History Of The Islands

Sanibel Lighthouse

History of the Islands

Island Information


Un-crowded beaches, vast areas of Virgin wilderness … an abundance of wildlife and related surroundings have helped the barrier islands of Sanibel and Captiva become one of the best known resort and retirement areas in the country.

To understand exactly why the charm of these islands is so special, one needs to know something of their origin and their rich, romantic past, Suffice to say that once people become acquainted with Sanibel and Captiva, they will know why their beauty and serenity is so passionately protected through a realistic “Land Use Plan” for orderly and limited growth.

What follows is a compilation of facts for first time visitors and islanders alike who want to know about these two tiny pearls in the strand of barrier islands that fringe the southwest coast of Florida. It includes a historical sketch of their evolution from the distant past to the islands we know today.

History of the Islands

Just off the southwest coast of Florida, in a seemingly remote corner of the world, is a place filled with peace and quiet where shell strewn beaches are kissed by warm breezes off the Gulf of Mexico. The unspoiled barrier islands of Sanibel and Captiva nestles at the mouth of the Caloosahatchee River, steeped in rich romantic history; an island that remains as quiet today as when it began…a tiny speck of sand that collected with others around 3000 B.C. to form what would eventually become a string of offshore islands stretching southward along Florida’s Gulf coast.

Sanibel extends out from the Florida peninsula in an east to west direction, its crescent shaped shoreline facing generally to the south and acting like a huge net collecting shells from the Gulf water. Between Sanibel’s beaches and shell ridges were palm forests, marshes and prairies that spawned migrating wild birds, deer, turkeys, rabbits and quail. Offshore billions of sea lives grew and became food for larger sea life – giant groupers, silver kings, devilfish, sawfish, sharks and sea turtles. Eagles, pelicans and sea birds of every type and size filled the skies as they soared above.

At some time lost to history unwritten, came human occupation. Between 500B.C. and 1 A.D. came inhabitants known as the “Mound People” and the “Pile Dwellers, and then much later those known as the Caloosas.

Somewhere around 1200 A.D., according to radiocarbon evidence, there was an extensive Indian civilization. At least a hundred shell mound cities existed where the people made great hauls of mullet and roe which was cleaned, salted and smoked with low burning buttonwood fires in drying sheds of Palm thatch. These people worshipped in temple mounds and buried their dead in shell banked sand mounds.

So it was when Juan Ponce de Leon sought the sun drenched isle that “jutted out into the seas” some 450 years ago. In 1513, with two caravels and a brigantine, de Leon made his way along Sanibel’s beaches through shoals of San Carlos Bay to what is now Fisherman Key. He is said to have spent 21 days on Pine Island searching for rumored treasure. Ponce de Leon considered the islands “his” by right of discovery under the rule and royal patent of King Ferdinand of Spain. Others visiting the islands after him seemed intent on conquest and taking of slaves.

After that came more explorers. De Cordoba in 1517, Narvaez in 1529, De Solo in 1539. The two latter visits had tragic endings. Then, on February 17, 1566, came Pedro Menendez de Aviles. Menendez stayed for a time and supposedly married the sister of Caloosa Chief Carlos. But in 1567 Carlos decided Menendez was not treating his sister well and saw him as a threat to his people. He ordered the Spaniards to leave and threatened to kill Menendez. Records differ as to who plotted what, but the fact remains that Carlos and 18 to 20 others, be it Indians or chiefs, were beheaded. From then on the Caloosas were so hostile that no Spanish military power was able to ever again establish the slightest foothold on the coast. Missionaries continued to come periodically, but all were turned firmly away.

Next came the friendly Cuban traders and with them white man’s disease like Smallpox, tuberculosis, yellow fever and measles which swept through the Indian villages and thousands perished.

By 1708 there was another threat. A slave route had become established around Point Ybel and up the river to Lake Mayami (Okeechobee today). Those who escaped the slave traders fled to the depths of the Everglades. By 1769 all that inhabited the islands and surrounding areas were but a few Spanish Indians, some fugitive black slaves and a smattering of renegade whites.

Tales of Pirates

The escapades of Lafitte, Blackbeard, Black Caesar, Black Augustus and Gasparilla, linger like the early morning mists among the palms. According to sketchy history, Black Caesar made his home on the Sanibel shell mounds of the Bay. As the story goes, he was a run away slave who, after one haul of 26 tons of silver from a ship on the open seas, had buried his treasure near Miami. But with the arrival of new settlers he grew nervous and moved his cache to Sanibel where there were fewer people to stumble over the hiding place and where he could maintain a better watch on the Gulf and Bays for would be thieves. Unfortunately for Caesar, the widow of a Baltimore Preacher, seeking vengeance because Black Caesar had burned her husband’s eyes out in a ship raid, followed him and located Caesar’s hide out on Sanibel. She contacted the authorities who caught him and took him to Key West where he was tied to a tree and burned to death…the widow herself setting light to the fire.

