The Calusa were a Native American people of Florida's southwest coast. Calusa society developed from that of archaic peoples of the Everglades region; at the time of European contact, the Calusa were the people of the Caloosahatchee culture. They are notable for having developed a complex culture based on estuarine fisheries rather than agriculture. Calusa territory reached from Charlotte Harbor to Cape Sable, all of present-day Charlotte and Lee counties, and may have included the Florida Keys at times. They had the highest population density of south Florida; estimates of total population at the time of European contact range from 10,000 to several times that, but these are still speculative.
Calusa political influence and control also extended over other tribes in southern Florida, including the Mayaimi around Lake Okeechobee and the Tequesta and Jaega on the southeast coast of the peninsula. Calusa influence may have also extended to the Ais tribe on the central east coast of Florida.
The Calusa had a stratified society, consisting of "commoners" and "nobles" in Spanish terms. A few leaders governed the tribe. They were supported by the labor of the majority of the Calusa. The leaders included the tribal chief, or "king"; a military leader (capitán general in Spanish), and a chief priest. In 1564, according to a Spanish source, the priest was the chief's father, and the military leader was his cousin. In four cases in which succession to the position of paramount chief is known, Senequne succeeded his brother (name unknown), and was in turn succeeded by his son Caalus. Caalus was succeeded by his cousin (and brother-in-law) Felipe, who was in turn succeeded by Caalus' cousin, Pedro. The Spanish reported that the chief was expected to marry his sister. The contemporary archeologists MacMahon and Marquardt suggest this statement may have been a misunderstanding of a requirement to marry a "clan-sister". The chief also married women from subject towns and allied tribes. This use of marriages to secure alliances was demonstrated when Caalus offered his sister Antonia in marriage to the Spanish explorer Pedro Menéndez de Avilés in 1566.
The Calusa resisted all attempts to convert them to Christianity, remaining true to their own beliefs. They still lived in their homeland and exerted influence on neighboring polities as late as 1698, long after the ravages of European diseases, forced labor, and warfare had devastated North Florida populations. Calusa population had been reduced to perhaps 2,000 by that time.
By 1711, the Calusa had been overrun by armed Creek and Yamasee Indians from present-day Georgia and South Carolina, who sold the south Florida natives to the English as slaves. These northern intruders had been themselves displaced by slave raiding, colonization, and military activities of the English, French, and Spanish. European-introduced diseases, slavery, and war finally took their toll on the Calusa. Following 1711, remnants of Calusa and other groups lived in the Florida Keys, under continuing pressure from Creeks and Yamasees.
Spaniards living in Cuba tried belatedly to rescue some of the beleaguered Indians, but most of those transported died quickly of diseases. A few remnant Indian groups living in the Florida Keys were later contacted by Jesuits in 1743. Although the Calusa had successfully resisted conquest for over 200 years, ultimately they fell victim to political struggles that originated in European colonialism. By the 1750s their culture had been essentially erased from Florida.
Caalus was king or high chief of the Calusa people of Florida during the 16th century. Caalus ruled over one of the most powerful and prosperous chiefdoms in the region at the time, controlling the coastal areas of southwest Florida from Charlotte Harbor to Cape Sable and wielding influence over most tribes in the southern part of the peninsula. He was chief at the time of contact with the Spanish under Pedro Menéndez de Avilés in 1565. He initially sought an alliance with the Spanish, which he hoped to solidify by arranging for his sister Antonia to be married to Menéndez. Ultimately the relationship between the Calusa and the Spanish turned violent and Chief Caalus was captured and executed by Spanish officers.
Early life and succession
Caalus inherited the chiefdom from his father and predecessor, whose name is given by shipwreck survivor Hernando de Escalante Fontaneda as Senquene. This Senquene is known in other Spanish sources as Carlos, leading Spanish scholars sometimes to call his son Carlos II. Judging from Spanish documents, scholars have developed a model of the contentious succession of Calusa paramount chiefs and war chiefs (known as "captains general" to the Spanish) leading up to Caalus. Senquene became chief following the death of the previous chief, his brother, in what some Calusa believed was a usurpation. According to these Calusa, the chiefdom should have gone to Felipe, the maternal nephew of both chiefs as well as the adopted son of the first chief. Felipe's father was captain general under Senquene. Caalus became chief upon his father's death; Felipe likewise succeeded his father as captain general.
