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Visions of the EvergladesHistory Ecology Preservation
By Tommy Rodriguez
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2011 Tommy Rodriguez
All right reserved.
Chapter OneUntil very recently, large portions of South Florida were still covered in vast wilderness. Much of it was home to a flourishing network of tropical wetlands that stretched several thousand square miles, ranging north from the Kissimmee River in Central Florida and down to portions of the northern Keys at Florida Bay. As such, these fertile lands were practically untouched and undisturbed. Of course, that was before the arrival of modern civilization. Today it is only a shadow of what it once was. Human development has altered its natural course, reducing its natural borders and changing its landscape forever.
I often try to envision what this region might have looked like some thousand years back, before the high-rise buildings and shopping mall plazas. Occasionally, I am reminded. Remnants of primitive South Florida are scattered throughout Miami. Some street corners and residential neighborhoods bear the mark of South Florida's past. This can take the form of a wandering Alligator patrolling the South Florida canals, a Great Blue Heron groping for fish at a nearby pond, a flock of White Ibis skipping about in the front yard of a neighbor's house, or even that lone Cypress tree sitting in the middle of a public parking lot looking like it has no place in being there. For me, these are constant reminders of something special that once was.
To a lesser extent, the global iconic image of South Florida's sandy white beaches and coconut-giving palm trees are somewhat deceiving. Or at the very least it doesn't tell the whole story, that's for sure. Granted, our coastlines, beaches, and cities are world-renowned. The cities themselves are grand works of human innovation (of which I am very proud). But the real mystique lies within the peninsula's interior, beyond the city lights and highways. Many remote areas of South Florida are unexplored and unaffected by the human hand. Experts still consider these lush environments to be the most extensive network of interdependent ecosystems in the entirety of North America, and perhaps beyond. Though, only when you cross Krome Avenue at the far west edge of town does this become apparent. Before then, the constant hustle and bustle, and day-to-day commute of a major metropolitan cannot be so easily overlooked. You would never suspect that such a place lay just beyond the city limits. But there it is, and it has a name. We call it the Everglades.
South Florida's history is one marked by change. Florida's Everglades is the epitome of that change. Over the years these lands have been witness to a wide variety of living things that have adapted well to its subtropical climates and wetland habitats. Many groups of plants and animals come and go with the ever-changing landscape, including its human inhabitants. South Florida and the Everglades has been the recipient of many human cultures, peoples, and explores of all kinds. This is the story of these lands - its beginnings, identity, and the inhabitants who called it home.
For most of its history, Florida laid submerged in seawater. It was about 180 million years ago, at a time when Florida was physically connected to the African continent, that Florida had seen some prolonged periods above sea level. Only later did shifting landmasses and climatic changes cause Florida to become a shallow, tropical sea floor. It remained much this way through the Jurassic era and onward, nearing the present day. This would explain the rich sedimentary rock deposits and abundance of fossilized coral found only some feet beneath the South Florida surface.
It is only recently that South Florida rose from the depths of the oceans. I use the word "recently", but with an allegorical tone. Let's be clear. Florida began its transformation into a peninsula some 24.8 million years ago. Indeed, 25 million years may seem like a long period of time, and it is, surely. But on geologic scales it was merely just last month, so to speak. Geological surveys also reveal that Florida was just a small island prior to it becoming a peninsula. Its emergence from the ocean floor almost certainly had to do with the direct effects of several ice ages, which caused sea levels to rise and recede every so often. Florida's Everglades, which is located in the southern region of the peninsula, is even much younger by comparison, forming several thousand years after the late Wisconsin glaciations.
It was around this time period or soon after that Florida's Everglades began shaping and molding into its own, taking the form of a true wetland environment. This transition brought with it many new faces, specifically large land animals that were now starting to make their way into South Florida from the north. Because of its geological makeup and geographical location at subtropical latitudes, the Everglades now became prime real estate for many semi-aquatic species of plants and animals. This set the tone for what we see today.
Even so, it may be worth mentioning that many of the first land animals to make their way into South Florida did not survive later, wetter transitions. The exact cause remains unclear, but some indications seem to point at severe flooding in combination with the arrival of the first human inhabitants. Paelo-Indians hunted large land animals like the Giant Sloth, Saber-Tooth Cats, and Spectacled Bear, as archeological records show. Yes, by this time humans too had arrived, and already the impact on the ecology was felt.
