The history of Sanibel Island and Captiva Island features rich intrigue and adventure. Historians believe that Sanibel and Captiva were formed as one island about six thousand years ago, as sediment that rose from the sea after being shaped by centuries of storm activity.
Dating as far back as 2,500 years, the native Calusa Indians were the first-known residents of the island. The Calusa skillfully transformed the waterways around the island into abundant riches of food and tools. Whelks, conchs, clams, oysters, and other seafood were used for food, and their empty shells were crafted into tools. The Calusa proved to be skilled builders and craftsmen, perching their huts high atop shell mounds to provide protection from storm tides. Some of their shell mounds, which were also used for ceremonial, ritual and burial sites, remain intact today.
Famous explorer Juan Ponce de Leon is believed to have discovered Sanibel Island – which he named “Santa Isybella” after Queen Isabella — in 1513 while searching for his “Fountain of Youth.” He and his Spanish seamen battled the hostile Calusas for years, and Ponce de Leon eventually suffered a fatal arrow attack at their hands in 1523, at which time he retreated to Cuba and died.
The Spanish were unsuccessful in establishing any kind of permanent settlement. However, their infiltration introduced European disease and slavery to Sanibel, and overcome by yellow fever, tuberculosis, and measles, the Calusa population all but became extinct by the late 1700s.
Legend has it that the barrier islands soon became a haven for infamous pirates. “The Buccaneer Coast” attracted the notorious Jose Gaspar to the region in the early 1800s, where it was rumored that he buried his stolen treasure on Sanibel, and then built a prison on “Isle de los Captivas,” or Captiva Island, where he kept his female prisoners “captive” for ransom. Gaspar himself was captured in 1821 by the U.S. Navy, but wrapped himself in chains and jumped overboard off his ship, rather then face imprisonment.
Indian raids from the Seminole Wars kept settlers and fisherman at bay and discouraged any permanent settlements on Sanibel for several decades. Although Florida was admitted into the Union in 1845 as the 27th state, it was only after the country’s Civil War that increased military activity was able to secure the area and deem the island safe for settlers. In 1870, the U.S. Government ruled that Sanibel Island would become a lighthouse reservation and, on August 20, 1884, the Sanibel Lighthouse was first lit, and remains a working lighthouse to this day.