The first settlers to inhabit the Islands were what the historians refer to as the “Mound People” or the “Pile Dwellers.” Dating back to around 1200 A.D., these people later became known as the Calusa Indians. There is significant evidence that suggests there were extensive tribes residing on Sanibel and Captiva.
The Calusa Indians were renowned for building large shell mounds, thus referring to the name “Mound People.” In fact, shell mounds still exist in some locations today. There is a shell mound trail towards the end of Ding Darling wildlife refuge. The Calusa used the mounds for protection from weather and high tides during storms, as well as for worship, rituals and burying their deceased. Lodgings were built atop the mounds to prevent flooding. Some of these lodgings grew so large that they developed into actual cities.
Calusa Indians made great use of the water ways around the island, especially for trade. There was an abundance of shells that were made into tools necessary for survival. They were also well known for producing healthy plants and crops thanks to the convenience of the Gulf of Mexico. As a result, the Calusa became one of the most highly evolved and dominating tribes in South West Florida. They were resourceful people creating jewelry and tools from shells and using the native plants for food, as well as for clothing, fishing nets, and shelter. Most of the native vegetation, such as Sea Grape and Coconut Palms, are still abundant on Sanibel and Captiva today.
As time went on, the Calusa became a community with highly regarded and civilized social structures incorporated with religion and rituals. There were a strong tribe, so other civilizations had difficulty defeating them to gain control of the land. Consequently, they were able to survive on Sanibel and Captiva for hundreds of years, however, not without threat. As the Europeans came, they brought with them Yellow Fever, Tuberculosis and measles, among others. After the introduction of these diseases, in addition to being forced to move into enemy Indian Territory from Sanibel, the Calusa were nearly extinct by the late 1700’s.