The first Floridians were the American Indians. Some twenty-five thousand years before the birth of Christ, when North America was still inhabited by prehistoric beasts, small tribes of primitive hunters crossed the frozen wastelands of the Bering Strait from Asia to the Americas. After countless generations of traveling southward into warmer climates and eventually eastward, some of these hunters arrived in Florida.

Florida was probably one of the last places in the Americas to have human inhabitants although every year earlier and earlier remains of first Floridians are discovered in springs such as Warm Mineral Springs, south of Sarasota. These early Paleo-Indians (c. 12000 B.C. to 7500 B.C.) were nomadic hunters, using crude spears and arrows of flint and stone. The fire drill was their highest technology. In the mild climate of Florida, they settled in their small huts of animal furs and started a more stable existence.Florida was twice as large as it is today, but extremely dryu with few lakes or rivers. Small villages of about 25 people led by a male leader was the norm.

Florida Indian tribesIndian sites map


Eight thousand years ago the earth started to warm and Florida became smaller and more tropical. Centuries of Florida living changed their manner of living. Invasions of more advanced tribes from the North or the islands changed their skills. The Archaic Era (7500 B.C. to 1000 B.C.) meant the development of village life and better food gathering. In the winter months tribes fished the abundant bays and streams.

The Formative Era (1000 B.C. to 1500 A.D.) brought farming and pottery skills. Commerce with Indians outside Florida brought copper, iron ore, and seeds of maize in exchange for Florida freshwater pearls, conch shells, and fish bones. By the Mississippian Era (1000 A.D. to 1500 A.D., the Florida Indians were divided into many large groupings. Archaic Indians developed spears and dugout canoes. Ceramic pottery filled the warehouses protected by large temple and burial mounds.


About 500 years ago the native people became known as the Woodland Indians. In North Florida lived two highly organized, farming tribes the Apalachee of the Tallahassee Hills and the Timucuans, located between the Aucilla River and the Atlantic Ocean as far south as Tampa Bay. These people were latecomers to Florida and brought with them farming skills beyond those tribes of the South.

The Timucuans and Apalachees were divided into numerous independent villages, each with a leader. An inter tribal dialect developed by traders united the tribes. In the summer, the planting of maize, squash, and beans dominated village life, while in the lean months of winter, hunting deer, turkey, and small game in the forests became important. Meat was smoked on open grills and stored in pine needle baskets or clay containers in tribal warehouses.

Stele at Crystal River; skull Indian boy at Giant Fish Camp, Ruskin

A typical Timucuan village sometimes consisted of a cluster of small huts surrounded by a circular twelve foot high wall of tree trunks. A single opening led to the village plaza where the cacique or chieftain resided and the tribal granaries were located. Along the perimeter of the wall were humble family dwellings, furnished only with beds of reeds, three legged stools, and food storage pottery.The presence of a good water supply was the key not just for drinking, bathing, and cooking, but for fishing, hunting, and collecting food.

The Timucuans practiced a rigid feudal system. The absolute rulers were the cacique and his council of noblemen. Their chief ally was the shaman, or medicine man, who performed all necessary rituals. Large burial mounds and temple mounds for sacrifice to the sun god showed the impact religion had on their daily lives.

Each Indian was born into a particular occupational status in the village, and only a major crisis altered the predetermined story of a person. Warriors and hunters were the most common job, but skilled potters and canoe makers were given great status. The aged, women, and children did most of the planting and probably accumulated the most food. This division of labor reflected a stable, complex agrarian society.


Along the southwest Gulf coast lived the Calusa (Caloosa) Indians. A new tribe that entered Florida either from the islands or the north at the start of the Christian Era, the Calusa dominated South Florida with their statute, skills, and brutality. Mound Key, an island west of Fort Myers, was the center of this large Calusa Empire.


They were powerfully built men, often four inches taller than their European counterparts. In the warm Florida sun, they let their hair grow hip length and wore only tanned breech clouts of deerskin fastened with fancy belts indicative of one's position in the tribe. The women dressed in garments of woven Spanish moss and palmetto leaves.

The Calusa were great sailors. Their large canoes of hallowed out cypress logs were capable of reaching Cuba, perhaps Mexico. Their language indicated they may have traveled to Florida from the islands. They did little farming, but were outstanding hunters and fishermen. Due to their warrior reputation, the Calusa also gained tributes of food from smaller tribes.

PINELAND on Pine Island, twenty miles west of Cape Coral contains some of the most extensive Calusa mound sites and canal works.


Some forty coastal villages spread along the Florida Gulf Coast, with Mound Key near the mouth of the Caloosahatchee River the largest village. Despite the lack of domesticated animals and heavy tools, the Calusa built huge mounds of shell and deep moats to protect their villages of raised huts. Burial mounds and a temple mound for ceremonies circled the village.

The Calusa's reputation was well established. The hereditary chief and the dolman or priest ran the villages. They practiced sacrificial worship and demanded obedience from all villagers. The Calusa had a rather closed society and the Spanish would discover little interest in missionary activity from the Calusa.

The Caloosahatchee River ("River of the Calusa") was the main highway of the Calusa into the interior. Its banks teamed with small game and its waters were abundant with fish and shellfish. Calusa canoes could circumvent Lake Okeechobee and travel up the Kissimmee River into other tribal areas.



Along the lower Atlantic Coast was the home of many small tribes: the Tequestas of Biscayne Bay, theAis and the Jeagas up the coast, the Keys Indians, and the Mayaimi who built large mounded villages near Lake Okeechobee. Like the Calusa, these tribes were fishermen and hunters rather than farmers.


The Tequestas had many villages at the mouth of the Miami River and along the coastal islands. In the morning the warriors sailed their canoes into the ocean in search of sharks, sailfish, porpoises, sting rays, and sea cows. The women and children searched the bay and river shallows for clams, conchs, oysters, and turtle eggs. This sea food diet was supplemented with trips into the Everglades for bear, deer, and wild boar.

While Florida's Indians at the time of Ponce de Leon did not match the technical skill of the great Indian Empires of Mexico and South America, the Florida tribes were satisfied that the abundant wildlife and sea life and the mild winters met their expectations. A level of political and economic stability had developed under the strict control of the village chiefs and religious leaders. The Indian measured satisfaction in his understanding and control of the natural resources around him. The Indian could not imagine what would be the impact of the arrival of people from another hemisphere.