Sanibel and Captiva History and Fun Facts


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Sanibel and Captiva Islands offer visitors serene beauty, unspoiled beaches, abundant nature, miles of bike paths, sport fishing, sailing, boating, windsurfing, fine dining, shopping, and resorts, all wrapped in tranquil, laid back, island style charm. Unlike other paradise locations, thanks to visionary land-use regulations, the island’s charm will remain unspoiled for generations to come. Buildings along Sanibel’s coastline must be to taller than tree line. Roughly half of the island is a wildlife refuge, with additional lands set aside each year to prevent more development. The islands of Sanibel and Captiva, while only 45 minutes from the Ft. Myers airport seem a world away.

Did you know that Sanibel is only 3 miles wide at the widest point which is Dixie Beach Boulevard and approximately 13 miles long? The island is the year around home to roughly 6500 residents and the population increases in season to over 22,000 residents. For such a small island, Sanibel enjoys a large reputation as a model city and vacation paradise. Over half of the island is conservation and refuge lands set aside to preserve the abundant, diverse wildlife population. Residents and vacationers enjoy over 22 miles of bike paths, world famous shelling beaches, and incredible nature experiences year around.

Island History

How were the islands of Sanibel and Captiva formed?

Almost six thousand years ago sediments deposited from the mouth of the Caloosahatchee River began to form one island as they emptied into the Gulf of Mexico. This boomerang shaped “sand bar”, due to its perpendicular orientation to the coastline and the currents, continued to grow as shells and sand deposited along the newly formed beaches. It is believed that the island became two when a powerful tropical storm swept the coast approximately a thousand years ago creating Blind Pass between Sanibel and Captiva. Since then the Blind Pass has opened and closed several times due to storms.

Who were the first Island Inhabitants?

Twelve thousand years ago nomadic primitive Indians began to inhabit the area around Sanibel and Captiva Islands. It is presumed that these Indians where the ancestors of the Calusa Indians. The Calusa were described as a warring tribe of blood thirsty savages. They were not only fierce warriors, but possessed an elaborate political structure and cultured art forms. The Calusa nation extended from San Carlos Bay across the state of Florida utilizing waterways and canals. Evidence of the Calusa Indians can still be seen through out the barrier islands. In fact the Cabbage Key restaurant and inn sit atop an ancient Indian Mound. These mounds were used as garbage dumps by the tribes. Calusa Indian mounds are scattered throughout the area.

Who were the first Explorers?

Juan Ponce de Leon, the official discover of Florida, sailed into the waters of the Calusa Nation in May 1513. He described the islands of Sanibel and Captiva as “jutted out into the sea”. It is believed that Juan Ponce named the island “Ybel” after the Spanish Queen, Isabella. Historians think that he entered Pine Island Sound around Captiva and inscribed a rock to mark the discovery date. The Pine Island rocks where later discovered around 1926 by a group of fishermen hunting on the sand flats behind a wide band of coastal mangroves. They found an enormous rock that bore the carving “Ponce de Leon – 1513”. Upon his return to Calusa waters in 1521, Juan Ponce once again entered the dangerous waters of the Calusa. Weary from a long voyage and ready to explore the area, the Spaniards began to build a settlement presumably on Punta Rassa. A surprise attack by the fierce Calusa killed eighty of the colonists and delivered an arrow to the leg of Juan Ponce that would prove fatal.

In 1837 in an effort to make Florida safe for development, the Government gave the Calusa two moons to move off the islands to a reservation. Forced to move further inland and south, the Calusa entered Seminole territory. Indians refusing to relocate eventually triggered the Seminole War. Exposure to diseases brought by the Spanish explorers and fierce battles for territory eventually brought an end to the Calusa nation.

Pirate Legends of Treasure

Lafitte, Blackbeard, Black Caesar, and Gasparilla are all said to have plundered the Florida coastline. Pirates made camps on Sanibel, Captiva, Marco, Boca Grand, Cayo Costa, and Pine Island. Hiding treasure in those days was a necessity. If the pirate's camp was raided there was no time to gather valuables. Florida due to its prominent location in the trade route has more buried and sunken treasure than anywhere in the world. Conflicting accounts of pirate legends are surrounded in mystery, leaving many unanswered questions and speculations. Treasure hunters have long sought to locate the millions in gold, silver coins, jewelry and artifacts that remain scattered along Florida's shoreline and coastal waters. Occasionally following a tropical disturbance, treasure lost for centuries is cast by the waves onto the beach. Here are the accounts of two Southwest Florida legendary pirates.

Henri Caesar aka Black Caesar:

Henri Caesar also known as Black Caesar turned to piracy in 1805 during the slave revolt in Haiti. Stealing a ship, he and a group of angry slaves began to raid unsuspecting trade ships on the Spanish Main. When the waters around Cuba and the Bahamas became more difficult to plunder due to the increase in British warships after the War of 1812, Black Caesar was forced to move his operations north to the Gulf of Mexico. It was here that some historians believe that Caesar stashed a treasure cache valued between two and six million dollars. Pine Island is noted a one site of Caesar's stash of treasure. Some of the old trees on the island still bear mysterious pirate markings identical to markings found on Marco Island. The markings have not been deciphered.

