It’s march, that time when all the snowbirds are back, those Fort Lauderdale residents who abandon us during the months of sweltering weather. Turns out it’s a long tradition in South Florida, going back to our original inhabitants, the Tequesta Indians, who lived here beginning 3,000 years ago. (That’s about the time of Buddha, and a full 2,700 years before the Seminoles arrived.)
Their big complaint was not the weather – after all they dressed in that age’s form of beachwear, loincloths for men and moss miniskirts for women. It was the mosquitoes.
They were so bad that the tribe that settled the area from modern-day Miami to Boca Raton battened down their Everglades huts, got in their cypress-trunk canoes and left en masse for three months in the Keys or the Caribbean. (No word on whether their return snarled traffic on the New River.)
It’s small wonder they picked up stakes each season. One 20th century entomologist snagged 365,696 mosquitoes in one night in the Everglades – and that was in just one trap.
It was long thought by anthropologists that when the Tequestas thrived, only nomadic tribes roamed our continent. It would not be until the advent of agriculture, they believed, that tribes could settle and develop their own culture.
But according to Michael Grunwald’s The Swamp (which provides the above entomological finding), an archeologist in 1989 “found evidence of centuries of permanent occupation by a complex society, including traces of wooden posts used in dwellings and huge shell mounds used for rituals and burials.” It dumbfounded everyone, because no one could believe that a society could exist in “tangled mangroves and tidal flats.”
While the Tequestas inhabited the eastern areas, the more numerous Calusas (estimated to have reached 20,000) dominated the Gulf side. Perhaps 10,000 strong at their peak, the Tequestas benefitted from the fierce warrior nature of their swamp cousins, who rebuffed all manner of Spanish incursions in the early 16th century. They abruptly ended Ponce de León’s second Florida foray, showering him, his men and horses with piercing arrows of sharpened fish bone.
And while the Everglades provided the Tequesta and Calusas neither the land nor the beasts that the plains tribes had, it allowed them to thrive on an amazingly healthy diet of seafood, fruits and plants. We know that thanks to the incalculably valuable 1575 memoir of Hernando de Escalante Fontaneda, a Spaniard who survived 17 years of enslavement by Glades Indians. A shipwreck survivor at only 13, he escaped the fate of his shipmates recovered by the Calusas because he understood their command to sing and dance. He was the only one not sacrificed.
Fontaneda listed the Tequesta main courses: manatees, sharks, sailfish, porpoises, stingrays and lobster. The menu also included snails, sea turtles and their eggs in nesting season. Plant foods included saw palmetto, berries, sea grapes, prickly pears and palm nuts. A type of unleavened bread was made from the plant called coontie, after toxins were removed.
Without backbreaking farming work, Tequestas had time to create ceramics and art while establishing tribal hierarchies and customs which would last centuries. Not to mention their creation of a mysterious limestone circle unearthed in Miami in 1998, now called the Miami Circle, full of artifacts dating to 100 years before Christ. What was to become another Brickell Avenue high-rise is now a national historic landmark.
The Spanish conquistadors were successful in their land grabs in Peru, Argentina and Panama, but they found it impossible to gain a foothold in South Florida. As T.D. Allman put it in Finding Florida, “In Florida, conquistadors who had won pitched battles in the oxygen-starved mountains of South America, went mad and wandered madly before dying of fever.” Such was the fate of Hernando de Soto, he writes, who arrived in 1539 with nine ships and 600 men on Florida’s west coast, home of the Calusas, searching for gold.
But as victorious as the Glades tribes were in battle, contact with the Spanish proved fatal nonetheless. Smallpox, yellow fever, measles and other diseases brought from the Old World decimated them. By the time the Seminoles were pushed down here from Georgia and northern Florida by U.S. militias in the early 19th century, Spain had long ceded Florida to Britain. When the United States took control in 1821, most Tequesta, along with the other original native tribes, were gone, the lucky ones having emigrated earlier, the unlucky ones succumbing to disease.
Still, in a country that’s 240 years old like ours, you can’t say the Tequesta Nation, at an estimated 2,700 years, did all that badly. All the more remarkable, because they flourished in a place no one said was humanly habitable – kind of like what some northerners still say about our summers.