Florida Waterfront Communities' Commercial Fishing Heritage
Fort Myers and Surrounding Islands
Like much of the southwestern portion of Florida, the history of the Fort Myers and surrounding islands is rich with tales of Indians, Spaniards, pirates and inventors. The colorful interactions of the early nomads and their battles over the land and coastal resources were the major influence in the formation of the area. Winter residents Thomas Edison and Henry Ford contributed to the modernization and fame of the community.
The fishing history goes back 1700 years to the Calusa Indians who lived off the seafood harvested from the Gulf waters. The Calusa built their villages and temples on mounds of earth and shell sometimes as high as 60 feet. This kept them above high water fluctuations and resulted in an elaborate system of canals and basins. They were able to canoe between the villages and the open Gulf waters. A long, deep canal was dug from one of their major villages at Pine Island to Matlacha, another small camp. It is said to have been 30 feet wide by 5 to 6 feet deep. The beginning of this canal can still be seen in Pineland.
As the Spanish explorers battled for control of the Calusa villages and customs, they also brought with them their deadly diseases such as yellow fever, measles and smallpox. The Indians immune systems were helpless to combat these diseases. By the 1700s, the Calusa nation had deteriorated to almost non-existence. What disease did not take, slave hunters finished off.
Stories of the famous pirates in the area, including Gasparilla, are abundant. It is almost impossible to separate fiction and fact but they all are intriguing tales. As the story goes, his name was Jose Gaspar.Gasparilla came about because it translated to Gaspar, the outlaw. Originally, he ranked high in the Spanish Navy. However, he stole the crown jewels and fell from grace. He escaped from punishment by steeling one of the vessels of the Spanish fleet but not before he gathered some other like-minded cut-throats. He sailed to the Gulf coast of Florida and chose the best of the islands in Charlotte Harbor as his headquarters.
Gasparilla was known as fearless and ferocious. His ship roamed the west coast of Florida searching for likely targets. He never showed any mercy in battle. When capturing a ship, he killed all the passengers and crew except the women whom he made his concubines. Sometimes he held women from wealthy families for ransom on Captiva Island. Many stories indicate he occasionally joined forces with other pirates, including the famous Jean Laffite.
In 1821, Gasparilla decided to quit the pirate’s life. He planned to divide up all of the treasures he had stowed away with his crew. On the day they were to be distributed, he saw a British merchant ship passing near his hideout. Gasparilla could not resist pursuing one last ship. However, when the ship came within firing range it dropped its British flag and raised its United States colors. Dozens of cannon were uncovered on its deck and aimed at Gasparilla’s ship. It was a trap! The British merchant ship was actually the U.S. Navy’s warship – the USS Enterprise.
Gasparilla’s ship was shattered and began sinking. Rather than be captured, Jose Gaspar climbed to the bow of his ship and yelled "Gasparilla dies by his own hand, not the enemy’s." He wrapped the anchor’s chain around his waist. He jumped into the Gulf and disappeared below the waves.The survivors of his crew were captured and later tried as pirates and executed in New Orleans. An annual Gasparilla festival is celebrated in his honor in Tampa.
Making a living by fishing has always played an important role in the development of Pine Island. Spanish fishing camps existed as early as the mid 1700s. A Dutch surveyor, Captain Bernard Romans, hired by Great Britain reported that the Spaniards and Spanish Indians were running thirty vessels and salting a thousand tons of fish each year. According to Romans, they caught huge quantities of mullet but they only took the roe. He claimed a fisherman made about $28,000 for eight months of work back in 1769.
Early in the 1800s, Terevo Padilla came from Spain and set up a fishing camp on what is now Caya Costa. A warehouse and quarters for the fishermen were built. Two more generations of Padillas were born here. Jessie Padilla followed his grandfather’s lead and earned his living as a commercial fisherman most of his adult life.
In the early fishing camps, long seins (nets) were rolled onto huge spools and kept on the beaches. This allowed the fishermen to harvest mullet on a daily basis. They would fillet the fish and remove the roe. Everything would be packed in salt in wooden kegs which Padilla took by boat to Key West. They traded for supplies and money.
In 1831, a law was enacted that required foreigners supplying markets beyond their territories to pay a fee of $500 and post a $2,000 bond. Heavy fines were levied on anyone fishing without a license or trading with the Indians.
The Preemption Act of 1841 was the beginning of the end of Spanish fisheries. This act permitted settlers to claim 160 acres, establish residency and then purchase it for a $1 or $1.25 per acre after six months. Most of the Spanish or Indian fishermen had no legal land titles. Consequently, this drove the fishermen out when the settler’s claim was established.
Fort Myers was one of the first forts built on the Caloosahatchee River where the United States Army set up operations to battle against the Seminole Indians. At the mouth of the River was San Carlos Bay. The area offered convenient waterways, deep-water ports, a warm climate and plenty of game and seafood. It was originally named Fort Harvie and then changed to Fort Myers in honor of Colonel Abraham C. Myers. The fort featured a 1,000 foot wharf and more than 50 buildings.
