From the Calusa Period to the High Rise Development
What made Sanibel Island such a Florida treasure? The history is filled with greedy pirates, massive natural disasters, and groups of loyal conservationists who saw the beautiful potential of Sanibel and sought to protect it from the high-rise developers of the world. This is the story of Sanibel Island to remind and update the ongoing community.
The Calusa and the Spanish
The native Calusa Indians lived generations on and around Sanibel Island, using its vast resources to specialize in making conch and shell-made tools and hunting weapons. All of this came to a halt with the arrival of the Spanish in 1513.
Unsurprisingly, conflict and disease eradicated many of the Calusa natives. Perhaps surprisingly, the Spanish did not utilize Sanibel for their needs. By the time the 1700’s rolled around, pirates used the island as a pivotal bartering point. The region became unsafe, a territory best left to the rambunctious and dangerous pirates.
Sanibel Island was its very own tropical Wild West for close to 150 years. While a small Cuban colony held a modest foothold in the region, it was the designation of Florida as an official state in the union in 1845 that began a bold transition for the island and its neighbors.
More and more settlers began expanding their reach to the fringes of the state following its addition to the union. The end of the Civil War further ushered in a new period of prosperity for Sanibel. The United States government sent hundreds of thousands of troops to the south to establish peace and order. Soldiers sent to Sanibel secured it from the still-present pirates, and various groups began to populate the wetlands. The Sanibel Island Lighthouse was built for the local cattlemen and Thomas Edison built a massive winter home in nearby Fort Myers.
Over the course of the last few decades in the 19th century, Sanibel became a small unofficial village. 250 full-time residents securely utilize the local acreage and more homes were built for expected new long-term residents.
The Disintegration of Sanibel
Sanibel had some years of calm, but this all came to an end by 1921. It began with a staggering storm that essentially wiped out all of Captiva, drawing many families away from the area. For better or worse, families had a new option. The mainland of Naples was developing extensively and much faster than Sanibel. With more land to work with (and the new extension of the railroad) Naples became a significant hub for farming, fishing, and trading.
The final nail in the coffin was seemingly smashed into Sanibel in 1926 when another hurricane devastated any remaining farming left. By 1927, only 80 residents lived on Sanibel Island.
It would remain roughly this way for a shocking 30 years.
Building Back Up
A few key land developers saw the potential of Sanibel Island. They sought to build high-rises on the island and develop a super-causeway that ran down the gulf coast. But for decades, Sanibel Island had been quietly existing, untapped and preserved with its majestic beauty.
Like a classic “good guy fights the land developer” story, a small group of conservationists encouraged Florida to formerly buy the land as a nature preserve. The Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation was founded, and the group managed to secure 60% of the island for formal natural preservation.
The J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge became a major piece of this project. It now comprises a massive 6,300 acres of protected land.
Despite this impressive conservation accomplishment, other areas were not immune to land development. This became a major issue when efforts to build a water system caused a breach. To slow down development and properly protect the land already set aside for preservation, a number of groups sought to incorporate the island as an official city.
This was solidified in 1974.
Sanibel Island, Now
The long “hiatus” throughout the middle of the century is arguably what has helped keep Sanibel and Captiva so preserved. The majority of the region is official preserve land.
Due to a fascinating series of events, Sanibel is a prized gulf coast treasure. Protected forever, Sanibel is a lens into another world, where rare birds, manatees and dolphins, and loyal residents live peacefully and undisturbed.