The Island History
From specks of sand and tiny mangrove seedlings drifting in the Gulf many thousands of years ago, were born the islands of Sanibel and Captiva. At some time lost to history came the Mound People who created shell-mound cities. Much later came the Caloosas, who became an extensive Indian civilization.
So, in 1513, Juan Ponce de Leon sought the sun-drenched Isle “that jutted out into the seas...” and made his way along Sanibel’s beach, looking for rumored treasure. It was he who named the island “Ybel”, after the Spanish Queen, Isabella.
The islands were a haven for pirates: LaFitte, Blackbeard, Black Caesar and Gasparilla, linger like the early morning mists among the palms. It is romanticized that the cut-throat pirate Jose Gasparilla, held his female captives on a small island, thus the name “Captiva”. Both Gasparilla and Black Caesar buried their treasure on Sanibel-Captiva or on one of the smaller out-islands...but where?
Sanibel’s history is colorful. In 1837, the government decided to make Florida “safe” for development. In a treaty, the Caloosa Indians were given “two moons” to move off the islands, and relocate on a reservation. While most went quietly, others balked, triggering the Seminole War.
In 1883, our lighthouse was built, and is still in use at the east end of the island. Meanwhile, on Sanibel Island, homesteaders found their paradise. Later, Thomas Edison drew national attention to the area by making it his winter home, and President Teddy Roosevelt’s interest in game fishing led him to Captiva.
People and progress began to come to the islands but it still took three days to go to Ft. Myers and back. It wasn’t until 1928 that the Kinzie Ferry provided service from Punta Rassa to Sanibel, which ran until the causeway was built in 1963.
These islands have come a long way since those adventuresome days. It was here Anne Morrow Lindbergh wrote “The Gift From The Sea”; where Thomas Edison gathered exotic plants for his Estate; where Albert Spaulding was heard playing his Stradivarius; and where the great artist Robert Rauschenberg once lived and created and local artist Lucas Century still calls home.
In 1995, the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum opened on Sanibel as the Nation’s only museum devoted entirely to shells. Sanibel Island has been declared a State Wildlife Sanctuary. Today, the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge covers nearly one-third of the island. The Shell Islands are in partnership with nature, the true treasure of Sanibel and Captiva.