MANATEE HISTORY: The Calusa used dugout canoes to travel on Florida waters

Special to the HeraldMarch 18, 2014 

William Henry Holmes Scowling Mouth Mask from Key Marco site

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The Calusa are a bit of an anomaly.

This native tribe that lived in Southwest Florida at the time of European contact -- and for several hundred years before -- did not practice extensive agriculture like most other Florida tribes. Also unlike most tribes, they built houses on raised mounds and pilings near water.

They were a true maritime people, the first in Florida. Fish was the main staple of their diets, caught in nets and large earthwork fish traps, called weirs. There is also strong evidence of a commercial trade network that extended into the Caribbean, and possibly as far as Central America.

How did a people who didn't even have metal tools manage all this? They were master canoe builders.

On average the Calusa's canoes were around 15 feet for use in lakes, rivers and protected bays. The most common building material was Southern yellow pine. The large amounts of pitch in these trees probably aided in burning out the inside of the log to create the shape. The straight close grain would have helped ensure an even shape to the inside of the hull.

If it is presumed an average canoe was 15 feet long and 2 feet wide, it wouldn't be unreasonable for it to accommodate 300 or 400 pounds of goods, and travel at a walking pace moved by one man with a long paddle or pole.

To take full advantage of their canoe-building, they widened existing creeks and dug navigation canals across islands and inland to make trade within their territory even easier. The largest of these canals was 30 feet wide and 6 to 8 feet deep. In a time without horses or wagons, this was a revolutionary approach, and is likely a large part of why the Calusa were such a powerful tribe.

Power can only extend as far as goods and troops can readily be moved. Not only did this approach allow for moving

goods quickly, but allowed one man to move what would've taken several men to carry.

In addition to the smaller personal-sized canoes, they also built large ocean-going canoes 20 to 30 feet long and as much as 5 or 6 feet wide. These larger canoes were the ones carrying goods to Cuba and the Bahamas, as well as used for trading and raiding up and down the coast.

When Pedro Menendez de Aviles visited the Calusa in 1566, Chief Calos (called Carlos by the Spanish) was brought out to meet Menendez's ship aboard a catamaran made from two canoes with a platform on top. The chief sat inside a thatched shelter on the platform. This is the only reference to native-built multihulls in this part of the world.

There is also conjecture that the Calusa built sails for their canoes. There is a single written reference to it, but no other evidence linked to the Calusa -- although a dugout canoe found north of their territory had what could be a carved notch for a mast step (where the bottom of the mast sits).

They certainly would have had the materials to build woven leaf mat sails, as were used in the Pacific. A paddle over the side as a makeshift keel was a technique used by Seminoles in the mid-1800s. All the pieces are there, but there is no solid evidence for true sailing craft.

Still, it's very likely they used woven mats to help when the wind was coming from behind them. The practice of using something that catches the wind when it is favorable exists worldwide, even in cultures that otherwise do not practice any form of sailing.

If this glimpse into ancient boatbuilding caught your interest, you may wish to attend a lecture on the History of Boatbuilding at the Florida Maritime Museum at 3 p.m. Wednesday.

Reservations are required, but there is no charge. Call 941-708-6120 to RSVP or for further information.

John Beale, education and volunteer coordinator at the Florida Maritime Museum in Cortez, lectures at the museum and around the county on topics related to Florida's maritime heritage.” Every Tuesday, a staff member of the Manatee County Clerk of Circuit Court’s Historical Resources Department will write about Manatee County history for our readers.

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