First Human Settlements & the Glades People
The first humans appeared in South Florida roughly 14,000 years ago. At the time of their arrival, South Florida was slightly different than it is today. The terrain was significantly drier and the climate much cooler. Much of it probably resembled the various Pineland habitats we see scattered throughout many parts of Florida today.
Around 6,500 years ago, the Everglades drastically shifted from semi-arid into an exclusive semi-aquatic environment. As the climate changed, runoff overflows of water from Lake Okeechobee poured its way south into what are now the Everglades. Nonetheless, the natives adapted very well, forming settlements all along stretches of the Keys and other coastal regions of higher elevation. Native Indians developed tools, formed complex communities, and trade systems with neighboring tribes. From these new settlements emerged three main groups, which share a similar culture and origin – Okeechobee (named after the lake), Glades, and Caloosahatchee. We will we draw our focus mainly on the Glades people, who eventually gave way to Tequesta and Calusa tribes; the main two Indian cultures of South Florida prior to the arrival of European explorers and conquistadors.
By 3,000 BCE South Florida Indian populations saw a significant spike. The largest concentrated communities were located on the west coast of South Florida. Smaller, scattered bands and groups settled around Lake Okeechobee, the Atlantic coast, the Keys, and the mouth of the Miami River. Trade between neighboring parties was commonplace, which meant making the crossing through Everglades was probably unavoidable. The only other routes were to the south around the peninsula on canoe or to the north around Lake Okeechobee on foot. Land trips likely occurred more frequently during the dry season when water levels are manageable for travel.
Tequesta and Calusa were already the two most recognizable tribes at the time that the Spaniards settled Cuba. Spanish explorer, Ponce de Leon, first made contact with the Calusa tribe in 1513, but was later mortally wounded by Calusa tribesmen on his second voyage to Florida. Calusa territory was located on the southwestern portions of South Florida. The Calusa tribe was greater in size and had political influence over their rivals, the Tequesta. But it is the Tequesta tribe that is historically revered for their hostility towards foreigners (of which De Leon got a taste), unusual cruelty, and tribal rituals that included the sacrificing of infant children. The Tequesta did not have cultivated agriculture like the Calusa, but rather were banded hunter-gatherer types who relied on large game like deer, Alligator, fish, turtle, and occasionally even Manatee. Their diet also included bread made of different types of roots. They wore little or no clothing, as described by Bishop Diaz Vara Calderon in the 1600s. The preferred garment of clothing consisted of breechcloth made of Palmetto Brush for men and skirts made of Spanish Moss for women.
The Tequesta village was said to be located at the mouth of the Miami River. Much in the way of archeology has been recovered from a site in Downtown Miami. Archeological remains of the Calusa is widely scattered along the southwestern coast of Florida, including portions of the Ten Thousand Islands. Today, many travelers still come across pieces of pottery left by the Calusa.
He Lived Amongst Them
The next insert follows the accounts of Spanish shipwreck survivor, Hernando de Escalante Fontaneda. In 1549 Fontenada and fellow crewmembers on board a ship bound for Salamanca, Spain became shipwrecked off the South Floridian coast. Subsequently, the native Calusa ended up rescuing the stranded crew, including Fonteneda, but only to later enslave them. Fontenada who was thirteen years of age at the time, survived the doom that later followed. As per Fontaneda's later accounts, at the mercy of Calusa tribesmen the shipwreck survivors were sacrificed one by one, he being the lone exception. It was in his ability to learn the native customs, language, and perform jester-like entertainment such as dancing and singing that made him useful and appealing to the Calusa.
According to historical records, Fontaneda lived amongst the Calusa for approximately seventeen years before being rescued by Pedro Menéndez de Avilés in 1565. Fontaneda later wrote of his accounts. I felt it important to include his memoirs in this book, as his depiction of early native life prior to colonization is one of the most important surviving historical chronicles of its kind. South Florida's pre-Colombian history could be summarized as such. The document itself remains the most detailed description of native Floridian cultures and the natural state of South Florida's ecosystem.
Buckingham Smith Translation, 1854
"Very Powerful Lord:
Memoir of the things, the shore, and the Indians of Florida, to describe which, none of the many persons who have coasted that country know how to describe it.
The Islands of Yucayo and of Ahite fall on one side of the Channel of the Bahama. There are no Indians on them, and they lie between Havana and Florida.
