Sanibel Island History and Fun Facts
LAST UPDATED: 13 March 2014

Sanibel and Captiva Islands are rich in history with stories of pirate legends, Juan Ponce DeLeon's explorations, nomadic Indians followed by the great Calusa Nation, Spanish fishermen from Cuba, and beyond. Enjoy this summary of some notable milestones in Sanibel history. (Photo shown is a replica of the "Nina" one of Christopher Columbus' ships as it waited for the Sanibel Draw Bridge at dawn. Taken by Mary Ellen Pfeifer in 2003.)

Sanibel & Captiva Facts

Sanibel Island and Captiva Island offer visitors unparalleled serene beauty. Sanibel Island boasts 61% of the island set aside as conservation land, 24 miles of unspoiled shoreline, abundant nature represented by 530 different species of shells, fish, and birds, 25 miles of bike paths, world-class sport fishing, sailing, boating, windsurfing, fine dining, shopping, and resorts, all wrapped in tranquil, laid back, island-style charm. Thanks to the visionary wisdom of island pioneers, Sanibel became a city in 1974 allowing for the incorporation and enforcement of strict building codes and land use plans insuring that Sanibel Island's charm will remain unspoiled for generations to come. From offshore Sanibel appears nearly uninhabited as height restrictions prevent homes and condominiums from rising above the natural tree line and outside lights are dark sky compliant encouraging sea turtle nesting. The word “conservation” is an active verb on Sanibel as organizations continue to acquire land. In 2001, 50% of Sanibel Island was set aside as conservation lands and by 2014 that figure rose to 61% due to ongoing efforts of SCCF and the Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge.

Sanibel is only 3 miles wide at Dixie Beach Boulevard and approximately 13 miles long. The year-round resident population is 6,500 and during the high season this increases to 24,000 residents from February 1st until Easter Week. FUN FACT: Did you know Sanibel Island is the same size as Manhattan, New York?

Enjoy this video comparison of two opposite islands: Sanibel vs. Manhattan.

How were Sanibel and Captiva Islands Formed?

Almost six thousand years ago sediments deposited from the mouth of the Caloosahatchee began to form Sanibel 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 sand bar. It is believed that the island split into two when a powerful tropical storm swept the coast approximately a thousand years ago creating Blind Pass between Sanibel and Captiva. Since then Blind Pass has opened and closed several times due to shifting sands.

Who were the First Sanibel 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 were 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 elaborately constructed canals. Evidence of the Calusa Indians can still be seen throughout the barrier islands. In fact, the Cabbage Key restaurant and Inn sit atop an ancient Indian Mound. These mounds were constructed by discarded shells and functioned in many ways providing relief from shore-dwelling insects, tidal surges, and offered higher vantage points to spot approaching enemies. Across from the Tarpon Lodge on Pine Island, Indian mounds can still be explored as the University of Florida is actively working on this archeological site.

Who were the first Explorers to Discover Sanibel & Captiva?

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 were 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 the 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 Grande, 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 as 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 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 was heavily damaged began to sink it is said that Gaspar twisted himself in the anchor chain and with a 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 onshore that fateful day loaded them into a longboat 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 were 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.

Who were the First Colonists and Sanibel Pioneers?

Due to its fine harbor, pleasant climate, and rich soil for farming, Sanibel Island 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 crossfire. 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. Today, stilt fishing shacks still stand in the backwaters off Pine Island and Cabbage Key. For more information on area, history read A Land Remembered, it is a great account of Florida History especially the cattle trade out of Punta Rassa where the Sanibel Toll Bridge is located today.

Homestead Act of 1862 Brings 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 household 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 lifeline 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. For a great video on Sanibel before the Causeway be sure to watch: Sandbars to Sanibel – Pioneering and Island. This is a video account of island life as it was for the first settlers. The Sanibel Historical Society has preserved many of the island’s first buildings including the one-room schoolhouse, Bailey’s general store, the first post office, Miss Charlotta’s Tea Room, and the Rutledge Home. Today we still have members of several Pioneer families here on Sanibel: The Matthews Family, the Woodring Family, The Bailey Family, & The Gavin Family.

Causeway Links Sanibel and Captiva to the World

Island growth remained slow and steady until the causeway was completed in 1963. Island residents concerned about the 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 the 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 manner. Sanibel is truly a model city and will be for generations to come!