Information about the aboriginal Indians of the Florida Keys comes from two primary sources. The first, the physical evidence, was left behind by Indians who called these islands home over a millennium ago.
The second comes from early European explorers who wrote letters and military reports. Those records represent the first written accounts of Indians in the Florida Keys and will be addressed in the third installment of this series.
As for the physical evidence, it has been uncovered from Key Biscayne to Key West. Much of it has come from shell middens (garbage heaps), burial mounds and ceremonial sites that held remnants of food sources, pottery shards and human bones. On Key Biscayne, for instance, an oval-shaped mound 75 feet long was discovered. The mound, thought to be a kitchen midden, was unfortunately buried circa 1926 when parts of the island were covered with 2-5 feet of fill dug up from the bottom of the bay. A sand mound used for burial purposes was also discovered on the island.
A 1774 map charted by Bernard Romans noted, “Next to the northward of Elliot’s Kay is a little island, having two small hills on it, whence the Spaniards have called it Las Tetas.” The Spanish place name dates back to at least 1595. The mounds stood out because hills do not naturally occur here. Like the mound on Key Biscayne, the tetas contained remains of food sources like fish bones and conch shells. The island is known as Sands Key today.
Moving south, significant formations were discovered on Key Largo in 1932 near the general location of the Calusa Campground located around mile marker 102. The extensive mixture of mounds and middens suggested a well-defined village. Four primary sites were discovered. Two were large mounds of shell, bone, and pottery shards measuring 175 X 75 feet and 200 X 300 feet. One of the features, a large kidney-shaped mound, measured roughly 100 X 55 feet and was thought to have been used for ceremonial purposes.
Pottery shards recovered from these sites date the age of the village at greater than 1,000 years old. The site was thought to have been abandoned approximately 1200 AD.
The next island, Plantation Key, proved sufficiently piled with Indian mounds to warrant the designation of two adjacent neighborhoods, Indian Mound and Indian Waterways. Both are asphalted with appropriately named streets like Calusa and Tequesta. Four significant mound sites were discovered on the island. Two smaller mounds were found on the Atlantic side, one measuring 65 X 20 feet and the other 105 X 75 feet. The larger of the two stood 4-5 feet high. A small mound was discovered less than a mile south of Tavernier Creek.
Another large mound was thought to have been used by a population of between 50 and 100 people for as long as 1,000 years, but was slowly destroyed during the 1930s and early 1940s. Clarence Alexander once lived near this mound, in a shack near what is the Plantation Key Colony neighborhood today. Alexander worked as a caretaker for Dr. Tallman, a Miami physician who kept a weekend home on Plantation Key. Over the years Alexander collected many photographs and artifacts (including the fish-shaped artifact pictured). Over time, these were sold, given away, or lost in hurricanes.
In addition to mounds found on the Upper and Lower Matecumbe keys, a sand burial mound was discovered on nearby Lignumvitae Key. It measured 50-feet in diameter and was 3-4 feet high. Human remains were discovered 7 inches below the surface. Carbon dating of a skull taken from the mound showed it was 1,800 years old. Other bones in the mound were found to be between 900 and 1,000 years old.
Without going into an island by island accounting of the physical evidence associated with Indians in the Keys all the way to Key West, the following accounts are offered. The first is given by Bernard Roman regarding his 1774 exploration of the Keys: “At Cayos Vacos and Cayo Hueso, we see the remains of some savage habitations, built, or rather piled up of stones; these were the last refuges of the Caloosa nation.”
The second, regarding Key West, is given by Dr. Benjamin B. Strobel and was published in the Charleston Courier, May 12, 1837, “The former residents of Indians on this island is proved by the existence of a number of mounds supposed, to have been burial places. One of those was opened and examined in the year 1823. It contained a number of human skeletons, gold and silver ornaments, domestic utensils, arrowheads, pipes… Immense quantities of human bone found on every part of the island.”
The Spanish place name Cayo Hueso translates to English as Bone Island. Cayo Hueso was bastardized by the English into the island’s modern name, Key West.
Brad Bertelli is a published author of four books on Florida and Florida Keys history. He is the curator of the Keys History and Discovery Center, located at the Islander Resort. His column will appear every other week in The Reporter. Reach Brad with comments and questions at WhyPanic@aol.com.