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Calusa Indians in Florida

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An early Spanish writer. Gov. Mendez de Canço, writing in 1598 or 1599, says that the Indians of southern Florida did not live in settled villages because they had no corn, but wandered about in search of fish and roots. Fontaneda, whose information dates from a very early period, has the following to say about the Indians of Calos (Calusa):

These Indians possess neither gold nor silver, and still less clothing, for they go almost naked, wearing only a sort of apron. The dress of the men consists of braided palm loaves, and that of the women of moss, which grows on trees and somewhat resembles wool. Their common food consists of fish, turtles, snails, tunny fish, and whales, which they catch in their season. Some of them also eat the wolf fish, but this is not a common thing, owing to certain distinctions which they make between food proper for the chiefs and that of their subjects. On these islands is found a shell-fish known as the langosta, a sort of lobster, and another known in Spain as the chapin (trunk fish), of which they consume not less than the former. There are also on the islands a great number of animals, especially deer; and on some of them large bears are found.[1]

A later writer says that the Calusa Indians wore gold and other metal on their foreheads, but this was a custom general in the peninsula.[2]

The people in the interior of the country about Lake Okeechobee, which was called by them “the little ocean”1 were probably related to these Calusa. Fontaneda speaks of them thus:

This lake [Mayaimi] is situated in the midst of the country, and is surrounded by a great number of villages of from thirty to forty inhabitants each, who live on bread made from roots during most of the year. They can not procure it, however, when the waters of the lake rise very high. They have roots which resemble the truffles of this country [Spain], and have besides excellent fish. Whenever game is to be had, either deer or birds, they eat meat. Large numbers of very fat eels are found in the rivers, some of them as large as a man’s thigh, and enormous trout, almost as large as a man’s body; although smaller ones are also found. The natives eat lizards, snakes, and rats, which infest the lakes, fresh-water turtles, and many other animals which it would be tiresome to enumerate. They live in a country covered with swamps and cut up by high bluffs. They have no metals, nor anything belonging to the Old World. They go naked, except the women, who wear little aprons woven of shreds of palm. They pay tribute to Carlos, composed of all the objects of which I have spoken, such as fish, game, roots, deer skins, etc.[3]

Still less is to be learned regarding the social organization and religious beliefs of these people. From what has already been said and from what Fontaneda and others relate elsewhere, it is plain that the chief of Calos was head chief either of a very large tribe or of a sort of confederacy centering about Charlotte Harbor and San Carlos Bay, that his power was similar to that of the Timucua chiefs, and that here also there was a class of nobles. The riches and consequently the power of the Calos chief ruling in the latter part of the sixteenth cetitury were greatly enhanced by the gold and silver cast upon his coast in wrecked Spanish vessels from Mexico and Central America. In Laudonnière’s time he had united spiritual with political and social power, for that adventurer learned through a Spaniard who had been a captive in the country of Calos that he made his subjects believe -

that his sorceries and charms were the causes that made the earth bring forth her fruit; and, that he might the easier persuade them that it was so he retired himself once or twice a year to a certain house, accompanied by two or three of his most familiar friends, where he used certain enchantments; and, if any man intruded him-self to go to see what they did in this place, the king immediately caused him to be put to death.

Moreover, they told me, that, every year, in the time of harvest, this savage king sacrificed one man, which was kept expressly for this purpose, and taken out of the number of the Spaniards, which, by tempest, were cast away upon that coast.[4]

This sacrifice is also mentioned by Barcia, but perhaps on Laudonnière’s authority.[5] It is referred to at more length in the notes of Lopez de Velasco from which we have already quoted.[6] He says:

The Indians at Carlos have the following customs:

First. Every time that the son of a cacique dies, each neighbor sacrifices (or kills) his sons or daughters who have accompanied the dead body of the cacique’s son.

Second. When the cacique himself, or the caciqua [his wife] dies, every servant of his or hers, as the case may be, is put to death.

Third. Each year they kill a Christian captive to feed their idol, which they adore, and they say that it has to eat every year the eyes of a man, and then they all dance around the dead man’s head.

Fourth. Every year after the summer begins they make witches, in the shape of devils with horns on their heads, howling like wolves, and many other idols of different kinds, who cry loud like wild beasts, which they remain four months. They never rest, but on the contrary, they keep on the run with fury all the time, day and night. The actions of these bestial creatures are worth relating.[7]

Footnotes

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  1. Doc. Ined., V, pp. 532-533.
  2. Brooks and Lowery, MSS.
  3. Doc. Ined., V, pp. 534-535.
  4. Laudonnière, La Floride, p. 132: French, Hist. Colls. La., 1869, p. 282.
  5. Barcia, La Florida, p. 94.
  6. See p. 374.
  7. Lowery and Brooks, MSS. Translated by Miss Brooks.

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