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Our History Matters: A look at the craft of net making in Manatee County

Fishing nets have been a fixture of our coastal heritage from when Native American’s lived along the Florida’s coast, to the Commercial Fishing Village of Cortez.
Fishing nets have been a fixture of our coastal heritage from when Native American’s lived along the Florida’s coast, to the Commercial Fishing Village of Cortez. The Folk School at Florida Maritime Museum

One of the oldest known crafts is that of making nets, and in particular, fishing nets.

Nets are made from fibers woven into a grid-like arrangement. Fishing nets in particular are well documented throughout history. They have been a fixture of our coastal heritage from when Native American’s lived along the Florida’s coast, to the Commercial Fishing Village of Cortez.

The Calusa Indians lived along the lower Gulf Coast of Florida. They are noted for being a large tribe with influence over other tribes in southern Florida. They did not farm like other Indian tribes of Florida. They fished for food on the coast, bays, rivers and waterways.

The Calusa settlements were situated near estuaries that supplied them with plenty of fish and shellfish. The types of fish that they ate included pinfish, pigfish, mullet and catfish. It is noted that when the Spanish explorer Pedro Memendez de Aviles encountered the Calusa in 1566, that the Calusa mainly served fish and oysters. The fish and shellfish that the Calusa harvested were most likely caught with fishing nets.

One piece of evidence that remains from the Calusa is a small palm fiber fishing net from the Key Marco site in Marco Island excavated by archaeologist Frank Cushing in 1896. The nets made by the Calusa were most likely woven with sabal palm fronds, Spanish moss, willow bark and saw palmetto.

To construct the net, they would have needed to collect strands from the frond, which would resemble long strands of straw. One way to keep stability in twisting the cords is to loop them over a fixed post.

The Calusa would then have taken the strands and twist them clockwise and then counterclockwise to make a twisted cord. As they came close to the end one set of strands, they would then fold in the next set at the middle, resulting in a long twisted cord.

Once the cord was made, the Calusa would then be able to twist it with more cord to make ropes, and carefully knot the cords together to make the fishing nets. To weave the nets together, they used bone and shell gauges. To weigh their nets down, like a seine net, the Calusa would use heavier shells.

Seine nets worked as a wall in the water that were deployed in deeper water and then brought into shallower water where they could then separate their catch.

In the 1880s fishermen and women from Carteret County, N.C., settled in Hunter’s point, now known as Cortez and used fishing nets to catch mullet. They typically made their own nets because net shops were not available in the area.

The material for the net was still purchased from northern shops. The fishing nets were made out of natural fibers such as linen and cotton and were made to be very large. To weave the nets together, they used net needles which were made by the fishermen themselves in their spare time.

The value in making their own nets in that they could make it to their specifications and alter it as needed. Similar to the Calusa Indians, materials were used to weigh the net down, such as lead weights, and to float, such as cork. After the nets were used, the cotton nets were treated with lime (calcium hydroxide) and left to dry before they were used again. This method allowed the cotton nets to withstand the saltwater and be reused.

The surprising thing about fishing nets is that they have not evolved that much from their ancient beginnings. However, the material in which they are made of has changed. If one was to take an ancient net and place it next to a modern net, there would not be much of difference in design. To take your knowledge further and learn more about fishing nets, visit the Florida Maritime Museum.

The Florida Maritime Museum is open to the public from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. For more information go to FloridaMaritimeMuseum.org or call 941-708-6120. If you are interested in a class at The Folk School, please visit FloridaFolkSchool.org.

Danielle Dankenbring is visitor services coordinator at the Florida Maritime Museum. Our History Matters is an occasional series published in the Bradenton Herald.

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