Another such tale is the one about Jose Gaspar who is purported to have lived on Gasparilla Island and buried his treasure on Sanibel or Useppa Islands. Gaspar is said to have held lovely ladies captive on “Captiva Island”… their wails of despair rising on the lonely nighttime breezes. As the story goes, he captured a Spanish Princess with a group of Mexican Indian girls on a ship bound for Spain, divided the maidens amongst his men, saving the princess for himself. Unfortunately, he fell in love with her – a love she virtually spurned, until in his frustration, he had her lovely head chopped off. It’s reported, she haunted him till the day he died, and that her remains are buried in an unmarked grave on Captiva.

The favorite story ending is that as one of his pursuers advanced upon him, Gaspar wrapped an anchor chain around his legs and jumped overboard…and there he remains, in the water of the pass… beyond the island where his beloved princess lies.

Down through the years, Sanibel’s history continued its colorful route. In 1833 two settlements were established under the Florida Territorial Act. It was this group who first petitioned for a lighthouse on Point Ybel. Shortly thereafter, the government in an attempt to make Florida safe for development decided the Indians would have to be brought under control.

In a subsequent treaty natives to the area were banished to a “reservation” between Charlotte Harbor and the Caloosahatchee River opposite Sanibel. The Indians were given “two Moons” to move off the islands. Most went silently but at night there were campfires, war dances and war cries. Thus the Seminole War began in 1837. In November of that year, Ft. Dulaney was built on Punta Rassa. The Indian uprisings were many and bloody but squelched like tiny bonfires, and when the Seminole War ended in 1842 approximately 300 Indians were left alive.

When Florida seceded from the Union in 1861, there was no one living on Sanibel. As the Civil War dragged on, cattle from upstate became an important commodity. Confederates paid eight dollars a head. But in Havana the rate was two ounces of Spanish gold, so it was not long before Punta Rassa became a major shipping point to Cuba. Federal forces moved to establish camps at Point Ybel and Punta Rassa, but like the pirates of old, cattlemen founds ways to slip through the inside waters of Sanibel and around the Federal blockades.

After the Civil War, in 1868 came an ex-Union soldier named William Smith Allen who landed on Sanibel and set out a crop of Castor Beans. At about the same time , Terevo Padilla, a commercial fisherman from the Canary Islands, established his family on the barrier island of Cayo Costa just 2 islands up the coast and set up fishing camps on Sanibel and Captiva.

Meanwhile the Inter-Ocean Telegraph Company of Newark, New Jersey claimed the old barracks and buildings of Ft. Dulaney and started to string wires throughout the state and southward underwater to Key West and Havana. It was written of the area at the time that it was a “sad and lonely coast with an unfrequented sea”. And so it was. Even by 1875 travelers hardy enough to make their way down the coast could only get board at one small place in Charlotte Harbor or at the tip of Punta Rassa. Most points were reached by the tri-weekly stagecoach from Tampa, and then by sail or steam launch by way of Cedar Key. In spite of the difficulties more pioneers came, among them Samuel Woodring and Edwin Reed. Just after the lighthouse was finally built in 1884, Henry and Eugene Shabahan arrived as the keeper and assistant as a replacement for Dudley Richardson.

The first Sanibel lighthouse was a kerosene burner with a long mantle. The keeper had to climb to the top of the tower, light the burner with a match at sundown, and then go back the next day at dawn to put it out. The lighthouse operated like a clock which had to be wound at regular intervals, with a weight on a rope synchronized so that the flashing light lens sent out a beam every two minutes. The kerosene for it, contained in five gallon cans, was carried up the spiral stairway which was a real ordeal.

At that time there were only five families living on the sprawling islands, all out of site of each other. The lighthouse keepers lived in the two houses at the base of the tower. Henry Shanahan brought his family with him from Key West. They had seven children when his wife died. The nearest house at the time was that of the Rutlands, a considerable distance away, being located near what is now Bailey Road. Not long after Mrs. Shanahan passed away, Mr. Rutland died, leaving his wife Irene with five youngsters. Directly, Henry married Irene and they all moved to the light house. Later they added one more to the brood. By 1889, there were 21 houses and 40 families on Sanibel with a total population of 150. That year Flora Sanibel was born to Samuel and Anna Woodring, who was the first white child to be born on the island. Among the early homesteaders were George Barnes, an evangelist missionary who came with his son and two daughters. They built a place on the Gulf, gradually adding “guest cottages” and calling their settlement “The Sisters”.

When Georgia Barnes married her husband Maj. Edward Duncan, he built her a gorgeous two story rococo-style home with fancy cupolas and porches and they called their home Thistle Lodge. Along with her father’s establishment, it was to be the forerunner of today’s modern Casa Ybel Resort. As homesteaders began to discover Sanibel, the cattle trade, which made the area somewhat famous, began to diminish.

