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Pineland - The Calusa Heritage Trail

Author: Eric Taubert
Date of Trip: December 2007

"In fourteen-hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue..."

That's how my elementary-school teachers described Christopher Columbus "discovering" America. I've always wondered how someone could discover a place when there were already people living there…there's also the small problem of the fact that Columbus never even set foot on the continent of North America at anytime during his four seaward journeys. Then we have Juan Ponce de Leon who "discovered" Florida in 1513, supposedly while searching for the Fountain of Youth.

Some guys get all the credit. Some guys have all the luck.

"In 1521 Ponce de Leon organized a colonizing expedition on two ships. It consisted of some 200 men, including priests, farmers and artisans, 50 horses and other domestic animals, and farming implements. The expedition landed on the southwest coast of Florida, in the vicinity of Caloosahatchee River. The colonists were soon attacked by Calusa Indians and Ponce de Leon was injured by a poisoned arrow to the shoulder. After this attack, he and colonists sailed to Havana, Cuba, where he soon died of the wound."

This is just a piece of the major history that occurred right in our backyard. The guy who discovered Florida was apparently killed by the people who were already there.

And these are the circles my mind spun in as I pulled out of my southwest Cape Coral driveway and headed for Pine Island Road. Fighting my way through the utility expansion project and dodging diesel-fume spewing dump trucks, I drove across a stretch of land marked with all the signposts of modern development. All the signs of American progress littered the sides of the road, houses being built, parcels of commercially-zoned land with realtor signs on them, strip malls announcing "Grand Openings" and pickup trucks with weather-beaten migrant workers riding, like cargo, in the back.

We all see ourselves as pioneers in this tropical oasis on the Gulf coast…and in some ways we are. Many of us have left families, jobs and hometowns behind us and wagon-trained our Uhauls towards better weather and a different pace of life. We've staked our claims to this land and are living out the moments of our lives amidst its heat, palm trees, beaches and politics. But we aren't the ones who discovered Southwest Florida, and we're certainly not the first to call this piece of earth home. We're just the most recent influx of residents making our mark here. We're only writing the most recent page of a book already thousands of pages long.

Taking a left onto the western end of Pine Island Road turns back the calendar to a less hectic set of years. There's still construction and new development, but on a smaller scale. Before long, mangroves line both sides of the road and quick glimpses of distant water lift the spirits.

Then it's over the "fishingest bridge in the world" and into the pastel curiosity of Matlacha. Fish markets, restaurants and funky art studios blur their way by. Blink and you miss it, so be sure to set your watch to Island Time. Drive slowly and take it in. Stop for a quick beer on the dock at Bert's. Sip it while basking in the hot Florida sun and million dollar views of Matlacha Pass.

Minutes later you'll be on Pine Island, in all its "Old Florida" glory. Vast palm tree nurseries and tropical fruit trees inhabit the background scenery. Roadside stands and agricultural land bump shoulders with lots being cleared for condominium complexes (yes, the ugly giant even rears his head in quiet Pine Island).

Tucked in a hidden corner on the northwestern side of Pine Island is where you'll find Pineland. This is a community steeped in history and well known in archeological circles. Pineland is also home to one of the smallest Post Offices in the United States.

No one knows when Pine Island was first inhabited, but human remains over 6,000 years old have been unearthed here. What we do know is the Calusa Indians inhabited Pineland at least 2,000 years ago, and they stayed there for over 1,500 years.

For a peek into the lives of the true pioneers of Southwest Florida, you need to visit the Calusa Heritage Trail on Pine Island. The 3,700 foot interpretive walkway you'll find there will certainly cast doubt on those Christopher Columbus myths you were taught in grade school.

Operated by the Florida Museum of Natural History's Randell Research Center, the Calusa Heritage Trail winds through 50 acres of the Pineland Archeological site. Shell mounds, canals and middens mark the location of a 2,000 year old Calusa Indian village, the original town of Tampa.

The Calusa were the tribe that once controlled most of South Florida. They were descendants of Paleo-Indians who inhabited Southwest Florida approximately 12,000 years ago. The Calusa tribe once numbered around 50,000 people, and Tampa was one of their largest towns. They were occupying this land and engaging in commerce, culture, religion, politics and family life for over 1500 years before Christopher Columbus was even born.

The Calusa Heritage Trail is located directly across the street from the Historic Tarpon Lodge Inn, Restaurant and Lodge (an excellent place to have a cold drink or a hot meal and watch the sunset on Pine Island Sound, especially in the quiet off-season). Ample free parking for the trail is located right outside the front gate. The small entrance fee is collected by an honor-system donation pole. Squeeze your dollar bills into the small opening and you're off.

At the start of the trail there is a rustic wooden Visitor's Center and Book Shop. A knowledgeable staff member sits in the cramped quarters amidst simple shelves filled with copies of books on the true history of Southwest Florida.

The well-manicured path begins at a fork in the road.

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