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The First Everglades Explorers, from Ft Myers to the Everglades

Millions visit Everglades National Park each year to witness the beauty of the River of Grass first hand. From alligators to the skunk ape, there is always something interesting to learn or see. Off the beaten path and away from the tourist attractions, the Everglades remains wild and much like it did when the first explorers encountered the vast landscape of sawgrass.

Though much of the development occurring in and around the Everglades occurred less than 100 years ago, the first explorers first encountered the Everglades in its most true and untouched form in 1512. Spanish conquistadors exploring the southern area of Florida’s Gulf Coast encountered native tribes. At this time, 5 tribes of a total of 20,000 individuals inhabited South Florida. The largest tribes were the Tequesta in southeast Florida, the Mayaimi near Lake Okeechobee, and the Calusa in the southwest.

The cultures of these tribes were well established and the cultures thrived by fishing, hunting and gathering wild and natural foods. In fertile areas of the Everglades, it is thought that native populations likely grew corn. Many of these tribes settled near estuaries and on coastal ridges and traveled into the Everglades to establish outpost camps to gather food.

As legendary explorer Ponce de Leon approached Southwest Florida and the Everglades in 1512, after mapping what is now the Florida Keys in search of The Fountain of Youth, he and his ships encountered the Calusa tribe. The encounter resulted in the Calusa damaging the ships and equipment, and even an attempt to board one of the vessels.

After their failed attempt, the Spanish returned in 1521 with more men and supplies necessary to colonize the area. Ponce de Leon was wounded during this attempt and ended up passing away after forced from the area.

For the next 150 years, numerous explorers including Hernando de Desoto and Menéndez de Avilés explored the area and even attempted to establish settlements across South Florida. Desoto led an expedition into the Caloosahatchee region, right in our backyard of Fort Myers Beach. Menéndez was able build several small forts along the Gulf coast of South Florida. None of the settlements could survive due to the hostile native tribes and the harsh climates of South Florida.

One look at the vast landscape of the Everglades will provide you with a glimpse of what Spanish explorers likely encountered during these first expeditions into the area– a beautiful, yet harsh landscape. Native Americans had adapted to the climate and were skilled in surviving off the land they called home. The territorial Native Americans fought to keep their lands as they had existed for many generations, and now it is our turn to do everything in our power to conserve this landscape.

There is only one Florida Everglades and it is our duty to provide you with a glimpse into the natural beauty of the now National Park while still fighting for conservation to keep South Florida preserved for future generations. Had the early explorers been able to settle in this area, the Everglades in its current state may have been lost long ago.