwestern side of Pine Island is where you’ll find Pineland. This is a community steeped in history and well known in archeological circles. Pineland is also home to one of the smallest Post Offices in the United States.

No one knows when Pine Island was first inhabited, but human remains over 6,000 years old have been unearthed here. What we do know is the Calusa Indians inhabited Pineland at least 2,000 years ago, and they stayed there for over 1,500 years.

For a peek into the lives of the true pioneers of Southwest Florida, you need to visit the Calusa Heritage Trail on Pine Island. The 3,700 foot interpretive walkway you’ll find there will certainly cast doubt on those Christopher Columbus myths you were taught in grade school.

Operated by the Florida Museum of Natural History’s Randell Research Center, the Calusa Heritage Trail winds through 50 acres of the Pineland Archeological site. Shell mounds, canals and middens mark the location of a 2,000 year old Calusa Indian village, the original town of Tampa.

The Calusa were the tribe that once controlled most of South Florida. They were descendants of Paleo-Indians who inhabited Southwest Florida approximately 12,000 years ago. The Calusa tribe once numbered around 50,000 people, and Tampa was one of their largest towns. They were occupying this land and engaging in commerce, culture, religion, politics and family life for over 1500 years before Christopher Columbus was even born.

The Calusa Heritage Trail is located directly across the street from the Historic Tarpon Lodge Inn, Restaurant and Lodge (an excellent place to have a cold drink or a hot meal and watch the sunset on Pine Island Sound, especially in the quiet off-season). Ample free parking for the trail is located right outside the front gate. The small entrance fee is collected by an honor-system donation pole. Squeeze your dollar bills into the small opening and you’re off.

At the start of the trail there is a rustic wooden Visitor’s Center and Book Shop. A knowledgeable staff member sits in the cramped quarters amidst simple shelves filled with copies of books on the true history of Southwest Florida.

The well-manicured path begins at a fork in the road.

Each point of interest is documented on the large pictorial story boards which intermittently line the path. They give an abridged biography of the Calusa town of Tampa which once existed here. As is true with most history…later generations got the story wrong and Tampa was eventually misplaced to its present-day location by way of a mapmaker’s error.

I walk to the right, along the side of a rare sight in Florida…raised ground. Overgrown with trees and shrubs, closer inspection reveals the hill to be constructed of ancient conch shells. It’s a shell mound, a historic refuse pile of sea-life garbage deposited here by the Calusa Indians thousands of years ago.

The Calusa used shells in many different ways. First and foremost, they ate the inhabitants of the shells. Once the shells were empty, many of them were used for tools, utensils, jewelry and decorations. I take the path up a rustic stairway to the highest part of Brown’s Mound. Off to the sides of the trail, the top layer of earth is disturbed in some areas. Chalky white shells, bleached by a million days under the unforgiving Florida sun, glimmer and emerge from the scarred ground like ancient bones jutting through withered flesh. A giant gumbo limbo tree emerges from a high point on the mound, sending its support roots deep into whatever residual nourishment this abandoned kitchen midden might still hold. History apparently feeds the tree well…its thick twisting trunk and the agonies of its sun-burnt skin are quite a sight to behold.

The storyboard atop the thirty foot mound informs that it was once, likely, twice as tall. The passing years have conspired with relentless weather, human footsteps, and the weight of sunrays to reduce the size of this historical junk heap by half. I wonder how long this diminishing evidence of an ancient civilization will continue to hold up.

Funny, how all we have to teach us of this once flourishing culture are the messes they left behind. We learn almost all we know of them by picking through the garbage bin of history and sorting and cataloguing whatever we find there.

I wonder what types of trash piles we’ll leave behind and how long they’re apt to last. When we’re long forgotten and they come across our plastic, Styrofoam, metal and concrete…what will they think of us? Disposable diapers and aerosol cans, car parts and beer bottles, hurricane shutters and the remains of our iPhones…this is the evidence we’ll leave in our dumps. These are the pieces of our lives.

I look out across the land below, reminiscent of an African savannah, and think of the ancient past, before man, when all the continents were joined by their plate tectonics. Was Florida once connected to Africa? Is that why I sometime see one in the other? How little we truly know about the grand scheme of things. We’re forced to make due on the half-truths we’re taught, propaganda sound-bites from corporate television and all the history that’s been rewritten and edited into its present-day, cookie-cutter, and sugar-coated revisionism.

Perhaps the truth, in this world, is like Tampa…quietly withering away, forgotten, misplaced by a mapmaker’s error. Perhaps it’s hidden within the trash we’ve strewn.

A short continuance further down the meandering path exits to another set of stairs climbing up, yet, another shell mound. At the top of Randell Mound, a park bench overlooking Pine Island Sound offers the perfect vantage point for a scenic rest. Boats buzz past leaving frothy white trails in their wake. Sun glints off the points of subtle waves. Historic shells litter the ground. And bloodsucking insects attack from all sides. Don’t forget your bug repellant.