By the late 1880’s railroads on the east coast to Key West spelled doom for the cattle trade here. While eventually the railroad would spell success for Ft. Myers, at the time it came as far as Tampa. To Sanibel transportation still involved railroad owned steamer. But even the steamer could not reach the islands due to shallow waters, so it docked at St. James City on Pine Island. Those wishing to come to Sanibel had to come by small boat. Nevertheless, for the first time Sanibel had regular mail and a dependable transportation service.

By the 1900 mail sacks were put off the steamers at Reed’s Dock, taken by carrier to the post office and from there delivered by horse and buggy, thus establishing one of the first RFD (rural free delivery) routes in the U.S. By mail the islanders maintained their only communication with the outside world and received seed, food, medicine, cloths, lumber, nails and fertilizer. The lives of everyone on the islands depended on timely deliveries.

From the 1880’s to the turn of the century, development bustled along. Across San Carlos Bay, Ft. Myers was becoming a hub of activity. Thomas Edison drew national attention to the town by making it his winter home and establishing a laboratory where he was conducting some very important experiments. The rich and the famous also flocked to St. James City across the sound on Pine Island where the magnificent new San Carlos Hotel was built. And at Punta Rassa the Tarpon House earned quite a reputation as a first class hunting and fishing lodge, attracting the nation’s wealthiest sportsmen.

Meanwhile on Sanibel Island, homesteaders had found paradise. Island farmers such as Frank and E.R. Bailey found the climate allowed for planting from early fall through the following June. Their luscious Sanibel tomatoes soon became famous in the North and the Baileys formed the Sanibel Packing Company. While they were at it, the Bailey Brothers opened a general store on the Bay, which although at a new location, still operates today. The area could rightfully be termed “Paradise” in that the sunny climate was warm and balmy year round and food resources were plentiful – rabbits, gophers, shellfish, turtles, oysters and clams abounded.

So good was the farming that by 1910 everybody was raising vegetables. Steamers came and went regularly, transporting both vegetable crates and friendly passengers. Telephone service became a reality and Teddy Roosevelt visited Captiva. A bridge was built over Blind Pass connecting Sanibel with Captiva and Clarence Rutland started a taxi service with his Model-T Ford. The exact year is widely debated, but it was during one of the two treacherous storms – one in 1921 and another in 1926 – that the swirling current of Pine Island Sound swept across a narrow neck of Captiva. Redfish Pass was born, separating Captiva and upper Captiva.

People and progress had come to Sanibel but it still took three days to get to Ft. Myers and back. You caught the noon steamer, arriving up river that night, conducted your business the next day, and returned home on the morning steamer the third day. It wasn’t until 1928 that the Kinzee Ferry, carrying seven cars and making four trips a day, provided service from Punta Rassa to Sanibel.

During the Depression years Sanibel languished in the sun as she always had. People from the mainland would ferry over, picnic all day and gather seashells. By 1931 collecting shells was such a popular activity that the annual Shell Fair was born. Neither hurricanes nor the Depression could darken the sheer joy of escape the quaint isle of Sanibel had to offer.

But WWII meant ferryboats were requisitioned for troop use. Curtailment of ferry service and a shortage of gas and tires, plus bad roads meant fewer visitors came and fewer trips were made off island. Planes and bombers from the gunnery school in Ft. Myers disrupted the accustomed peace of the islands. On occasion, stray practice bullets ripped through roofs and rainwater tanks.

In 1945 Sanibel was made a State Wildlife Refuge and a large tract was designated a National Refuge. Since then additional acreage has been obtained and added until today the Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge covers over 5000 acres.

After WWI, development accelerated on Sanibel. Electric service was added and roads paved. Life on the islands still moved at a leisurely pace, slower than on other parts of the workaday world anyway. The building of the toll bridge from Punta Rassa to Sanibel in 1963 opened up to the world the paradise that for so long was something of a well kept secret.

In 1974, islanders voted to become a city. Since then they have steadfastly fought to keep a strong hold on Sanibel’s unspoiled natural beauty through a “land use plan” that is strictly enforced. On Sanibel and Captiva where marauding pirates once rested, man’s intrusion will be kept to a minimum. That’s part of the philosophy of all those living here and sharing its beauty. The partnership with nature on the islands, is understanding that its serenity should only be broken by the sounds of people sailing, bicycling, bird watching, collecting shells, sunbathing and enjoying life.

George KohlbrennerGeorge-Kohlbrenner-JNA-vertical

Partner – Broker – Associate
John Naumann & Associates
11509 Andy Rosse Lane, Captiva, FL 33924
1149 Periwinkle Way, Sanibel, FL 33957George@san-cap.com

Call 239-565-8805

Skype: gkohlbrenner