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Calusa Indians. An important tribe of Florida, formerly holding the southwest coast from about Tampa Bay to Cape Sable and Cape Florida, together with all the outlying keys, and extending inland to Lake Okeechobee. They claimed more or less authority also over the tribes of the east coast, north to about Cape Canaveral. The name, which can not be interpreted, appears as Calos or Carlos (province) in the early Spanish and French records, Caloosa and Coloosa in later English authors, and survives in Caloosa village, Caloosahatchee river, and Charlotte (for Carlos) harbor within their old territory. They cultivated the ground to a limited extent, but were better noted as expert fishers, daring seamen, and fierce and determined fighters, keeping up their resistance to the Spanish arms and missionary advances after all the rest of Florida had submitted. Their men went nearly naked. They seem to have practiced human sacrifice of captives upon a wholesale scale, scalped and dismembered their slain enemies, and have repeatedly been accused of being cannibals. Although this charge is denied by Adair (1775), who was in position to know, the evidence of the mounds indicates that it was true in the earlier period.
Calusa Tribe History
Their history begins in 1513 when, with a fleet of 80 canoes they boldly attacked Ponce de León, who was about to land on their coast, and after an all-day fight compelled him to withdraw. Even at this early date they were already noted among the tribes for the golden wealth which they had accumulated from the numerous Spanish wrecks cast away upon the keys in passage from the south, and two centuries later they were regarded as veritable pirates, plundering and killing without mercy the crews of all vessels, excepting Spanish, so unfortunate as to be stranded in their neighborhood.
In 1567 the Spaniards established a mission and fortified post among them, but both seem to have been discontinued soon after, although the tribe came later under Spanish influence. About this time, according to Fontaneda, a captive among them, they numbered nearly 50 villages, including one occupied by the descendants of an Arawakan colony from Cuba. From one of these villages the modern Tampa takes its name. Another, Muspa, existed up to about 1750. About the year 1600 they carried on a regular trade, by canoe, with Havana in fish, skins, and amber. By the constant invasions of the Creeks and other Indian allies of the English in the 18th century they were at last driven from the mainland and forced to take refuge on the keys, particularly Key West, Key Vaccas, and the Matacumbe keys. One of their latest recorded exploits was the massacre of an entire French crew wrecked upon the islands. Romans states that in 1763, on the transfer of Florida from Spain to England, the last remnant of the tribe, numbering then 80 families, or perhaps 350 souls, was removed to Havana. This, however, is only partially correct, as a considerable band under the name of Muspa Indians, or simply Spanish Indians, maintained their distinct existence and language in their ancient territory up to the close of the second Seminole war.
Nothing is known of the linguistic affinity of the Calusa or their immediate neighbors, as no vocabulary or other specimen of the language is known to exist beyond the town names and one or two other words given by Fontaneda, none of which affords basis for serious interpretation. Gatschet, the best authority on the Florida languages, says: “The languages spoken by the Calusa and by the people next in order, the Tequesta, are unknown to us. They were regarded as people distinct from the Timucua and the tribes of Maskoki origin”1 There is a possibility that some fragments of the language may yet come to light, as boys of this tribe were among the pupils at the mission school in Havana in the 16th century, and the Jesuit Rogel and an assistant spent a winter in studying the language and recording it in vocabulary form. Fontaneda names the following among about 50 Calusa villages existing about 1570:
- Ño (explained as meaning ‘town beloved’)
- Tampa (distinguished as ‘a large town’)
Of these, Cuchiyaga and Guarungunve were upon the keys.
Gatschett, Creek Migr. Leg., 1, 13, 1884. ↩