Who are the Calusa Indians?

Jacob Queen
Jacob Queen
Woman holding a book
Woman holding a book

The Calusa Indians were a tribe of Native Americans that inhabited the southwest coast of Florida. Most historians believe they were direct descendants of the paleo Indians that lived in Florida up to 12,000 years ago. Their original name was “Calos,” which means “fierce people,” and they were generally well-known for their skill and tenacity in warfare and often described as tall and physically imposing. At their peak, there were as many as 50,000 Calusa, but they died out in the late 1700s and the early 1800s due to a combination of European illnesses, slavery and attacks from other Indian tribes.

Calusa Indians generally built houses near the water, and they were erected on stilts to protect them from floods. Their homes had no walls, and they made their roofs out of woven palmetto leaves. The tribe did not rely on agriculture for food. They probably gathered certain wild fruits and vegetables, but they didn’t actually grow anything. Their primary source of food was meat that they obtained by hunting and fishing.

The Calusa Indians built 15-foot (4.5-meter) canoes out of cypress, and they used them to travel in the ocean and to move up and down the Calooshahatchee River, which was their primary waterway. This ability to travel on water was generally considered a great military advantage for them, helping the tribe dominate southern Florida for many years. According to reports, the Calusa Indians traveled as far as Cuba in their explorations, and they also took advantage of European shipwrecks, which allowed them to gather valuable supplies.

They collected shells near the seaside, and they used these in many different ways. In most of their former villages, there are mounds of shells, which have been excavated for study purposes. Archaeologists have found several different kinds of tools made out of shells, along with pottery and ornamental objects.

According to reports from the time, the Spanish explorers who first encountered the Calusa Indians found that they were quite hostile. The Calusa supposedly sent raiding parties to attack the Spanish encampments. Over time, contact with the European settlers caused problems for the Calusa, primarily because of diseases like smallpox and measles, which decimated their population. In the 1700s, Indian tribes from other southeastern states started to invade their territory, and the tribe was unable to defend itself adequately. Some of the Calusa were captured by invading tribes and kept as slaves, while a few others left Florida and went to Cuba.

You might also Like

Readers Also Love

Discussion Comments


@Tomislav - I am not sure about the shells, but I learned a little about the Calusa Indians and school and found out via Calusa Indian artifacts that have been found that Calusa Indians are also known for their wood carvings.

Apparently the woodcarvings were rather intricate and I think the pictures I have seen (which may quite possibly been replicas) were quite pretty secondary to the wood that is native to Florida that they used.

One has to wonder how they carved the wood - I wonder if that was one of the uses of the seashell tools they made.


When I was in middle school we did a major unit on Native Americans and even in having this in depth unit about the history of the Native Americans I do not remember learning about the Calusa tribe.

But I am sure that even with us trying to cover a lot of information about Native Americans, it would have been impossible to learn about every tribe. Especially considering I grew up in Kentucky, so there were many tribes to learn about that lived where I grew up or near there.

I have always been glad that we learned the harsh reality to parts of our American history. I will never forget learning about the Trail of Tears.

How interesting to think that the Calusa Indians used seashells as art and as tools, considering modern day we still appreciate shells as art.

Does anyone know what the Calusa Indian art looked like, for example, did they use the shells to fill up jars for decoration or did they place shells together to form a picture?

Post your comments
Forgot password?
    • Woman holding a book
      Woman holding a book