Jose Gaspar aka Gasparilla:

During Black Caesar's time in the Florida Gulf waters he met Jose Gaspar also known as Gasparilla. Historians believe that Gaspar allowed Caesar to build a camp on Sanibel near San Carlos Bay for additional protection from the south. Caesars' main headquarters were a heavily fortified encampment on Boca Grande. Jose Gaspar had a cultured aristocratic upbringing but was quite a rogue. At the age of twelve, he kidnapped a young girl for ransom and was given a choice between jail and going to sea in the Royal Spanish Navy. He chose the sea over jail. After being accused of stealing royal crown jewels by his jilted lover, the daughter of the King, he fled Spain. In 1783 he commandeered the "Floridablanca" and vowed to attack any ship flying the flag of Spain. For the next 38 years Gaspar was said to have attacked and plundered over 400 ships in the Gulf waters of Florida. His main camp was located at the mouth of Charlotte Harbor which today is Ft. Myers. It is rumored that he took many of the women as personal concubines and those who were from wealthy families were held captive for ransom in a stockade on the island of Captiva (presumably how Captiva got its name). Jose Gaspar had a falling out with Black Caesar in 1817 after Caesar stole some of Gaspar's captured women for himself. Gasparilla raided Black Caesar's Sanibel camp with such force that he drove the rival pirate to the east coast of Florida. It is believed that the majority of Caesar's treasure cache had to be left when he fled the islands in the Gulf. There are no accounts of the capture or death of Black Caesar after he entered the waters off the east coast. Gasparilla's reign of terror on came to an end in 1891 when he decided to attack a seemingly helpless British Ship which turned out to be the heavily armed American Naval warship the USS Enterprise. As Gasparilla's ship heavily damaged began to sink it is said that Gaspar twisted himself in the anchor chain and with cutlass in hand dove to his death sinking to the ocean floor. What became of the 30 million dollars in gold, silver coins and jewels that were allegedly stashed in 20 treasure chests? Some believe that the 10 pirates left on shore that fateful day loaded them into a long boat and escaped unnoticed up the Peace River to Spanish Homestead. There they bribed the owner of the property with gold to keep quiet while they hid. Many years later almost $300,000 in gold coins where found near Spanish Homestead. To this day the remains of the treasure chests are rumored to be buried along the streams and swamps of the Peace River.

Recent Island History

Who were the first colonists and pioneers on Sanibel?

Due to its fine harbor, pleasant climate and rich soil for farming, Sanibel was the focus of many as a great location for a town. In 1832 workmen were taken to the island to construct five palmetto thatched huts. Dr. Benjamin B. Strobel, a Key West physician and friend of John J. Audubon joined the colonists. The first colonists arrived from New York via Key West on the schooner "Olynthus" and the sloop "Associate". It is not certain when and exactly why these colonists left, but by 1849, the islands were abandoned.

Many Spanish fisheries were located throughout the waters surrounding "San Ybel" and "Captive". The fishermen would take their dried salted catch to Havana to sell. When Florida was bought from Spain, every effort was made to drive the Spanish fishermen from the waters to benefit the American Settlers. During the Government's full scale effort to eradicate the Seminole Indians from Florida, the fighting placed the Spanish fishermen in the cross fire. They were forcefully "encouraged" to relocate. By 1906 the last of the Indians were removed from the island and the few remaining Spanish fishermen had gone.

Homestead Act brought more pioneers….

Colonists again returned under the provisions of the Homestead Act of 1862. Any American citizen who was over 21 and the head of the house hold could claim title to one hundred and sixty acres of land provided they resided and cultivated the land for five years. The Sanibel light station was built and activated in 1884. By 1892 the population had grown to almost 100 residents and the first schoolhouse was built. Farming flourished on the islands producing fine crops of grapefruit, tomatoes, eggplant, and watermelon for the early pioneers until hurricanes in 1921 and 1926 destroyed this lucrative business. Shortly following the Kinzie brothers won the contract to carry the mail to the islands on the Kinzie Brothers Steamship Line. The "Dixie" became a life line for the islanders bringing main, passengers, ice, and fresh food twice a week to the Bailey brothers dock at the Sanibel Packing Company also know as Bailey's store.

Causeway links Sanibel and Captiva to the rest of the world….

Island growth remained slow and steady until the causeway was completed in 1963. Island residents concerned about uncontrolled growth of the two barrier islands formed Sanibel-Captiva Planning Board. Of major concern was the decision to incorporate. Many Captiva residents preferred to remain under the protective umbrella of Lee County. The county's financial support of beach re-nourishment was a major factor in their choice. Sanibel residents however felt differently and wanted more control over the future of their island. On November 5th 1974, a majority of voters at the polls were in favor of the incorporation of Sanibel as a city. Following the incorporation, the Sanibel-Captiva Planning Board members merged with the members of Sanibel Tomorrow (a group formed to coordinate incorporation efforts) to form Committee of the Islands (COTI). This island group is still working today to preserve the best interests of Sanibel and Captiva Islands. The Comprehensive Land Use Plan was accepted by the city council in July of 1976. This plan has allowed Sanibel to shine as an example of what a community can achieve when they look to the future in a disciplined and unselfish manor. Sanibel is truly a model city and will be for generations to come!

Recent Articles about Sanibel and Captiva Islands…

CNN Money Magazine describes Sanibel and Captiva Islands "a family friendly beach lover's paradise"!

The Washingtonian in a recent "Treasures of the Sea" feel that "Shelling Isn't the Only Reason to Visit Sanibel and Captiva Islands, But It's Enough."


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