Florida, invariably known as the Sunshine State, has maintained a particular visage, both geographically and historically, in the minds of the general public. Founded as early as 1513 by the Spanish conquistador, Juan Ponce de Leon, the land of flowers, which is what Florida roughly translates to, has been attracting visitors since its discovery. Beyond the palm tree laden beaches, sandy shores, and coral reef filled waters, the tropical destination Florida is known for extenuates far beyond the paradiasiacal vistitudes and uncovers a much more exploratory age where pioneers braved the Floridian wilds, carving out a spot to create their own livelihoods and exploit the land for their own particular success.
The native inhabitants of Florida’s southwestern region were the Calusa Indians, meaning “’the Fierce Ones [who were]….tall of stature, great archers and men of strength,’” a name and apt description given to them by Spanish chroniclers traveling through the peninsula throughout the sixteenth century. The few verifiable, factual accounts can be gathered from Spanish missionaries’ reminiscences and encounters recorded down in journals. Ponce de Leon, himself, felt “repulsed” at their sight, eventually being killed on his second mission to Florida, which ended in a clash between Conquistadors and Calusa and resulted in an injury that led to a poisonous end for the famous explorer. Much of what is known about the Calusa, socially, politically, culturally, and religiously can largely be attributed to the remnants of their villages and effects, long preserved by the unique environment of Marco Island, FL. While it is not known what ultimately led to the demise of the Calusa, it is surmised that they succumbed to the trials and tribulations of erroneous warfare, enslavement, and later, European diseases. The Calusa were just one of many tribes located in Florida, including the Seminoles (who move in place of the Calusa), Miccosukee, Spanish Indians, Chekika, Hospetarke, and other remnants of larger tribes, like Cherokee, that fled westward expansion, as well as runaway slaves, to name several. All would play an integral part in the battle of their lands, as the fight against imperialistic policies and encroachment continually threatened their way of life and existence.
Fig. 1: (Above, top) Photograph of a Banyan Tree growing opposite of the Gwynne Institute near Fort Myer's downtown district, 2021.
Fig. 2: (Above) Rendering of a Calusa Chief, painting from the Marco Island Historical Museum, 2019.
Fig. 3: (Below) Painting depicting the Calusa undisturbed by foreigners before the onset of outside contact, from the Marco Island Historical Museum.
The Spanish controlled Florida from the onset of Ponce de Leon’s discovery in 1513 to the early 1800s. They kept sizeable colonies and forts relatively north in the panhandle areas, leaving much of the central and south lands to the Native tribes. It was not until 1819 that Spain decided to give up its prospects in Florida and exchanged the land in a purchase with the United States government in 1821. This opened the proverbial flood gates, as white prospectors and pioneers began to move into the territory that spawned new opportunities, settlement, and exploitation. Naturally, the Indian response was to rebel. “For all these Indians, Florida was home. They loved it. They could see no reason why they should give up their fields and forests, their herds of cattle, the Negro runaways who had come to them for safety and were now their allies….when the Americans kept pressing down upon them, they resisted stubbornly and fought back, as men of courage do everywhere when imposed upon.” Clashing between whites and Indians would erupt into what would be the second Seminole War, starting in 1836 and ending in 1842. Despite nominal boundaries, federal provocations in sending scouts, surveyors, explorers, and tradesmen to establish trading posts further and further south only aggravated the already fragile line between peace and war. The breaking point was the Dade Massacre. “Major Francis L. Dade and one hundred and seven of his men were killed.” Reports of the ambush sent a shockwave throughout the growing nation and sparked a national outcry that prompted a federal response with reinforcements. The Indians used guerilla warfare tactics, which took the whites by surprise. Even though Native tribes were largely outnumbered, they held their own for prolonged periods of time, “ambush[ing] small bands of whites and burn[ing] isolated frontier homes, viciously killing and scalping whole families.”