There are yet other islands, nearer to the mainland, stretching between the west and east, called the Martires; for the reason that many men have suffered on them, and also because certain rocks rise there from beneath the sea, which, at a distance, look like men in distress. Indians are on these islands, who are of a large size: the women are well proportioned, and have good countenances. On these islands there are two Indian towns; in one of them the one town is called Guarugunbe, which in Spanish is pueblo de Llanto, the town of weeping; the name of the other little town, Cuchiyaga, means the place where there has been suffering.
These Indians have no gold, less silver, and less clothing. They go naked, except only some breech-cloths woven of palm, with which the men cover themselves; the women do the like with certain grass that grows on trees. This grass looks like wool, although it is different from it The common food is fish, turtle, and snails (all of which are alike fish), and tunny and whale; which is according to what I saw while I was among these Indians. Some eat sea-wolves; not all of them, for there is a distinction between the higher and the lower classes, but the principal persons eat them. There is another fish which we here call langosta (lobster), and one like unto a chapin (trunkfish), of which they consume not less than of the former.
On these islands are many deer, and a certain animal that looks like a fox, yet is not, but a different thing from it. It is fat and good to eat. [probably raccoon] On other islands are very large bears; and, as the islands run from west to east, and the land of Florida passes eastwardly towards these islands, that must be the reason of bears being on them; for the mainland is near, and they can cross from island to island. But what was a great wonder to the captives who were there, and to those of us in other places, was the existence of deer on the Islands of Cuchiyaga, the town of which I have spoken. Much more would I relate of each thing, but that I have other objects which concern me more, and I leave it.
On these islands is likewise a wood we call here el palo para muchas cosas (the wood for many uses), well known to physicians; also much fruit of many sorts, which I will not enumerate, as, were I to attempt to do so, I should never finish.
To the west of these islands is a great channel, which no pilot dares go through with a large vessel; because, as I have said, of some islands that are on the opposite side towards the west, which are without trees, and formed of sand. At some time they have been the foundations of cays [Keys], and must have been eaten away by the currents of the sea, which have left them thus bare, plain sand.
They are seven leagues in circumference, and are called the Islands of the Tortugas; for turtle are there, and many come at night to lay their eggs in the sand. The animal is of the size of a shield, and has as much flesh as a cow; it is like all kinds of meat, and yet is fish.
Running from south to north between Habana and Florida, the distance to the Tortugas and the Martires is forty leagues; twenty leagues to the Martires, and thence other twenty to Florida to the territory of Carlos, a province of Indians, which in their language signifies a fierce people, they are so-called for being brave and skillful, as in truth they are. They are masters of a large district of country, as far as a town they call Guacata, on the Lake of Mayaimi, which is called Mayaimi because it is very large. Around it are many little villages, which I will speak about hereafter. The distance in going from Habana to the farthest islands, which are beyond the Cape of the Martires and almost adjoin Florida, is sixty leagues; because those islands are near seventy leagues in extent, and run from west to east.
This channel has many passages, and many different outlets and little channels. The principal channel is very wide; across it are the Islands of Vermuda, of which I have some recollection of what the Indians said; but not wishing to extend this account in that direction, I return to what I was talking about, the termination of the islands of the Martires.
Toward the north the Martires end near a place of the Indians called Tequesta, situated on the bank of a river which extends into the country the distance of fifteen leagues, and issues from another lake of fresh water, which is said by some Indians who have traversed it more than I, to be an arm of the Lake of Mayaimi. On this lake, which lies in the midst of the country, are many towns, of thirty or forty inhabitants each; and as many more places there are in which people are not so numerous. They have bread of roots, which is their common food the greater part of the time; and because of the lake, which rises in some seasons so high that the roots cannot be reached in consequence of the water, they are for some time without eating this bread. Fish is plenty and very good. There is another root, like the truffle over here, which as sweet;" and there are other different roots of many kinds; but when there is hunting, either deer or birds, they prefer to eat meat or fowl. I will also mention, that in the rivers of fresh water are infinite quantities of eels, very savory, and enormous trout. The eels are nearly the size of a man, thick as the thigh, and some of them are smaller. The Indians also eat lagartos (alligators)," and snakes, and animals like rats, which live in the lake, fresh-water tortoises, and many more disgusting reptiles which, if we were to continue enumerating, we should never be through.
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