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Calusa Indians

Calusa Tribe. Said by a Spaniard, Hernando de Escalante Fontaneda, who was a captive among them for many years, to mean “fierce people,” but it is perhaps more probable that, since it often appears in the form Carlos, it was, as others assert, adopted by the Calusa chief from the name of the Emperor Charles V, about whose greatness he had learned from Spanish prisoners.

Calusa Connections. From the place names and the few expressions recorded by Fontaneda, I suspect that the Calusa were connected linguistically with the Muskhogean stock and particularly with that branch of it to which the Apalachee and Choctaw belonged, but no definite conclusion on this point is as yet possible.

Calusa Location. On the west coast of the Peninsula of Florida southward of Tampa Bay and including the Florida Keys. The Indians in the interior, about Lake Okeechobee, while forming a distinct group, seem also to have been Calusa.

Calusa Subdivisions. Unknown, except as indicated above.

Calusa Villages

In the following list the letters S and I indicate respectively towns belonging to the seacoast division and those of the interior division about Lake Okeechobee. Beyond this allocation the positions of most of the towns may be indicated merely in a general manner, by reference to neighboring towns.

Calusa History

Most early navigators who touched upon the west coast of Florida must have encountered the Calusa but the first definite appearance of the tribe historically is in connection with shipwrecks of Spanish fleets, particularly the periodical treasure fleet from Mexico, upon the Calusa coast. These catastrophes threw numerous Spanish captives into the hands of the natives and along with them a quantity of gold and silver for which the Calusa shortly became noted. Ponce de Leon visited them in 1513, Miruelo in 1516, Cordova in 1517; and Ponce, during a later expedition in 1521, received from them a mortal wound from which he died after reaching Cuba.

Most of our early information regarding the Calusa is obtained from Fontaneda (1854), who was held captive in the tribe from about 1551 to 1569. At the time when St. Augustine was settled attempts were made to establish a post among these Indians and to missionize them, but the post had soon to be withdrawn and the missionary attempt proved abortive. The Calusa do not seem to have been converted to Christianity during the entire period of Spanish control. While their treatment of castaways was restrained, in every other respect they appear to have continued their former manner of existence, except that they resorted more and more to Havana for purposes of trade. Outside of a steady diminution in numbers there is little to report of them until the close of the Seminole War. The Seminole, when hard pressed by the American forces, moved south into the Everglade region and there came into contact with what was left of the Calusa. Romans (1775) states that the last of the Calusa emigrated to Cuba in 1763, but probably the Indians who composed this body were from the east coast and were not true Calusa. The Calusa themselves appear about this time under the name Muspa, which, it will be seen, was the designation of one of their towns. On the movement of the Seminole into their country they became involved in hostilities with the American troops, and a band of Muspa attacked the camp of Colonel Harney in 1839 killing 18 out of 30 men. July 23 of the same year Harney fell upon the Spanish Indians, killed their chief, and hung six of his followers. The same band later killed a botanist named Perrine living on Indian Key and committed other depredations. The Calusa may have been represented by the “Choctaw band” of Indians, which appears among the Seminole shortly after this time. The Seminole now in Oklahoma assert that a body of Choctaw came west with them when they were moved from Florida, but the only thing certain as to the Calusa is that we hear no more about them. Undoubtedly some did not go west and either became incorporated with the Florida Seminole or crossed to Cuba.

Calusa Population. Mooney’s (1928) estimate of 3,000 Calusa Indians in 1650 is probably as near the truth as any estimate that could be suggested. No census and very few estimates of the population, even of the most partial character, are recorded. An expedition sent into the Calusa country in 1680 passed through 5 villages said to have had a total population of 960, but this figure can be accepted only with the understanding that these villages were principal centers. In the band that attacked Harney in 1839 there were said to be 250 Indians.

Connection in which they have become noted. When first discovered the Calusa were famous for the power of their chiefs, the amount of gold which they had obtained from Spanish treasure ships, and for their addiction to human sacrifice. Their name persists in that of Caloosahatchee River and probably also in that of Charlotte Harbor. Another claim to distinction is the adoption by their chief of the name of the great Emperor Charles, if that was indeed the case. The only similar instance would seem to be in the naming of the Delaware Indians, but that was imposed upon the Lenni Lenape, not adopted by them.