As fighting continued between both factions with small victories and defeats along the way, two specific events would forever change the racial and environmental dynamics, which are the Battle of Okeechobee and the Caloosahatchee Massacre. Several miles shy north of Lake Okeechobee would be the final area Indians and white would openly fight in battle. The battle lasted just one day on Christmas, 1837. Several bands of Miccosukee and Seminoles fought against Colonel Zachary Taylor and 1,067 soldiers. “Twenty-six soldiers were killed and 112 wounded. But by sheer force of numbers and splendid bravery, the troops made the Indians flee into the almost impenetrable swamps and marshlands of the Glades.” Colonel Taylor considered the retreat as a major victory, but he did not stop there. At his insistence, he devised a full invasion into the Floridian wilds and wetlands south of the Caloosahatchee River, which had never before been attempted, as the environs had always seemed unapproachable as unchartered Indian territory. Bands of whites led by various colonels penetrated through the marshes, mangroves, and wetlands, destroying every Indian settlement they came upon. Their crops were burned to the ground, livestock stolen, and homes destroyed. As more land was explored, forts and depots were installed and built along the riverbanks at integral junctions that were occupied by soldiers and civilians brave enough to make an attempt at successfully establishing an early business. These forts were nothing more than a stockpile storehouse surrounded by thinly walled enforcements where the men slept in outside tents. Civilians who tried to make a life out in the wilds fashioned makeshift houses from reeds, thatch, and palm fronds (See Figure 5).
Fig. 4: A rare photograph of the winding nature of the Caloosahatchee River - rural and untouched by civilization and capitalistic ventures.
Fig. 5: (Above) Photograph of a fisherman who settled off the Caloosahatchee River, living in a palmetto-thatched house.
Fig. 6: (Below) An 1839 Florida map depicting the forts established by white pioneers and government army stations. The map also indicates what would have been Indian territory ceded to the various Native Tribes (look for the X or *) had the pseudo-peace treaty, known as the Fort King Agreement, been genuinely intended.
Despite large envoys of white soldiers and military bands puncturing through the thickets, their searches for large Native settlements proved futile. They only would come across minor settlements, where the men, in some cases, were executed and the women and children were arrested and deported out West for resettlement on reservations. Indians who were out canoeing and were discovered were attacked, tracked down, captured, and deported out of the area, as well. Their personal belongings and their canoe confiscated in the process. After several years of this arduous endeavor, the Indians, including the Seminoles and Miccosukee, were dwindling in number. Within just one year, over 2,000 men, women, and children had been captured and deported. Yet, their fighting spirit remained undaunted and determined still as ever to fight. In 1839, a promising proposal was sent from the Commander-in-Chief of the American Army, Major General Alexander Macomb, to each major Indian chief that allowed a cease of arms in exchange for peace and a portion of Florida’s lands for the establishment of a strictly Indian territory that would be left alone. Relieved that their efforts went unrewarded, the Indian chiefs of several remaining tribes gathered and consented in what became known as the Fort King Agreement. Part of the agreement gave lands in what Charlotte, Lee, and Collier Counties are today, including the Everglades of the interior (See Figure 6). The Indians were given thirty days to leave their present lands and move. “The Fort King Agreement enraged Floridians who feared it was permanent. People in Florida, the St. Augustine News insisted, should unite to protest the agreement….The Tallahassee Floridian denounced the armistice as insane and called on the people to shoot Indians on sight.” As the process started and Indians began moving to the territories ceded to them, a runner from General Macomb had reached several chiefs informing them of a ruse. The General had not meant what was agreed upon, and instead meant the territories as temporary instead of permanent, and that once all Indians had moved, they would be surrounded, arrested, and deported out of Florida. Incensed, the Chiefs rallied together giving “fighting speeches” to their peoples. Unbeknownst to General Macomb and the bands of whites occupying their forts setup along the Caloosahatchee and surrounding lands, the Natives were prepared for an outright war.
