Fort Myers Beach: A Colorful History
Fort Myers Beach’s reputation as a laid-back beach community hides its original roots as a home to Indians and adventurers. Part of its tumultuous history includes the unlikely combination of pirates, settlers, and mosquitoes. Today, Estero Island and its sister island, San Carlos, form the community of Fort Myers Beach.
Estero Island was once the heartland of the Caloosa Indians. This geologically young barrier island was formed long after Earth’s last ice age. Before the arrival of the white man, the Caloosa Indians used many of the islands off the west coast of Florida as hunting and fishing grounds. “Shell Mounds,” or the remains of their food and community debris, mark Estero Island and other key landmarks around Fort Myers Beach.
Historians agree that Juan Ponce de León and his men were the first to see Florida and gave the lush state its name in the early 16th century. They were followed by other European explorers in search of their fortune. The Caloosa bitterly resisted these arrivals. In 1566, a fortune hunter named Menéndez landed near his hunting grounds on the beach and killed King Carlos, the Chief of the Caloosa, and 20 of his men. It is from this event that the name “Carlos” dominates much of the West Coast nomenclature, including Bahía Carlos, Paso Carlos and Isla San Carlos. The origins of the Caloosa remain a mystery, but some scholars believe they may have traveled on rafts from Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula. In the end, they found the disappearance of many of the diseases that European explorers brought with them, including measles.
Explorers weren’t the only sailors who frequented the western coast. During the 1870s, pirates ruled the shores of Black Island. After the defeat by the United States Navy, a renowned pirate named Black Augustus (after whom the island was later named), took his loot and settled on the island. John Butterfield’s family settled on Mound Key in Estero Bay during that time, providing the elderly pirate with sugar, coffee, and other luxuries in exchange for vegetables. When the pirate finally died, legend has it that he paid the Butterfield family by showing them where to look for treasure. Rumors of forgotten and still buried treasures abound.
The Sam Ellis family were the first white family to stay on Estero Island on Shell Mound in the bay in the late 1870s. Rather than settle permanently, they later moved to Sanibel, where they occupied land in the headland. from Tarpon Bay. Many of the “settlers” who filed the original patents were unable to settle permanently due to storms-fighting difficulties and resulting crop problems. In fact, in 1899, a frost hit Florida with temperatures as low as two below zero in Tallahassee, killing trees, oranges and other fledgling crops. It was so cold in western Florida, legend has it, that thousands of icy migratory birds fell from the sky to freeze to the ground.
The last settler to claim Estero Island in 1914 was Leroy Lemoreaux, who cleared his land and survived by growing vegetables and fishing. In several historical treatises, Lemoreaux reflects on which was the worst predator, the bears and panthers that stalked the island, or the deadly mosquitoes that clouded the air. In the 1890s, the only weapon against marauding mosquitoes was smoke. All of this was before the time when a bridge linked the island to the mainland of the Fort Myers area. In 1921, the first bridge built was a wooden swing bridge that charged 50 cents for five people. The 1926 hurricane devastated it and cut the neck of land that linked San Carlos to the mainland, turning it into an island. Today it is still known as Hurricane Pass.
During the years of World War II, growth throughout Florida leveled off, but in the early 1950s, the area “caught on again.” Fort Myers Beach grew more like a permanent destination than a visitor stop. Tourists were slow to discover Fort Myers Beach as it was at the end of the road and not particularly well lit. There were no motels, although hotels existed and several home courts flourished. Recently, the beach has been “rediscovered” as gentrification projects and new shopping and dining venues open up. A great source of pride for the area is the deep-rooted 4th of July celebrations and the Blessing of the Shrimp Fleet. For several years, the beach was the site of the county’s only big fireworks show. In cooler weather in March, the community celebrates the blessing of the fleet with a week-long shrimp festival, featuring many special dishes based on the popular “rose gold” shrimp.