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Village volunteers learn about the life of the Calusa Indians

January 11, 2019
Island Reporter, Captiva Current, Sanibel-Captiva Islander

Karen Nelson, of the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation, spoke to a group of Sanibel Historical Museum and Village volunteers about the life of the Calusa - the island's earliest inhabitants.

Nelson became interested in the Calusa about 15 years ago. She participated in a few digs, was a tour guide at the Randell Research Center on Pine Island, and served on the board of the Southwest Florida Archaeological Society. She has spent the past five years or so researching a novel about the intense period of interaction between the Calusa and Spanish in the 1560s on Mound Key in Estero Bay.

"We were delighted to have Karen talk to a group of more than 30 of our volunteers," Executive Director Emilie Alfino said. "Our volunteers are always anxious to learn more about the history of Sanibel, and the Calusa is a subject that might be overlooked as we all focus on the pioneers of the island. This was a good opportunity to expand everyone's knowledge."

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At its monthly Volunteer Updates, Sanibel Historical Museum and Village volunteers heard from guest speaker Karen Nelson, who spoke about the life of the Calusa Indians.

Nelson's interest in the Calusa started back in 2002, when SCCF offered a Mound Key cruise and a native plant tour to Randell Research Center. Captiva Cruises took the students over to Pineland, and Nelson tagged along to write a story for the Sanibel-Captiva Islander, for which she was a reporter.

"The following Saturday, I returned to Randell for their regularly scheduled tour," she said. "At that time, there was no visitor center but basically a small footpath for the trail and some picnic benches by Brown's Mound and a couple of porta-potties. For that first tour, Randy Wayne White was hosting a writing weekend, and he came through the middle of the tour and spoke a little about the Calusa."

"Then, in July 2004, I had the chance to walk the trail with Randell Director Dr. William Marquardt and Dr. John Worth, who was then at Randell as the on-site manager," Nelson said. "Although it was frustrating - I felt that I didn't know enough to ask really good questions - it was that tour that hooked me for good. Dr. Marquardt had his book, 'Calusa and Their Legacy,' coming out that fall and I decided to organize a CalusaFest as a book signing in November."

Hurricane Charley nearly derailed CalusaFest, but she carried on, and people did come.

That 2004 tour also inspired Nelson to write a Calusa novel.

"It's taken a lot of years of start-and-stop research and then writing and rewriting and rewriting, but I'm really close to finishing it," she said, adding that "Calusa Crossroads" focuses on the period of intense interaction between the Spanish and Calusa from 1566 to 1569. "There was a fort and a Jesuit priest on Mound Key, the Calusa capital at the time. A lot of what we know about Calusa culture and religion comes from three surviving letters of the Jesuit priest. It's just a fascinating period."

Nelson made that period come to life in her talk, which was very well received by the volunteers.

"The volunteers were great. They asked wonderful questions, which kept the discussion lively," she said. "The Calusa are part of the history of Sanibel, and the historical village incorporates that."

Called Volunteer Updates, the historical village routinely hosts speaker programs for its volunteers. They are held on the first Monday of each month. The following programs are planned:

- Feb. 4 : Ralph and Jean Woodring

- March 4: Mariel Goss on the formation of the shared-use paths

The Sanibel Historical Museum and Village is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday.

Free guided tours are at 10:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m., based upon docent availability.

Admission costs $10 for ages 18 and older; children and members are free.

For information, call 239-472-4648 or visit online at

The Sanibel Historical Museum and Village is at 950 Dunlop Road.



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