By 1841 the Seminole War still dragged on. President Andrew Jackson issued an ultimatum to the Seminoles. Their options were to either live on a Florida reservation or go west. The Indians refused and resisted so soldiers pushed hard and forced them farther and farther south. Finally, the war ended in 1858.
Major James Evans, of Suffolk, Virginia, settled on the site of Fort Myers in 1859. He purchased the property from the United States in the 1870s and had a surveyor lay it out for a town site. In 1880, he purchased another 275 acres for 75 cents an acre. The earliest known black settler, Nelson Tillis, arrived in Fort Myers in 1867.
The town of Fort Myers was incorporated in 1885 in Monroe County. Pineapple plantations sprung up along the Caloosahatchee River. Due to the growth of the area, two years later a bill was passed that separated the area into a new county named Lee after General Robert E. Lee. Fort Myers was established as the county seat.
In 1885, Thomas A. Edison visited and was so impressed with the area he built a home and laboratory on the banks. For the next 45 years, Edison and his wife wintered there. He became good friends with Henry Ford who purchased the property next door.
In the early 1900s, stilt fish houses were built out from shore. The larger stilt houses served as ice houses and fish company employees often lived on one side of the ice house. Boats from Punta Gorda delivered ice and supplies to fishermen and their families and picked up the fish to take to market. This method of delivery and pick up lasted into the 1950s. As road and transportation systems advanced, the boat delivery and pick up system declined.
A "building boom" began in 1898 with the construction of the current Murphy-Burroughs home. This seemed to set the standard of some of the area’s most elaborately decorated homes. During the 1920s, growth expanded in all directions from the old fort grounds. The Tamiami Trail opened and linked Fort Myers with Tampa and Miami which increased the growth rate tremendously.
In September 1920, the Tropical New, a semi-weekly newspaper in Fort Myers announced: Air Field on Crescent Beach. It went on to state that aviators from Arcadia as well as other parts of the state could land here. It was the start of tourism in the area.
Before the month was out, pilings were constructed for the new Crescent Beach Bridge. The seven hundred foot toll bridge connected what is now San Carlos Island (then the mainland) with Estero Island.
By July of 1925, land sold in Fort Myers for a new high of $9,000 per acre. The Fort Myers Tropical News spoke of Crescent Beach as Fort Myers Beach in an article about low tides. For the next 10 years, Crescent Beach and Fort Myers Beach were used interchangeably. Crescent Beach was dropped by the late 1930s.
During the early Depression years, many small industries sprang up. One of the most unique was Luke Gate’s Ko-Kee-Na canning factory. People gathered the tiny coquina shells with screen bottom boxes and took them to the factory. Here they were made into "Ko-Kee-Na" broth. This great product sold all over the nation for a few years. Gate boasted that it was a great remedy after experiencing a "rough night." A variety of recipes for coquina chowder can be found on the internet today.
Pink shrimp was discovered in the Tortugas and dozens of shrimp boats began using Fort Myers Beach for their home port. Shrimping became a new source of income for the island community. As many as 150 ships were operating in the Estero Island and Fort Myers area within a year. By 1953, 17.32 million pounds of shrimp were being caught and brought into the island port.
The shrimp industry brought in many other businesses. Groceries became a big item. When the shrimp fleets were getting ready to leave for Campeche, Mexico they would purchase their supplies from the grocery stores at the beach. A trip to Campeche required 20 tons of ice, 2,000 gallons of fuel and 80 hours of travel each way for a 17 day trip. Ten nights of fishing would bring up 10,000 pounds of headed shrimp. Unfortunately, overproduction in 1951 dropped the price of shrimp to $.27 per pound and it was several years before it started to climb. In those years, 4.4 million pounds of shrimp were brought in from the Tortugas and 12.9 million from the Campeche beds.
Louis Kirby Piner and his wife, Mary, moved from North Carolina to St. James City in the early ‘40s. He worked as a commercial fisherman and scalloped for a while before he moved to Matlacha and opened Piner’s Seafood Company. Piner also bought 200 acres of mangrove for less than $500. He dug a canal from the Pine Island Sound area and built a stilted fish house so the crabbers could bring in their catch. This area became known as Piner’s Point. Commercial crabbers sold their harvests to Piner’s Seafood Company. They were cooked and picked and trucked to Fort Myers and as far north as Baltimore and New York.
When the Sanibel Causeway was built in the early 1960s, the scalloping diminished. In the late 1970s, the Department of Natural Resources banned stilt fish houses due to increasing pollution. By that time, they were primarily being used for recreational fishing weekend retreats.
The Piner’s Seafood building was torn down in 1981.
|Time Line of Historical Events|
|1500-1750||Calusa Indians inhabit the islands and live off seafood harvested from the Gulf.
Spanish explorers battle to control Calusa Indians.
|1750-1850||Spaniards develop fishing camps.
