Florida: Everglades National Park

Ten Thousand Islands
Ten Thousand Islands

Courtesy of National Park Service

Everglades National Park in southern Florida helps to protect the sub-tropical “River of Grass” known as the Everglades. The first national park designated to protect an ecological system (1947), the Everglades has also been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, an International Biosphere Reserve, and a Wetland of International Importance. The Everglades are home to frogs, toads, alligators, hundreds of species of birds, 300 different species of fish, Florida panthers (endangered), crocodiles, and snakes, just to name a few! Just as the diverse fauna and flora have survived for thousands of years in the Everglades, American Indians and later settlers have made this region their home. Everglades National Park invites visitors to experience a subtropical world that is unlike few other places on earth.

The Everglades are subtropical wetlands whose fresh water system begins near Orlando in the Kissimmee River. The water moves from the Kissimmee River to the shallow Lake Okeechobee, which averages 12 feet deep and covers 730 square miles. Historically, during the wet season the water moved from the lake into a slow-moving and shallow 50-mile wide river flowing across the Everglades saw grass and toward the mangrove estuaries of the Gulf of Mexico. Elaborate water control systems now disrupt much of this natural flow of water. Water and fire shaped the Everglades, which experienced frequent flooding in the wet season and droughts in the dry season. The Everglades encompass freshwater habitats, hardwood hammocks, saltwater habitats, cypress swamps, saw grass marshes, mangrove forests, and subtropical pine forests.

Over time, the diverse ecosystems in Everglades National Park have been the home of many pre-contact and historic period American Indian tribes. Major tribes in the area included the Calusa, Tequesta, Jega, Ais, and later the Seminoles. The Calusa, who primarily inhabited the southwestern region of this area, are considered to have been the largest and most powerful tribe in South Florida from 1000 B.C. until the 1700s. Other tribes including the Tequesta, Jega, and Ais, lived along the eastern coast.

Organized as a chiefdom, the Calusa lived in small village communities from the areas west of Lake Okeechobee down to Cape Sable. Many of these villages were at the mouths of rivers, on the coast, along the inner waterways, and along the Ten Thousand Islands. Today, visitors to the park can take a narrated boat tour of the pristine Ten Thousand Islands and imagine what it might have been like to live in a Calusa village in this area. Utilizing the natural bounty, the Calusa thrived by fishing for food on the coast, bays, rivers, and waterways. These hunters and gatherers subsisted on small game, turtles, alligators, shellfish and various plants. The Calusa used the abundance of shells found along the coast and in the coastal mangroves to create tools, jewelry, ornaments, and to construct their communities.

Shell mounds and “shell works” throughout Everglades National Park date back to the Calusa’s habitation of the area. The Calusa created the mounds when they discarded shells that they had used as tool and made other shell formations, called “shell works,” by piling shells and earth upon each other. The Calusa used shells to form high ridges, mounds, platforms, canals, and courtyards. Over many generations, these shell works became a noteworthy part of their villages. While the Calusa tribe declined in the late 1700s due to the introduction of European diseases, their shell middens, shell works, and shell mounds remain in the park as evidence of their way of life.

Just as the remnants of the Calusa’s shell works provide a lasting testament to their civilization, a prehistoric canal in Everglades National Park serves as a physical reminder and a lasting testament to the Tequesta Tribe. The Mud Lake Canal, a National Historic Landmark and one of only a few surviving prehistoric canoe trails in North America, is a well-preserved 3.9-mile aboriginal canoe trail. The canal, which extends 20-30 ft across and is 1-2 feet deep, is associated with the Bear Lake Mound Group, a site thought to have been a Tequesta village. The canal was likely a major travel route and hub of activity that connected the Everglades, Ten Thousands Islands, and the Florida Keys. Although diseases brought by the Europeans decimated the Tequesta by the 1700s as they had the Calusa, the Mud Lake Canal remains as a significant archeological site that allows us to learn about the Tequesta. 

Following the demise of the Calusa and Tequesta tribes and with white settlement spreading throughout northern Florida, other American Indian groups were forced to move south toward the Everglades by the late 1700s. Creek peoples, including the Seminoles and the Miccosukee, filtered into the area in search of places to hunt and settle. While the Seminole and Miccosukee looked for places to re-settle in southern Florida, the British and then the Spanish claimed ownership of the region. By 1818, however, the United States questioned Spain’s ownership of Florida and Andrew Jackson successfully led American soldiers into the area hoping to seize it. By 1821, Florida belonged to the United States. 

In 1830, President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act. This law required that Indians who were residing in any of the States or territories that Jackson had recently claimed for the United States, be removed from their homelands and moved west of the Mississippi. The law resulted in most of the southeastern American Indians being moved from their homelands. While in theory the removal was to be voluntary and peaceful, the government pressured the tribes to agree to unfavorable terms and conditions. The Seminole met the Act with great resistance.

The Seminole Wars ensued, with some Seminoles withdrawing deep into the Everglades to elude troops rather than surrender to the United States government. The wars resulted in the forced relocation of many of the Seminoles, significantly diminishing their population in southern Florida. After the Seminole Wars, which took place in intermittent periods from 1817-1858, some of the Seminoles, as well as the Miccosukee, continued to live in small villages throughout southern Florida. Eventually, events such as the building of the Tamiami Trail (the road that serves as the north eastern park boundary); the establishment of the Everglades National Park; and the institution of systematic water management systems changed the Seminole and Miccosukee way of life in the Everglades. 

Like the Everglades themselves, the lives of American Indians living in and around this region have been significantly altered over hundreds of years. In Everglades National Park, visitors can still experience the natural and cultural landscape of hundreds of years of American Indian cultural heritage.

Everglades National Park, a unit of the National Park System, is located in southern FL. Click here for the National Register of Historic Places files for Mud Lake Canal (text and photos.) The park has multiple entrances and visitor centers including Ernest Coe Visitor CenterFlamingo Visitor CenterShark Valley Visitor CenterGulf Coast Visitor Center. They are all open 365 days a year.

For more information, visit the National Park Service Everglades National Park website or call 305-242-7700.

Last updated: August 7, 2017