Reportedly, a post with a store and stockpile storage off the Caloosahatchee River had eighteen dragoons, or mounted infantry who use horses with their rifles, with several civilians and negro interpreters who all were turning in for the night on Wednesday, July 21. In this case, men posted as lookouts, or sentries, were not stationed on this particular night. As the party lay asleep, a large band of Indians came in from all directions yelling and firing rifle shots. The party was taken by surprise. Men were stabbed and scalped in their beds; others were shot as they ran out from their tents. The dragoons fled half clothed and left their rifles behind, leaving the entire party unarmed. Much of the dragoons were driven into the waters of the Caloosahatchee. As they attempted to make a swim for it, they found Indians waiting on both sides of the banks. “[W]hen the attack began, the soldiers had simply thrown the weapons aside. Realizing [there] could be…no use to two dozen unarmed men against scores of Indians, the few survivors fled downstream along the shore or swam downstream as far as they could.” One Seminole warrior who could speak English lured a sergeant and eight dragoons out of the water under the guise of peace and leniency, but several were murdered on the spot, their bodies dismembered, and several taken hostage. All in all, eighteen dragoons were reported as having been murdered, alongside two civilians, a trader, two clerks and a pilot. The two “Negro interpreters were captured but later were released by the Indians. The bodies of fourteen [others]…were never found.” By the time word reached Tampa, and by way of travel to Tallahassee, Florida was stunned – the nation shocked. The Caloosahatchee Massacre had, unfortunately, become a turning point, in that frontiersmen’s anti-Indian prejudice, coupled with federal action, had proven powerful enough to drive imperialistic policies down to the farthest corners of the State. In response to the Massacre, the federal government sent in an armed force the likes that had never been seen before. Generals, lieutenants, and colonels with bands of soldiers pierced the Floridian wilderness, leaving no palm frond unturned. Every Indian they came upon was to be captured and deported. This effort, year after year, was successful in removing the remaining portions of Seminoles and Miccosukee from the territory to what is today Oklahoma. Only small numbers of Natives remained in obscured locations. By 1842, the hostilities ceased, most likely due to the fact that there were no longer any significant threats from bands of Indians, though no official armistice or peace treaty ever materialized. The few remaining Seminoles in the area once again broke out into warfare over land acquisition in what was known as the Third Seminole War of 1855 – 1858. However, they no longer stood a chance, as “[c]onstant military patrols and rewards for the capture of Indians reduced the Seminole population to about 200 when the…War ended in 1858.” What remained of the Seminole Tribe lay hidden in the Everglades, a place of swamp and marshland uninhabitable to the frontiersmen and pioneers seeking land. With these collective efforts, the Natives had been defeated and removed, allowing civilians to safely, but cautiously, move further south in what would become the Pioneer Age of the southwestern region of Florida.
February 14th, 1850
To expedite Indian removal from Florida, Fort Myers was established upon the abandoned site of Fort Harvie (used during the last phases of the Second Seminole War) by order of Major General David E. Twiggs.
May 4th, 1858
124 Seminoles, led by Chief Billy Bowlegs, boarded the steamer “Grey Cloud” at the Fort Myers pier to begin the journey to their new home, Oklahoma.
1858 – 1863
Fort Myers was abandoned by the Army.
1863 – March, 1865
The Fort was occupied by Union troops during this portion of the War Between the States.
Fort Myers again abandoned.
February – March, 1866
The first permanent settlers arrived from Key West: Manuel A. Gonzalez, John A. Weatherford, Joseph D. Vivan and their families. Others soon followed: William S. Clay, John Powell, F.J. and Gus Wilson, Capt. Francis Ashbury Hendry, W.M. Hendry, Charles Wesley Hand, J.J. Blount and others.
First church established in Fort Myers and along the Caloosahatchee. This church today is known as the First United Methodist Church.
Major James Evans became owner of most of the land of what is now Down-town Fort Myers. He employed Julian G. Arista, Deputy Surveyor of Monroe County, to lay out the townsite.
Saturday, Nov. 22nd, 1884
The first issue of the Fort Myers Press published by Editor Stafford C. Cleveland.
August 12th, 1885
Fort Myers became an incorporated town with Howell A. Parker, first mayor. Peter O. Knight, just 21, was elected mayor at the next election.
Thomas A. Edison, who in 1885 had purchased a 13-acre tract from Samuel Summerlin for $275, brought his bride, Mina Miller, to Fort Myers where they spent their honeymoon.
March 27th, 1887
The first electric lights in Fort Myers were turned on at the Edison home.
