The Florida Keys: The Years Before Europeans


The Florida Keys, an archipelago of 1700 islands that covers 137.3 miles, begins at the southeastern part of the Florida peninsula, approximately fifteen miles south of Miami. The Keys expand in a south-southwest arc to the unpopulated Dry Tortugas. The islands stand between the Gulf of Mexico to the west and the Atlantic Ocean to the east. The Keys range about 23.5 and 25.5 degrees North latitude with a climate classified as tropical.

The Geology of the Florida Keys

The Florida Keys, a string of reefs at the edge of the continental shelf, flourished under the sea until the Wisconsin period. At that time, the oceans receded and the seas dropped over 150 feet. The landmass that emerged, made up of coral bedrock and fossil remnants, from the exposed Florida Bay, Hawk Channel, and the Keys.

When the climate warmed about 15,000 years ago at the beginning of the Holocene Epoch, sea levels rose again, returning Hawk Channel and Florida Bay a watery dominion. As global warming continues, water continues to rise. Eventually, if this continues, the ocean will cover the Florida Keys.

Native American in the Florida Keys

Archeologists have discovered sand burial and rock mounds, freshwater sinkholes, and kitchen middens throughout the Keys, suggesting tribal cultures began there as early as 800AD. Piles of bones and shells found in the middens, or ancient campsites, suggest fish, crabs, sea turtles, lobsters, shellfish, and conchs were plentiful and that North Americans – Tequestas, Calusas, and Matecumbes – were seafood lovers.

These hunting and gathering tribes supplemented their primarily seafood diet by hunting deer and racoons for meat. They also gathered wild fruits such as cocoplums, sea grapes, and palm berries. The seafarers wasted nothing. The Native Americans outfitted wooden handles with shark teeth to make knives. They fashioned cups, spoons, and dippers from small shells. From conch shells they made cookware, tools, and implements. They used the center of the conch shell – the spiral columallae – as a primitive drill to make holes in conch larger conch shells. They placed wooden sticks into the conch shells and made clubs and hammers. Additionally, they even used the sharp lips of the conch shells from scrapers, gouges, and axes.

As with many Florida tribes, the Tequestas and Calusas eventually disappeared with the coming of Europeans with diseases and conquering ways. Some of the Teqestas and Calusas migrated or were forced to move to Cuba, where they became known as Spanish Indians. The Creek Indians moved into the southern states where the Tequestas and Calusas lived, but were not welcomed by the European and American settlers. Called Seminoles, a name possibly corrupted from the Spanish word cimarron, meaning wild or from the Creek words ishti semoli, meaning outlanders or wildmen. The Seminole presence led to eventual Seminole wars stretching from 1817 to 1858.