Continuity in Settler Colonialism at Marco Island

Even though millions of tourists and residents have traipsed across this peninsula year after year for well over a century, Florida still seems like a new place. Digging just a little beneath the surface, however, reveals a history as deep as the Roman past undergirding the streets of London, or the history of the Pharaohs looming over Giza in Egypt. The account of anthropologist Frank Hamilton Cushing below, for example, reveals the remarkable similarities between the mounds, middens, and channels the Calusa people left behind on Marco Island with the canals and houses where people on the island live today.

Cushing, a wunderkind anthropologist who took over the ethnology department of the Smithsonian at the the age of 19, “explored” the area in 1896 based on a second-hand account of the mounds and artifacts he heard from a British Army officer at the University of Pennsylvania Museum in Philadelphia. It didn’t take Cushing very long to find what he was after. Cutting through the very fist mangrove he encountered on the fringes of Marco Island, Cushing “dimly beheld, in the sombre depths of this sunless jungle of the waters, a long, nearly straight, but ruinous embankment of piled-up conch shells.” This led him to one of the most significant areas of Native settlement in the State of Florida.

“Threading this zone of boggy bins, and leading in toward a more central point, were here and there open ways like channels. They were formed by parallel ridges of shells, increasing in height toward the interior, until at last they merged into a steep, somewhat extended bench, also of shells, and flat on the top like a platform. Here, of course, at the foot of the platform, the channel ended, in a slightly broadened cove like a landing place…. In places off to the side on either hand were still more of these platforms, rising terrace-like, but very irregularly….”

“It was apparent that this had actually been a central court of some kind, had probably been formed as an open lagoon by the gradual upbuilding on attol-like reefs or shoals around deeper water, of these foundations or ramparts as I have called them….”

“Here… had been a water-court, around the margins of which, it would seem, places of abode whence these remains had been derived–houses rather than landings–had clustered… or else it was a veritable haven of ancient wharves and pile-dwellings, safe alike from tidal wave and hurricane within these gigantic ramparts of shell, where, through the channel gateways to the sea, canoes might readily come and go.”

– Frank Hamilton Cushing, “A Preliminary Report on the Exploration of Ancient Key-Dweller Remains on the Gulf Coast of Florida,” 1896

Notice any similarities in the aerial photos of the island below?

Marco Island Today
Marco Island Area Today

There are similar examples all over Florida. Maybe I’ll share some more some time, unless I finish my dissertation on this subject–among many others!–before I get around to it.