Randell Mound might have been the site of the Tampa chief’s house, or a Calusa temple. Between the years of 1917 and 1927, a private residence existed at the top of the mound. It burned down in 1927. Sometime later a small cabin was built in its place. The cabin was demolished by a new owner of the mound in 1996. He was preparing to build, yet, another house atop Randell Mound until Pineland activists mounted a campaign to purchase and rescue the land in question.

Times change. In the early and mid-1900s road builders used many mounds as fill. They’d just chop them up, laying waste to all the history within them, with nary a moment of hesitation. It was a matter of practicality…cars and carriages need roads, you can’t build roads without fill, shell mounds contain fill…thus, shell mounds became roads. During this era, the mounds that had houses built on them were the most likely to be spared from the primitive asphalt-making process. It is only through those few who chose to build their homes atop shell mounds that we have access to these archeological resources today.

Many historically relevant parts of the Pineland site are still privately owned. Most of the owners diligently protect the cultural resources on their property, but some of the parcels face the threat of possible future development. Although some houses still exist atop shell mounds, some would argue the only safe shell mounds are those which have been purchased and set aside as protected land of historical and educational significance.

The backside of Randell mound brings us to a high point from which we can see another angle of the Pineland archeological site. Looking down, over the top of a small storage shed, you’ll see a variety of colorful native vegetation, the quiet solitude of Pine Island.

There are also remains of a Calusa-built canal at the Pineland site. The canal once stretched two and a half miles across Pine Island to Matlacha Pass. When Smithsonian archaeologist Frank Cushing visited Pineland in 1895, he measured the canal at 30 feet wide and 6 feet deep. Now all that remains visible is a short portion.

The next stretch of the pathway brings wide open expanses dotted with curious tree and plant formations. Enigmatic mounds of vine-covered flora seem to intentionally provide natural frames for other plants in the distance. Primal shapes emerge from the soil in twisted and writhing forms brought to life by the salty breeze.

Some quizzical air surrounds this stretch of land. The entire setting is a puzzle needing to be solved, a mystery offering something slightly less than an answer.

Wicked root systems choke the trunks of trees.

Short grass erupts into patches of undisturbed wild growing in rigorous vigor, refuges to birds and animals, small ecosystems unto themselves. As the sun dips towards the horizon, rabbits appear from the depths of these tiny forests and frolic across the landscape.

To one side of the trail, a hollow log rests on the ground. The hole in its side is shuttered with a stretch of chain link fence and several purple flowers. This log was once the top of a tall Australian pine. After Hurricane Charley, this particular tree was brought down as part of the clean-up effort. Australian Pines are an exotic invasive species which create problems during hurricanes because of their shallow root system. Once the tree was on the ground, the cutters noticed what they hadn’t before…there was a hive housing about forty-thousand bees in the hole at the top of the tree. The violent impact of felling the tree led to rotten honey and hive abandonment. The rest of the tree was put through a chipper, but the hive portion was salvaged and placed aside. Worms and raccoons cleaned out the honey, nature is quite a housekeeper. Now a new hive of bees inhabits the hollow log. The chain link fence stretched across the opening was put there to protect the, now ground-level, hive from wildlife. Don’t try to reach inside.

In another area, a series of plastic tarps stretch across an ongoing archeological dig. The pursuit of lost knowledge urges us to peel away the skin of earth and claw down towards the bone and marrow beneath. Fitting, how the past is always buried and we need to dig for the truth.

Several territorial ospreys spy from their perches above.

A sign points towards a side trail. “You are about to enter sacred ground…please proceed respectfully.” The wooden walkway beyond the sign marks the path on which Calusa Indians carried their dead to their final resting place. The burial mound, with human remains still intact, is protected by a small white fence at the end of the wooden path.

I loiter quietly near the sign, allowing a female trail walker ahead of me enough time and space to experience the hallowed site in solitude and reverence. She eventually walks back towards me with a puzzled look on her face. “Don’t bother going down there…it’s just a dead end.” she says. If she took the time to read the same sign I did, she’d probably shudder at the uncanny accuracy of her ignorant utterance.

I marvel at the patch of gnarled dead trees surrounding the burial mound, devoid of leaves, clawing at the dusky sky. A quiet calm descends. Darkness is fast approaching and all the other visitors are gone. I stand alone in the silence and observe. Small animals and majestic birds skitter and soar. Heady floral scents mingle with those of mud and dank vegetation. A spatter of early rising stars twinkle their way into visible existence overhead, the depths of space finally revealing light that’s been traveling towards us for hundreds and thousands of years.

The leaves of one particular tree by my side spring to life in a breeze I can’t feel, while all the other trees remain perfectly still. I feel a sense of connectivity with the past. Long buried souls seem to speak across the ages to me in the peaceful language of natural phenomenon. We are still here.

“The Calusa were among the last native Florida Indian societies to succumb to the consequences of the European invasion. Smallpox and measles, which the Calusa had no natural resistance to, were brought into the area from Spanish and French explorers and these diseases wiped out entire villages. Victims of warfare, disease, and slavery, the Calusa ceased to exist as a distinctive culture in the 1700s”.

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