Dr. Ryan Wheeler, former Florida state archaeologist and current director of the R. S. Peabody Museum of Archaeology at the Phillips Academy, Andover, MA, describes Mound Key as “presiding over Estero Bay like a silent monarch.” Rising more than 30 feet above the waters of the bay, between the mainland and Fort Myers Beach, Mound Key is today a state park on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. Historians tell us that Mound Key was Stababa, the capital city of Escampaba, the kingdom of the native Caalus (Calusa) who ruled southwest Florida for untold centuries before the intrusion of European explorers into their ancient world. Mound Key, says Dr. John Worth, associate professor of historical archeology at the University of West Florida in Pensacola, “was ground zero of the European entrance into North America.”
The High Ground
Carbon dating suggests that Mound Key is over 2000 years old. The fact that it was man made, makes its age even more startling.
The 125 acres that comprise this island were created principally by the accumulation, by humans, of oyster shells. The people native to this area were mound builders for at least 3 good reasons: in the watery world of southwest Florida, then and now, elevation is essential for the survival of tropical storm surges; the sea breezes at higher elevations provide relief from biting insects; and at a height of 30 feet or more, you can see anything coming from any direction a long time before it arrives.
The tall, slender people who lived on this mound a half a millennium ago saw the flotilla of 3 Spanish ships coming in May, 1513, long before they entered the bay. It seems that the reputation of the Spanish for armed aggression had preceded them, for the Caalus were not surprised to see the foretold wind-driven sails, the massive hulk of the boats. The order was given to launch war canoes.
Caution being the better part of valor, Juan Ponce de León ordered his navy to fall back out of arrow range. All the way back to Cuba.
In 1521, de León returned, over confidently perhaps, with 200 men, priests, horses and cattle. His intention was to colonize and Christianize and, not incidentally, consolidate his already sizeable landholdings in the Americas. Thinking possibly along the lines of, “Apparently, we didn’t get our point across the first time,” Caalus warriors again met the intruder with volleys of arrows. Sir John took one in the hip and again retreated to Cuba, where he died of infection in the wound.
The Nobleman and the King
Forty-five years later, these persistent Spanish were back. King Calos allowed the Spanish to come ashore in their clumsy rowboats. A well-informed and intelligent leader, Calos knew full well that these ugly, heavily clothed and odiferous people had established themselves in the land to the north. They now had a conquering presence among the Timucua people there, a settlement which they called, St. Agustín. Calos knew that these invaders would not be satisfied with a few nibbles of these peninsular kingdoms. Himself an empire builder, Calos appreciated the motivation and the intent of the Spanish. They were a force to be reckoned with and the best way to protect the sovereignty of his kingdom, a dominion that extended over some 50 towns in the greater part of south Florida, was through alliance, not conflict with these beastly people. After all, might he not turn their technological superiority to his own advantage?
And so, he let them in. The Spaniards, seated in the launch from their flag ship, lifted curious faces to the gleaming white shell mounds rising on either side of the canal by which they entered the king’s city of Stababa. Alive with upwards of a thousand people, this island city with its central and tributary canals arose from sea level in gradations and circling pathways up the ascending mounds of dwellings thatched with palm to a great, central edifice. Above them, outside this edifice, were assembled the highest-ranking nobles of the kingdom, their ornaments of Spanish silver and gold flashing fire from the sun. Captivated, the Spanish stepped out of their launch and were dumbfounded when a seeming native stepped forward to greet them in flawless and cultivated Castilian.
Introducing himself as Hernando d’Escalante Fontaneda, second son of Juan d’Escalante of the royal colony of Colombia, Fontaneda stated that he was the king’s interpreter. With easy grace, he explained to his astonished countrymen that 17 years past, he and his brother, enroute to Spain to further their education at la Universidad de Salamanca, had been shipwrecked. Having made it to shore, they had been captured and brought as tribute to the king’s father, King Senquene. Fontaneda’s lips twisted ruefully when he added that survivors, including his brother, were ritually sacrificed, “I, as you see, being spared.” Smiling, Admiral Pedro Menéndez de Avilés stepped forward and bowed smartly.
Fontaneda led Menéndez and his officers up the long ascent to the top of the king’s mound. They waited, not a little apprehensively, Menéndez squinting with the eyes of a strategist at the magnificent, circling vista of shimmering sea with its islands of deep green mangroves. Sensing a slight movement, he turned. The young king had come out of his house. Calos, inches taller than Menéndez, took one step forward and as sunlight flowed through his towering crown of feathers and opalescent shell beads, Menendez lifted his eyes to the king’s face, his pupils dilating. Lowering his head, he bowed deeply.
The Rise and Fall of Empires
The course of events following this meeting of two worlds would reflect in microcosm the strategic interplay of international relations throughout human history. It is a story of diplomacy, friendship and betrayal, of plots and counterplots, of the execution of kings. A princess is given in marriage to cement an alliance, a king is usurped by a traitor, idols are burned and chiefs dance with the heads of their enemies on poles. The people who called themselves “caalus” or “fierce,” a people who would not be dominated, would not be forced to bow down before false idols, would, nevertheless, begin to die. An engineering people who laced their kingdom with interlocking canals and floated upon these waterways their royalty, adorned with feathers and delicate, whimsically carved bones and pearled shells, the casual movements of their wrists and ankles musical with shell beads, would turn in fury against the king who had betrayed them. These ceremonial people, great mound builders, would finally, wearily, abandon the once fabled city of Stababa, leaving behind the wretched fortress of an occupying army that, without them, dwindled away, also.
But, like the soft seething of an incoming tide, the people came back, fiercely resistant now to outsiders, who came anyway, with farming tools and a false religion, which they did not want, with bacteria, which killed them, with rope to lead them into the dark holds of slave ships. Fleeing south into the keys and inland into the Everglades, thousands were captured by the Creeks, Yemasee and other invader slave hunters who would, themselves, flee the American empire builders a century later.
Nearing extinction, they turned for haven to the masters of La Florida, the Spanish, and in 1763, when Spain ceded the colony of La Florida to England, Spanish ships evacuated the last of the Caalus from Escampaba.
It is not known when the last woman of the Caalus, with the last Caalus child in her arms, left her toe prints in the sand as she stepped into the canoe that took her to the waiting Spanish ship. We do know that among the Caalus emigrants to Cuba was a woman who took the name DeSayas and gave birth, in Havana, to at least 2 baby girls. Archeologists hope that a trace of Caalus blood lingers today in the veins of the Cuban people.