Mound Key: Island of Indians, Pirates, Cults, and Goats
By: Mike Jerrard
It was my second attempt to find this small island in the gulf waters of Florida. The first attempt resulted in exhaustion and near dehydration. Had it not been for a fishing boat that offered me water I may not have been able to make this second go. I had made many mistakes this first trip including not bringing the required amount of water needed for the hot mid summer Florida sun and not bringing a map.
My first trip involved taking my inflatable kayak, the same one that had been patched after being punctured by an alligator some months earlier. I was headed down the Estero River in Southwest Florida in the hopes of finding the magical island of Mound Key. Sadly I would never make it to my destination as I somehow made a wrong turn and found myself lost in a maze of water channels amongst tangles of mangroves. I had also made the mistake of not checking the tides and found myself in a constant struggle against the current. I luckily returned home that night with sore arms, physically and mentally exhausted, and with enough bug bites to make one think I had the measles.
My second attempt I took much more care in planning albeit still using my “lucky” alligator ravaged inflatable kayak. I managed to find my coveted island but even then it took some circumnavigating to find the entrance where I could safely come ashore.
Mound Key, or Josslyn’s Key as it once was named, is a small shell midden of an island out in the middle of Estero Bay just south of Fort Myers Florida. What was once the location of the Calusa Indian Empire is now an uninhabited spit of land surrounded by seaside resort high rises and seafood restaurants. Rising 30 feet above the surrounding bay, Mound Key is like Africa’s Kilimanjaro as far as Southern Florida is concerned. With Calusa history dating back over 2,000 years along with Spanish exploration and pirate visits, Mound key is an adventurer’s and archaeologist’s dream.
Before the arrival of Spanish explorers and Jesuit missions, the Calusa empire was vast stretching from Tampa Bay in the North down to the tip of Southern Florida. They were a fierce, brave, and cruel tribe that actually succeeded in driving the Spanish from Mound Key but would ultimately witness their demise within the next few centuries due in part to diseases brought from the Europeans.
Clockwise from top left: Gopher Tortoise , Manatee bones hit by boat propeller , resident island goats , mangroves , pottery sherd , Mound Key cistern
After the Spanish exploration years, Mound Key would become home to pirates, Cuban fisherman, early American pioneers, and even a religious utopian cult know as Koreshanity lead by Cyrus Teed. It would be the remaining members of this cult who would eventually give the land over to the State of Florida where it has become a Archaeological State Park. Today the only inhabitants are a small group of goats and the occasional egret or Gopher Tortoise.
The island is for the most part man made and its location was chosen by the Calusas for its safety from the elements such as hurricanes and invaders. The surrounding waters provided them with an abundance of food in the form of fish and shells which not only gave them a food source but also tools. Today on Mound Key you can still find whelk and conch shells that were fashioned into club heads that were placed on the end of sticks. This may have given rise to the saying “getting conched on the head.”
And it’s not only shell tools that can be found on the island. Other objects such as hand crafted plummets can be found which may have been used for bolas, a hunting weapon, used for fishing, or possibly even a weaving tool. Potsherds are scattered all over the island’s surface as if the Calusa had just left the island a short time ago. Spanish artifacts have also been uncovered which include silver and gold artifacts. It is theorized that possibly upwards of $30 million dollars worth of Spanish riches lay buried in the region to this day. It is this fact which drove me to Florida and Mound Key. It is not the thrill of uncovering treasure for monetary value but rather the wealth of historical significance and understanding which drives my archaeological hunger.
from left: Spanish Olive Jar , unknown metal artifact, calusa pottery sherds
It is important to note that absolutely no collecting or removing of artifacts is allowed on Mound Key as it is a state park. Respecting the laws of the state, I came with no shovel. This however would not deter me from discovering a number of fascinating artifacts. This would include Spanish olive jar fragments, a limestone plummet carved by the Calusa, large heavy lead Calusa made beads, silver artifacts, and even a fossilized shark’s tooth that may have been a pendant or part of a tool.
from left: calusa plummet & fossil shark tooth pendant , calusa silver artifact , calusa lead beads
I would also even come across a gold ring with ties to the Titanic in a way. Engraved with the initials OB and three gold crowns inside the band of the ring signified it was made by Ostby Barton, the largest producer of gold rings back in the late 1800’s. Engelhart Ostby, the co owner who partnered with Nathan Barton to create the company, would end up being 1 of the 1500 some people that perished when the magnificent ship went down. How the ring managed to make its way to this small island will forever remain a mystery.
As I leave the island and its artifacts behind I am pleased to know that not all of its treasures have been looted over the years. If only previous treasure hunters came armed with only cameras as I had, the island would hold a much greater wealth and clearer picture of its history.
It’s not only the island that holds riches, the surrounding waters too are home to incredible living treasure. Manatees and dolphins abound as do a great variety of birds. Its a small piece of rare old Florida that somehow still manages to survive. We can only hope it does not go the way of the Calusa and vanish forever.
Note: I recommend an incredible book on Mound Key if you can manage to find it as it is over 50 years old. Published in 1962 “1,000 Years on Mound Key” by Rolfe Schell is a small but very detailed look at the island.