Caalus had an older sister, later baptized Antonia, whom he loved greatly. By the time of contact with the Spanish Antonia was one of Caalus' wives (according to Spanish reports Calusa chiefs were expected to take their sister as one of their wives). His queen or principal wife, whose name is unknown, was the sister of Felipe. Caalus had several other wives, many of which were daughters of his vassal chiefs. Another relative, Pedro, whom Spanish sources call his "first cousin", eventually succeeded Caalus as chief of the Calusa.
Initial European contact
Pedro Menéndez and the Spanish arrived in the Calusa region in 1565, five months after establishing the settlement of St. Augustine in northeast Florida and ejecting the French Huguenots from their settlement of Fort Caroline. The Spanish landed at Caalus' capital, probably on Mound Key, in September of that year. Menéndez' primary goal in the voyage was to secure the release of Spanish shipwreck survivors living among the Calusa, including his son Juan.
Caalus jumped at the chance for an alliance with the powerful foreigners. He hoped such an alliance would help him finally destroy his people's enemies, the Tocobaga, who lived around Tampa Bay. He also may have hoped it would give him the upper hand in internal struggles in the Calusa political structure. Caalus' position as high chief was also sought by the Calusa war chief ("captain general", according to the Spanish), Felipe, who was even more feared by his people than Caalus himself. Some Calusa believed that Caalus' father Senquene had usurped the chiefdom upon the death of his predecessor, and as such some considered Caalus a usurper as well. According to Felipe, he had been the rightful heir to Senquene's predecessor, and thus should be chief. Historian Stephen Edward Reilly argues that this power struggle was the primary reason Caalus sought an alliance with the Spanish.
Caalus attempted to solidify the alliance with the Spanish by offering to wed his sister, later baptized Antonia, to Menéndez, who very reluctantly accepted. He allowed the Spanish to establish a small outpost and a Jesuit mission, San Antón de Caalus, near Calos village. He also sent several prominent Calusa, including Felipe, a certain Sebastian, and Sebastian's son Pedro (relatives of Caalus), on a trip to Havana. However, relations with the Spanish soon soured. Caalus did reluctantly release his captive shipwreck survivors, but was angered when Menéndez refused to aid him against the Tocobaga. He was further dismayed when Menéndez put off consummating his marriage to Antonia (his chronicler, Solís de Merás, is unclear as to whether they ever consummated the union).
Thereafter, the relationship took a violent turn, as Caalus repeatedly plotted against Menéndez and later, Francisco de Reinoso, the commander of the Spanish outpost. He attempted three times to assassinate Menéndez himself, and the Calusa were routinely hostile towards the Spanish outpost and mission. Reinoso wanted to fight back, but was prevented from doing so by Father Juan de Rogel, who led Mission San Antón. In Spring 1567, however, Reinoso managed to compel Rogel to journey to Havana, allowing him to strike against the Calusa. He had Caalus captured and killed, along with his advisers, and installed Felipe in his place.
Paddling at least 90 miles across the Gulf of Mexico in a dugout canoe is an amazing feat by any modern measure, that this was something done on a regular basis to conduct trade is an indicator of remarkable physical endurance and navigational skills. Of course, as a means of transportation, the canoes of the Calusa were a vital component of their culture, providing transportation and a means to conduct trade throughout south Florida and the Caribbean.
The dugout canoes utilized by the indigenous people of South Florida were long and narrow shallow draft boats, crafted from the trunks of pine or cypress in which fire was used to burn into the trunk, sculpting out the hollow interior of the canoe which would then be finished to a smooth surface with hand tools.
The Calusa diet at settlements along the coast and estuaries consisted primarily of fish, in particular pinfish, pigfish and hardhead catfish. These small fish were supplemented by larger bony fish, sharks and rays, mollusks, crustaceans, ducks, sea and land turtles and land animals.
They caught most of their fish with nets, which were woven with a standard mesh size. Nets with different mesh sizes were used seasonally to catch the most abundant and useful fish available, as well as making fish traps, weirs, and fish corrals from wood and cord.