Sanibel and Captiva Islands

Historians believe that Sanibel and Captiva were formed as a single island around 6000 years ago due to centuries of storm activity. The native Calusa Indians, who skillfully transformed the waterways around the island, were the first-known residents, dating as far back as 2,500 years, They ate conchs, clams, and oysters, using their empty shells for crafting tools. They were also skilled builders, perching their huts high atop shell mounds, some of which still remain intact until today, in order to provide protection from the storms and tides.

In 1513, Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon is believed to have discovered Sanibel Island, which he named after Queen Isabella (“Santa Isabella”) while searching for the so-called “Fountain of Youth”. In 1523, after battling the Calusas for a decade, he eventually suffered an arrow attack at their hands, at which time he retreated to Cuba, where he soon died. However, although the Spanish did not succeed in establishing any permanent settlements, their infiltration introduced both European diseases and slavery to Sanibel. Overcome by yellow fever, tuberculosis, and the measles, the Calusa people all but became extinct by the late 1700s.

By the early 1800s, the two barrier islands of Sanibel and Captiva soon became a haven for infamous pirates, earning the nickname “The Buccaneer Coast”. The notorious Jose Gaspar, who was rumored to have buried stolen treasure on Sanibel, would also go on to build a prison on Captiva, where he kept his female prisoners captive for ransom. In 1821, Gaspar was finally captured by the U.S. Navy; however, wrapping himself in chains, he jumped overboard from his ship rather than face imprisonment. Although Florida was admitted as the 27th U.S. state in 1845, it was only after the American Civil War that increased military activity was able to finally secure the island and deem it safe for settlers. In 1884, the Sanibel Lighthouse (above) was first lit, and it has remained a working lighthouse until the present day.

Pulitzer Prize-winning political cartoonist and noted conservationist Jay Norwood “Ding” Darling, who first “discovered” Sanibel Island on a trip in 1935, wintered on Captiva for many years, actively campaigning for federal protection of the island’s fragile ecosystem. Finally, in 1945, over 6,300 acres of mangrove, bay, and estuary became the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge (below), and is home today to over 300 species of bird, 50 species of reptile and amphibian, and more than 30 types of mammal, including raccoons, bobcats, river otters, and marsh rabbits.

  • Visited: 1983, 2014

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