Last updated: October 17, 2017
The Calusa was a powerful, complex society who lived on the shores of the southwest Florida coast. Their main waterway was the Calooshahatchee River, which means River of the Calusa. They had a reputation from being a fierce, war-like people, especially among European explorers and smaller tribes.
Known as the "Shell Indians", the Calusa are considered to be the first shell collectors. Unlike other tribes, the Calusa did not make any items from pottery. Shells were used to make items like jewelry, utensils, and tools. They discared shells into huge piles, called mounds, which can still be found in many parts of Florida today. Many groups protect the remaining shell mounds, while archaeologists have studied them to learn about this tribe.
With a population estimated to be around 50,000, they controlled most of Florida. Because they lived along the coast, they were excellent sailers. They defended their lands against other small tribes and European explorers. The Calusa travelled by dugout canoes, which were made from hollowed-out cypress logs. These logs were about 15 feet long. They Calusa used the canoes to travel as far as Cuba, and to sail up and down the coast salvaging goods from shipwrecks.
By the late 1700s, the Calusa had died out. Diseases such as smallpox and measles were brought into their territory from European explorers, which wiped out entire villages. Many Calusa were captured and sold as slaves. Some believe that the remaining members of the Calusa tribe left for Cuba once the Spanish gave Florida to the British in 1763. Once the Calusa disappeared, enemy tribes began raiding their territory.