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The Marco Island Historical Museum chronicles the history of the island, the surrounding region, and south Florida. Its primary focus is on the Calusa Indians, who, by the time the Spanish arrived in the early 1500s, controlled an empire comprised of villages and towns stretching across the southern tip of the state. Marco Island was the site of three archaeological excavations, the first of which was conducted by the Smithsonian Institution in 1896. About 1,000 carved wooden prehistoric artifacts were excavated, including the famous Marco Island Cat. Collectively, this was one of the greatest archaeological discoveries in North American history. It is the finest collection of prehistoric artifacts found in a prehistoric site on the continent. In addition to preserving the history of the Calusa people, the museum explores the early pioneer roots of the island as a fishing village, the pineapple plantations that arrived next, and the tremendous economic growth of the island during the 1960s.



Marco Island Historical Museum

Marco Island Historical Museum

Interior view of the museum

Interior view of the museum

The Key Marco Cat

The Key Marco Cat

Modern Day Buildings built on top of Calusa Shell Mounds in Fort Meyers, Florida

Water, Sky, Natural landscape, Coastal and oceanic landforms

Donation preserves legacy of Calusas

Photograph, Newspaper, Publication, News

Sky, Plant, Building, Daytime

   The Calusa people (Also referred to as the shell people) were an empire comprised of villages and towns stretching across the Southern tip of Florida. They lived between the times of the early 1500s and 1600s. Spanish chroniclers referred to them as “Calusa” meaning “the fierce ones” because of their physical traits (Marquardt 2). The Calusa were described as tall in stature and men of great strength. They were also skilled archers and fishers and made many architectural and infrastructural advances, some of which can still be seen today (Florida Historical Society 34).  

    The Calusa, although rich with historical reverence, are remembered for their shell mountains and for their waterway systems. The Calusa were an empire made up of villages and towns with their own intricate waterways and fisheries. Because of their location on the southern tip of Florida, much of the Calusa diet was fish-based. Therefore, the Calusa prioritized their water systems and relied more so on fishers than hunters. The Calusa also created these complex canal systems that allowed them to transport goods at an efficient rate between villages. They would also build shell mountains that served as territorial markers and sometimes burial grounds for their elderly. 

    As previously mentioned, the Calusa were known for their shell mountains. At first, these mounds were thought to have been where the Calusa threw away their trash. The mounds were later discovered to have been territorial markers or burial grounds for their elderly. (Florida Historical Society 8-9). According to William Marquardt, author of the book Culture and Environment in the Domain of the Calusa,“ many of these littoral mounds [were] partly submerged and were built on dry land to later be inundated by sea-level" (Marquardt 60).   

      Most of the landscape in places like Fort Meyers Beach and Sanibel, Florida were constructed by the Calusa out of shell and other earthly materials. The combination of these materials along with sand would come to create the many shell mounds of the empire. These mounds raised up the landscape from under the shallow waters and are remain intact today. An ample collection of these mounds is located on Marco Island, Florida where the Marco Island Historical Museum is now located. 


    The Calusa had extraordinarily complex canal systems that allowed them to transport goods throughout the empire. These canals would usually be mixed “in-between flat-topped mounds, rows of cone-shaped mounds, semi-circular and parallel ridges.” (Florida Historical Society 11). This gigantic estuarian system dominated the Gulf Coast. However, the beauty of it was not documented until the late 19th century (around 1895) when Anthropologist, Frank Hamilton Cushing, and his expedition documenter, Wells M. Sawyer set off to Marco Island. According to the words of Sawyer’s journal excerpts, the Calusa had created “a world of water with islands which looked like great green buttons on the beautiful sea.” (Sawyer) The two expeditioners had heard stories of unusual artifacts being unearthed from the muck of the island. This collection of artifacts was “a culmination of Calusa weapons, tools, and animal and human figures as well as many other preserved relics. Amongst these were technological tools, unlike those of any other native American tribe.  

    Calusa technology was far more advanced than other native Floridians in the area. They included the use of bones from the animals they lived from as well as shells of different textures. They had a dynamic procedure when it came to creating their spear throwers and bows which involved hammering and embossing the tools in varying precious metals. They would also retrieve materials for their tools from Spanish shipwrecks in the area. (Florida Historical Society 9). During this time, the Spanish conquistadors had been gradually colonizing the Florida coast and they had their hearts set on Calusa territory.  


 The introduction of the Spaniards would also mark the abrupt end of the Calusa people. One of the main goals Spain had when coming to the Americas was to convert the natives to Christianity which, for the Calusa, was an impossible task. To convert the Floridians to Christianity, Spainards would often find themselves forcefully compelling or brutally attacking the Calusa as well as many other native tribes who would protest due to their pre-established religious beliefs. Because of this, many Calusa either died from European-introduced diseases or were killed in battle against the Spaniards. Not only were the Spanish conversion efforts proven futile, but deadly as well. Unfortunately, the Spaniards cared little about preserving the legacy of Calusa but through the help of archeologists and Florida natives' bits and pieces of Calusa history are still being unearthed today.

Primary Sources 


Marquardt, W., & Payne, C., eds. (1992). Culture and Environment in the Domain of the Calusa. 

*His artefactual finds and excavations  


Sawyer, Wells. [ca. 1870-1995]. Wells Sawyer Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. 


Secondary Sources 


Society, Florida Historical (1980). "Florida Historical Quarterly, Volume 59, Number 4," Florida Historical Quarterly: Vol. 59: No. 4, Article 1. 


Nickel, Helmut, (2021). The Calusa: Marco Island’s earliest settlers. Marco Island Historical Society. 

Image Sources(Click to expand)