Native Americans of the Florida Everglades

The Calusa utilized canoes in the Everglades.

The Calusa utilized canoes in the Everglades.

Humans have lived in Florida, in some form or another, for more than 15,000 years, though the snowbirds that can be found in the area today are far different than their ancestors who once hunted giant sloths and saber-toothed cats. It wasn’t until nearly 6,500 years ago that the Everglades became the lush, wet landscape that it is today, and human beings started to thrive along with those animals and plants in the area that could adapt to the drastic climate changes that were occurring.

After 3000 BCE, the water table was strong enough in South Florida to support numerous cultures throughout the state, one of which was the Glades people, so named for their proximity to the Everglades. The Glades people encompassed two separate tribes, the Calusa and the Tequesta, though people are much more familiar with the Calusa tribe today. While the Calusa Native Americans were not the only tribe to originally inhabit the area that is today known as South Florida and the Everglades, they proved to be the most powerful, controlling over fifty villages throughout the state and with numbers estimated around 7,000 at their prime.

The Everglades were central to life in the villages of Calusa Native Americans, with many villages located right on the mouths of rivers or on islands in the Florida Keys. And because water was so central to their lives, the Calusa utilized canoes as a means of traveling, often traveling as far as Cuba in their vessels. The Calusa, as well as other South Florida tribes at the time, could often be seen canoeing through the Everglades, as alligators, turtles, shellfish, and small mammals were an integral part of their diet. Much of the wildlife and plantlife in the Everglades proved integral to the lifestyle of the Calusa Native Americans, as many of their tools were fashioned out of reeds or the teeth and bones of their kills.

Unfortunately, like most Native American tribes in the Americas at the time, the Calusa could not hold up against the forces of European expansion. Some were killed outright, most died of illness, and by the start of the 1700’s, they numbered less than 1,000 in total. By this time they had been secluded to the Florida Keys, where they found refuge. Meanwhile, the Tequesta tribe, which were located in more of the Miami area on the east coast of Florida, faced similar problems and had their numbers drastically reduced. Eventually, what was left of the Tequesta merged with what was left of the Calusa, and by around 1820 or so, all Native Americans at the time in South Florida were grouped into a single term, “Seminoles.”

The Seminoles were friendly with the Spanish and were often referred to as “Spanish Indians” by the locals, and they also acted as allies with fugitive black slaves who found their way to Florida. During the Seminole Wars of the 1800’s, the Native Americans fought against U.S. troops who were attempting to speed up the annexing of the state into the union. When there were only a few hundred Seminoles left, the U.S. decided to leave them alone, and the culture still remains alive today as the Seminole Tribe of Florida, established in 1957.

While the Florida Everglades do look drastically different than the area appeared even a few hundred years ago, and further different still then the area appeared during the time when tribes like the Calusa were in their prime, there is much natural beauty to be found here. To truly get deep into the Everglades to view areas not accessible to humans by foot, one should take an Everglades tour by airboat, an experience designed for the whole family to enjoy. Airboat rides are fast, thrilling, and safe, and are the only way to travel in the Everglades today.