Gasparilla and other pirates inhabit the islands.
Fort Myers built on the Caloosahatchee River where the U.S. Army set up operations to battle against the Seminole Indians. The war ended in 1858.
Major James Evans from Suffolk, Virginia settles on the site of Fort Myers.
Thomas Edison built his home and laboratory on the bank of Caloosahatchee River. Henry Ford purchased property next to him. The two became good friends.
Fort Myers was incorporated as part of Monroe County. The area separated and became Lee County (named after General Robert E. Lee) with Fort Myers as the County Seat.
|1900-1950||Stilt fish houses were built out from shore to accommodate commercial fishing families, boats and seafood delivery to and from markets.
Construction expanded in all directions from the old fort grounds.
Tamiami Trail opens and links Fort Myers to Tampa and Miami.
Tourism industry begins in the Crescent Beach, later to be called Fort Myers Beach, area with opening of air field.
World War II brought air bases and military families.
|1950-1990||Pink shrimp was discovered in Tortugas and the shrimp industry was born.
Tourism and business development experienced rapid growth.
Commercial and residential growth has pushed development in all directions in Lee County. According to the Fort Myers Regional Partnership website, the area ranked in the top 25 per cent of 366 Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSA) in terms of personal income in 2008.
Lee County remains one of Florida’s top seafood producing waterfronts with a commercial harvest of over 4.6 million pounds of seafood in 2009 with an estimated dockside value of almost $8 million. Due to its beautiful beaches and vibrant business opportunities, Fort Myers attracts many tourists and new residents every year. In addition to shelling and swimming, recreational fishing is one of the main attractions for tourists.
Fort Myers has the youngest population in Lee County with a median age of 32. It is home to the historic winter residence of Henry Ford and Thomas Edison where collections of their inventions and memorabilia can be viewed. Fort Myers historic, waterfront downtown is undergoing renovation by adding new restaurants, nightclubs, apartments and artistic venues. Fort Myers Beach offers tourists and residents a scenic and quiet getaway.
Pine Island consists of five communities: Matlacha, Pine Island Center, Pineland, Bokeelia and St. James City. All have their own unique appeal. According to the Pine Island Chamber of Commerce, neighborhoods are known by their street names, i.e. the fish, tree or boat streets, etc. The year round population is only 10,000 but during the winter when the snowbirds come down to enjoy the average 70-90 degree temperatures it jumps to 16,000. It is considered by most as a fisherman’s paradise.
-- Matlacha is known for its fishing history but has developed into quite an artistic community with art galleries, shops, restaurants and waterfront cottages and motels. Most tourists just park and walk to fully enjoy the views because almost every home or business backs up to the water. Restaurants along the walk offer a wide variety and since they are a fishing community most have seafood on their menu.
-- Pine Island Center is where the island activities culminate and the locals take advantage of shopping centers, museums, a library, school, parks and other community resources. It is often referred to as "downtown."
-- Pineland is rich in archeological history and historic buildings. The Randell Research Center is located here to study Calusa Indian history in the area. One of the smallest post offices in Florida operates in Pineland.
-- Bokeelia overlooks Charlotte Harbor and is home to tropical fruit and palm tree farms, fishing piers and marinas. Visitors can buy fresh shrimp or fish from commercial fishermen who live there.
-- St. James City has over half of the island’s population. The majority of the homes are located on canals that lead directly to the Gulf of Mexico. Several hard clam farmers have established their businesses in this area.
Sanibel and Captiva Islands are recognized as vacation destinations because of the pristine beaches, art galleries, theatres and upscale resorts and restaurants. The J. N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge is a protected estuarial ecosystem of mangroves and mud flats, where exotic birds, alligators and a variety of fish can be seen.
Brown, Barrett and Adelaide. A Short History of Fort Myers Beach, Estero and San Carlos Islands, Fla., 1965.
d’Ans, André-Marcel. The Legend of Gasparilla: Myth and History on Florida’s West Coast, translated by Marie-Joèle Ingalls.
Dormer, Elinore. The Sea Shell Islands, A History of Sanibel and Captiva, 1975, Vantage Press, Inc.
Fort Myers Chamber of Commerce.
Fort Myers Regional Partnership.
Godown, Marian and Rawchuck, Alberta. Yesterday’s Fort Myers, 1975, Rose Printing Company.
Grismer, Karl H. The Story of Fort Myers, 1949, St. Petersburg Printing Company, Inc.
Jordan, Elaine Blohm. Pine Island, the Forgotten Island, 1982, BookCrafters, Inc.
Lee County Chamber of Commerce.
Photos provided by "Florida Memory" collection, State Library and Archives of Florida.
Schell, Rolfe F. History of Fort Myers Beach Florida, 1980, Island Press.
- Fort Myers Chamber of Commerce
- Fort Myers Regional Partnership
- Lee County Chamber of Commerce
- Museum of Florida History