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Connecting to local culture

Mound Key site blends into the area’s history.

November 8, 2017
Jessica Salmond - News Editor ( , Fort Myers Beach Bulletin, Fort Myers Beach Observer

No, Mound Key is not in the same place as the Mound House.

But, it is rich with cultural and environmental history.

The Mound House is partnering with Fish-Tale Marina to host boat tours to this rich historical site to raise more awareness for historical and archeological preservation.

Article Photos

Mound Key's landing zone is small and hidden in an alcove on the mangrove island's northern edge.

Mound Key is a 126-acre island in Estero Bay, located east and a little north of the southern tip of Estero Island. Now a state park, it used to be one of the main hubs of Calusa civilization.

Mound Key may not be the site of the Mound House, but they have several things in common. They're both at higher elevation than the surrounding area, and both were built up by hand.

Fort Myers Beach's average elevation above sea level is 4 feet. Mound House sits at 13 feet. But Mound Key towers above the rest at 31 feet. It started its life as two mangrove islands that connected together; the Calusa built up shell mounds on the island and even dug out canals to make transportation to the center more convenient.

The Calusa began to inhabit the island circa 2,000 years ago, left about 1,000 years ago for about a century, and then returned. It became the capital of the 50 to 60 different Calusa villages throughout southwest Florida.

At one point in time it's believed approximately 1,000 people lived on this island, said Penny Jarrett, Education Coordinator for the Mound House. She led the first Mound Key tour of the season Friday, Nov. 3.

"It became a more organized, bigger town," Jarrett said of the Calusa's return.

The shallow waters in the bay made for good fish catches, making it an easy place to call home. Oysters and scallops - the two primary building materials of the Mound Key - were also readily available. Evidence suggests that the Calusa had oyster beds they tended and farmed for a regular source of shellfish, Jarrett said.

The Calusa had an extensive trade network throughout what is now Florida and the rest of the country, too - lightening whelk shells, one of the Calusa's seaside tools, have been found in remains of the Cahokia civilization in Illinois. So, when the Spanish explorers arrived on the Calusa's side of Florida, they were met with a war party. Around this time, the Spanish were taking Native Americans as captives and slaves.

"They knew the Spanish meant trouble," Jarrett said.

In 1566, the Spanish made contact with the Calusa ruler, Calos. This name is the derivative for the name of Big Carlos Pass. During an attempt to convert the Calusa to Christianity, Jesuits founded a missionary in 1567 called San Antonio de Carlos, however the mission was short-lived as the Calusa soon left Mound Key. As is a similar story for the rest of Native American groups, the Calusa began to leave, be forcibly removed, suffer from diseases brought by the invaders, and join up with other groups.

"The culture went extinct," Jarrett said.

Cuban fishermen took over Estero Island for salting their fish catches before sending the food back to Cuba. Some of the Calusa began to integrate with the Cubans of the time or moved into Seminole territory. Jarrett said there is a record of two Calusa girls being born in Cuba.

The disappearance of the Calusa was far from the end of Mound Key's history.

The Homestead Act of 1862 passed by President Abraham Lincoln brought pioneers down from the north. The island's first homesteaders were Mary "Mollie" and Frank Johnson, followed by seven or eight other families; Frank was the postman for the group. The little community, made up of fishermen, grew enough to be home to a little schoolhouse, but in the 1900s, many of them moved to what is now the area near Village of Estero.

The Johnson family has remained in the area for generations. Roy Johnson still lives near Fort Myers Beach and can remember the stories his grandfather told him about "Grannie" Mary and Frank. Roy is the great-great-great grandson of Mollie and Frank. He's got a copy of the original homestead deed hanging up at his office.

The Johnsons were some of the first pioneers on the island - but that didn't last long.

"Grannie started giving it away," Roy said. "Frank ruled with an iron fist, but when he left new people would be on the island when he got back."

Mollie was known for her generosity and for always helping those in need and treating everyone like family. Roy said she's always been described as a good woman, and found out from records keepers in Bonita Springs that she was considered the first lady of Bonita Springs.

According to Roy, his predecessors helped Mound Key's next noteable inhabitants get settled. The Koreshans, the followers of Cyrus Teed, who founded what was to be his bizarre religious utopia in Estero, moved to the area in the 1900s. While the majority of the Koreshan Unity community was based on the Estero River, Mound Key was used by the religious colony for farming, Jarrett said.

Roy said the last of his family moved off in the 1930's, but before that, they had helped harbor a few Koreshan deserters who changed their mind about Teed's utopia. Roy's grandfather, Elmer, told him stories about the different curious things he would find on the Key, including human skulls.

The last of the Koreshans deeded their colony to the state in 1961, which included Mound Key. However, about 10 acres of the island have remained under private ownership to the McGee family, of which Daniel McGee is the current owner. Mound Key visitors may occasionally hear the bleating of an animal on the island - the family keeps goats on their property.

The Mound House's website has a list of upcoming dates for the Mound Key tour. Tours attendees board a pontoon at Fish-Tale Marina, visit the Mound House and then disembark on Mound Key, which is only accessible by boat. There is a rough path on the island for visitors to follow to the top of the highest mound, but it is not ADA accessible and can be closed due to bad conditions on the trail.

For more information on the Mound Key tour, visit or call 765-0865. The next trip is scheduled for Nov. 13.

"It's important to understand cultures and how they utilized this environment for thousands of years," Jarrett said. "We want to promote cultural and environmental preservation."



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