Living Sanibel: Mound Key Archeological State Park and the Estero River
Located in the heart of the Estero Bay Aquatic Preserve, Mound Key is the ancient home of the Calusa Indians and the highest point of land in Lee County. Currently standing at 32 feet above sea level, Mound Key, when first encountered by the Spanish in 1513, was reported to be nearly twice that height. Archeological evidence indicates that the Calusa first started inhabiting this 125-acre site around 100 A.D. when it was little more than an mangrove-covered oyster bar. Over the ensuing 1,400 years, as the kingdom of the Calusa grew in stature and power, they built a series of three separate mounds that held the cacique’s home (Mound 1), the courtyard (Mound 2) and the large Calusa temple (Mound 3). The term Cacique is the Calusa word for king. At the time of the first European contact it is believed that more than 1,000 Calusans lived on Mound Key and the temple itself was large enough to hold the entire village under its thatched roof.
There is still considerable debate over the origins of the Calusa Indians. With an average height of 5′ 8″ these Native Americans towered over the Spanish explorers, who stood an average of 5′ 2″ at the time. The Calusa were reported to have reddish hair and strong, muscular builds. Although the Spaniards established the New World’s first Jesuit mission on Mound Key in 1566, the Calusa, rather than submit to a religion they did not understand, mysteriously fled Mound Key shortly thereafter and the mission was abandoned by 1569. The Calusa never lost a battle against the Spanish, nor did they ever surrender to them. Sadly, in large part due to their lack of immunity against European diseases, especially small pox and influenza, the Calusa tribe was wiped out by 1750. Many believe the Calusa came up from South America and were not closely related to the North American Indians, though with no lineage available for genetic testing, this theory will likely never be proven.
After the Calusa lost control of Mound Key, it was inhabited by pirates, Cuban fisherman and eventually homesteaders. The Koreshan Unity group that lived up the Estero River from Mound Key eventually purchased much of the island and in 1961, donated their holdings to the State of Florida along with the Koreshan settlement acreage in Estero. Only nine of the 125 acres of Mound Key are privately held by the McGee family of Fort Myers. Mound Key is managed by the park staff at Koreshan State Historical Site.
There is a half-mile long hiking trail that traverses the island, including a walk through the mangrove filled former central canal. The view from the top of Mound 1 is panoramic. It includes views of Fort Myers Beach and the Gulf of Mexico to the west and all of the Aquatic Preserve to the east, south and north. Unlike almost every other trail described in “The Living Gulf Coast,” this one actually has hills. Bird and wildlife sightings, while interesting and diverse, are not the main reason for visiting this site. While hiking up and down these immense shell mounds one cannot help but wonder what the Calusa kingdom must have looked like 600 years ago. The Calusa were the most powerful tribe in Florida. They lived as hunter, gatherers, and thrived in an eco-system that teemed with redfish, snook, oysters, shellfish, manatee and birds. They were a healthy people living in harmony with their surroundings while putting minimal pressures on their environment. That is the reason for visiting Mound Key.
Getting there is half the fun. The easiest way to access this archeological treasure by canoe or kayak is via the Estero River. There are two options for renting a canoe or kayak. The Koreshan State Historic Site rents aluminum canoes for a modest fee, though the rangers suggest you begin your six to seven hour journey before 9:00 a.m. to make it back by the required 5:00 p.m. deadline while the other option is to rent a canoe or kayak from the Estero River Outfitters, located at 20991 S. Tamiami Trail (just across U.S. 41 from the Koreshan State Historic Site). They can be reached at 239-992-4050 or via their website at www.esteroriveroutfitters.com.
Paddling the Estero River to and from Mound Key is a wonderful way to spend the day. While the upper section of the river has considerable development, roughly halfway down the Estero River the houses and condominiums disappear and you find yourself paddling along amidst an endless mangrove forest filled with herons, egrets and osprey. It is always advisable to bring a fishing rod along, as these shallow, estuarine waters teem with sport fish. At the mouth of the river you have to traverse a half-mile of open water to reach the island, which is located to the south, southwest. Access to Mound Key itself is through two different landings. The larger landing is located on the northwestern edge of the Key and is better suited for power craft. The other landing is on the southeast side of island and is a better choice for canoes and kayaks. Mosquitos and no-see-ums can be thick so be sure to have bug spray with you. While there are no facilities on Mound Key there are several interesting historical kiosks along the trails that help you get a better grasp of the Calusa culture. Because it is a designated archeological site, picking up any artifacts or shells, even dead ones, are strictly prohibited.
Accessible only be boat, Mound Key is one of Lee County’s most unique destinations. For those interested in visiting the island by motorboat, the closest launch is located at the bay side boat ramp on Lovers Key State Park off of County Road 865. No matter how you get to Mound Key, once atop those thirty-foot hills overlooking the Estero Bay Aquatic Preserve, you’ll know instantly the journey was worth it.
This is an excerpt from The Living Gulf Coast – A Nature Guide to Southwest Florida by Charles Sobczak. The book is available at all the Island bookstores, Baileys, Jerry’s and your favorite online sites.