Prehistoric Land and Sea
Southwest Florida was shaped and reshaped by centuries of flooding during the Ice Ages. Each time the polar ice sheets reformed and lowered the surrounding sea level, another layer of sand and shell was deposited, creating the limestone and sandy sediment that underlie much of Naples today. The southern tip of Florida was last submerged about 25,000 years ago.
The American Serengetti
Rich fossil finds show that this region was once home to camels, mastodons, mammoths, and huge herds of bison, deer and wild horses. The animal population reached its peak during the Pleistocene Period about 10,000 years ago, when the number and variety of animals here approached that of the big game region of the African Serengetti. Gradual changes in climate and vegetation contributed to their extinction.
South Florida’s First People
The first humans reached Southwest Florida at least 10,000 years ago, when the climate was colder and drier. Living in small, widely scattered bands, these first Floridians or Paleoindians, survived by hunting and fishing and by gathering wild plant foods. The earliest archaeological evidence of man in Collier County was discovered in 1980 at the Bay West Site, northeast of Naples.
Centuries before Columbus, Florida’s lower Gulf coast was controlled by the powerful Calusa Indians. Once numbering as many as 10,000 people, the Calusa were ruled by a single chief, supported a nobility and strong military force, dug canals, built huge mounds of shell and earth for their temples and important buildings, and collected tribute from towns and villages reaching all the way across southern Florida to the Atlantic. Highly skilled Calusa artisans also created elaborate masks and wood carvings for religious and ceremonial purposes, such as those discovered by Frank Hamilton Cushing on Marco Island in 1895.
Juan Ponce de Leon discovered and claimed Florida for Spain in 1513 and led the first recorded European exploration of the Gulf coast. He returned to colonize Southwest Florida in 1521, but was mortally wounded by Calusa warriors. Other Spanish explorers attempted the conquest of Florida over the next forty years. The expeditions failed, but decades of warfare, enslavement and runaway epidemics of European diseases destroyed the Calusa and their culture.
By the early 1700’s, small bands of Creek Indians from Georgia and Alabama began making their way into Florida. Eventually, these breakaway groups of Indians joined with escaped black slaves and refugees from other tribes to forge a new identity as the Seminole. Ongoing disputes and skirmishes with white settlers eventually led to Government pressure to move the Seminoles to reservations west of the Mississippi River.
The Seminole Wars
Risking death over deportation, vastly outnumbered Seminole war parties fought the U.S. Army to a stalemate in the longest, bloodiest and most expensive Indian war in U.S. history. A chain of forts along the fringes of Collier County were reactivated when a third and final fight with the Seminoles broke out in 1855. The few surviving Seminoles found refuge deep in the Everglades and Big Cypress Swamp where they developed a culture uniquely suited to the climate and terrain of south Florida.
Life on the Florida Frontier
Southwest Florida remained virtually uninhabited until after the Civil War when handfuls of farmers and squatters began making their way south in mule wagons, ox carts or sailboats. Early pioneers fished and hunted for a living, raised crops of cabbage, peppers, tomatoes and pineapples, dug clams, made charcoal, sold bird plumes, and trapped otters and alligators for their pelts and hides. Trading posts started by Ted Smallwood on Chokoloskee Island and George Storter at Everglades City became important gathering places for the few isolated settlers and Indians. By the summer of 1888, the new town of Naples consisted of a 600-foot pier, a general store, post office, hotel, and a seasoned population of about 80 people. As early as the late 1880’s, Naples and Marco Island were already gaining popularity as winter resorts for wealthy Northerners and sportsmen.
The Tropical Range
Cattle ranching is one of the area’s oldest industries. By the early 1900’s, ranchers like Bob Roberts, Jehu Whidden and Robert Carson were grazing herds of scrub cattle on the open prairies around Immokalee. Railroads improved the access to market in the 1920’s and helped raise the area’s beef cattle industry to national importance by the end of World War II.
Collier County and the Town of Naples’ creation in 1923, as well as its early economic growth, were closely tied to Memphis-born millionaire, Barron Gift Collier. With his fortune from streetcar advertising, Collier introduced paved roads, electric power, telegraphs and countless new businesses and homeowners to Florida’s last frontier. The completion of the Tamiami Trail in 1928 also unlocked the region’s enormous agricultural and resort potential. Florida’s first commercial oil well was brought in at Sunniland in 1943, and Collier County’s cypress logging industry flourished at Copeland well into the 1950’s.
World War II introduced hundreds of aircraft servicemen to Naples when the U.S. Army Air Field (now Naples Airport) was activated in 1943 to train combat pilots. At one point, several hundred men and 53 aircraft were assigned to the Naples base. Many veterans returned after the war as prospective home buyers and businessmen. A direct hit by Hurricane Donna in 1960, actually stimulated Naples’ growth with an infusion of insurance money and loans.
Modern Naples and Collier County
In the short span of thirty years, number of County residents swelled from 6,488 in 1950, to a phenomenal 85,000 by 1980. The County seat was transferred from Everglades City to East Naples in 1962, and signaled a new era of sustained growth in agriculture, tourism, and real estate that have made Naples and Collier County one of the fastest developing areas in the nation.
- Boasting the most golf holes per capita in the United States, including more than 80 championship golf courses, Naples is known as the Golf Capital of the World.
- Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary is regarded as one of the top bird watching spots in the United States.
- The Gulf Coast portion of the Everglades is the only place on earth where alligators and crocodiles cohabitate and is also home to North America’s largest continuous mangrove forest.
- The Ohopee Post Office, located east of Naples, along Tamiami Trail in the Everglades, is the smallest post office in the United States.
- Collier County is the primary habitat for the 100-160 Florida Panthers that remain in the wild.
- Everglades City is known as the Stone Crab Capital of the World.
- Naples gets its name from promoters of the area claiming that the bay was better than the bay in Naples, Italy. They described the region as “surpassing the bay of Naples in grandeur of view and health-giving properties”.
- The median age in Naples is 64.
- With well over 1 million visitors each year, tourism is one of the area’s leading industries.
- The name “Everglades” was first used on a map of the area dated 1832. Derived from an old English word “glaed”, meaning an open, green grassy place in the forest. Seminole Indians called the Everglades the Pahayokee, meaning grassy water.
- The teddy bears of the marine world, manatees, are fleshy, docile, and loveable. The endangered mammals – relatives of the elephant – average 10 feet in length and weigh up to 3,500 pounds as adults. Voracious vegetarians, they eat 80 to 500 pounds of seagrass, hydrilla, water hyacinth, and water lettuce a day.
- Adult loggerhead sea turtles, which are believed to swim thousands of miles from feeding grounds to nesting beaches, can grow to a length of 3 feet and weigh from 200 to 350 pounds. Females return to the beach where they hatched to lay their eggs.
- Bottlenose dolphins can travel at speeds of over 21mph. Only one half of their brain sleeps at a time. This is because dolphins need to surface often to breathe and must be conscious to do so. A mother bottlenose dolphin may take care of her calf for up to six years.