May 13th, 1887
Lee County (41st county in the state of Florida) elected from the northern portion of Monroe County
Lee County’s first courthouse constructed. It was a frame building constructed on the site where the present courthouse is located.
First brick building in Fort Myers. Today, this building is used by the M. Flossie Hill Dept. Store. For a time, the Town of Fort Myers rented quarters on the second floor for use as a City Hall. Also, the first telephone exchange in Fort Myers was located on the second floor of this building.
January 1st, 1898
The first electric lights for general public and the town of Fort Myers produced by dynamo installed and owned by Albertus A. (Bertie) Gardner.
February 21st, 1900
Fort Myers’ first telephone systems was placed in operation by Gilmer Heitman, with Mrs. Alice McCann employed as the first operator.
May 13th, 1901
The first fire department of the town was organized quipped with a second-hand fire engine, dubbed “Andrew Jackson,” and 25- feet of hose.
The first railroad was completed into Fort Myers by the Atlantic Coast Line. The first regular passenger train arrived Tuesday, May 10th, 1904.
The first automobile arrived aboard a freight car of the train. Henry Barkley helped to unload this vehicle.
The first concrete sidewalks in the town were constructed on First and Main streets.
May 13th, 1911
Legislation passed, setting forth Fort Myers to officially become "The City of Fort Myers."
Lee County and Fort Myers’ first good road was completed from Monroe Street to Punta Rassa. Since a large part of the construction cost was borne by Tootie McGregor, Terry, and her husband, Dr. M.O. Terry, it was named McGregor Boulevard.
The cornerstone of the new courthouse was laid Tuesday, April 13th, 1915 with Masonite ceremonies. The old frame courthouse had been torn down a few months earlier.
The Lee Memorial Hospital, constructed in part with lumber from the old courthouse, was opened in October. The location of the building was at Grand and Victoria.
*Historical Timeline courtesy of the Historic Document Library at the Lee County Clerk of Circuit Court
Fig. 7: First Street, looking east from Hendry, in 1909. The frame buildings at the right were later razed during the Teens to make way for more modern buildings.
Fig. 8: First Street, looking east from Hendry, c. 1920s. The frame buildings are long gone - demolished. In their places, large, imposing brick and stone edifices and buildings stand in their place - a now sophisticated feel.
 Adams, “The Caloosahatchee Massacre,” 376-378.
 Grismer, The Story of Fort Myers, 51-52.
 “The Seminole War,” Florida Department of State, accessed December 8, 2021, https://www.dos.myflorida.com/florida-facts/florida-history/seminole-history/the-seminole-wars/?web=1&wdLOR=cEB971E4E-BDC1-C449-B398-5AADB993383C.
Fig. 1: Banyan Tree - opposite of the Gwynne Institute, photograph taken by Daniel Papanikolaou, 2021, Ft. Myers, FL.
Fig. 2: "Calusa Chief," The Marco Island Historical Society, Artist Exhibit, 2014, Marco Island, FL.
Fig. 3: "About the Museum's Calusa Indian," The Marco Island Historical Society, accessed December 14, 2021, https://themihs.info/museum/.
Fig. 4: "Caloosahatchee River," in Karl H. Grismer, The Story of Fort Myers (Fort Myers, FL: Southwest Florida Historical Society, 1982), 109.
Fig. 5: "Fisherman's palmetto-thatched shelter," in Karl H. Grismer, The Story of Fort Myers (Fort Myers, FL: Southwest Florida Historical Society, 1982), 49.
Fig. 6: George R. Adams, “The Caloosahatchee Massacre: Its Significance in the Second Seminole War,” The Florida Historical Quarterly 48, no. 4 (1970): 371, http://www.jstor.org/stable/30140348.
Fig. 7: Photograph of First Street looking east from Hendry Street, 1909, Historic Ft. Myers's First Street Collection, Imaginarium, History & Science Center, Ft. Myers, FL.
Fig. 8: Photograph of First Street looking east from Hendry Street, n.d., Historic Ft. Myers's First Street Collection, Imaginarium, History & Science Center, Ft. Myers, FL.