South Florida was once covered in water, almost 11,000 square miles moving slowly towards Biscayne Bay and Floriday Bay. The water flow created ponds, marshes, hardwood hammocks, and other features. The ecosystem created became quite intricate until early colonial settlers and developers arrived and attempted to transform the area into farms and communities. By draining the wetlands, the ecosystem was severely damaged, and it impacted a number of species supported by the system as well. Everglades National Park was created in 1947, with the goal of conserving the remaining natural landscape and preventing any more destruction of the land, plants or animals. As much a draw to the park as its unique ecosystem of marshes and mangroves, the story of how various peoples used the land and its resources to live and work is another interesting facet to uncover during your trip.
The primary native tribe in the region were the Calusa, who occupied the southwest region. They were comprised of a number of organized village communities run by a Chief and his hierarchy. This type of organization is considered to be rare for non-agrarian societies. The Calusa people depended on fishing and foraging for sustenance. They used shells as tools and to build formations such as platforms and courtyards in their towns. Archeologists postulate they were used to divide common gathering spaces from sacred spaces, and to provide barriers against mosquitos and tidewaters. The Spanish encountered the Calusa in the 16th century, and took note of the shell works, ceremonial art, and their political system. However, as strong as their society was, both the Calusa and neighboring Tequesta tribes were no match against European diseases, and they disappeared soon after their first interactions with the explorers. Those that survived retreated into the Everglades, or migrated to Cuba to begin new settlements. Following the American Revolution, the Spanish claimed Florida in 1783 from Great Britain, although the Americans pushed back. Andrew Jackson invaded Florida in 1818, with the US taking ownership of Florida in 1821. Three wars with the Seminoles left a small, struggling population of Seminoles signing over 2 million acres of land in a 1856 treaty and retreating to Indian Territory in modern-day Oklahoma, with a small contingent moving deep into the Everglades.
A few settlements arose along the coast of the Everglades, named Chokoloskee (near modern Everglades City), Cape Sable, and Flamingo. They attracted those used to living off the land. Major sources of income in early 20th century Everglades-area included sugar cane farming, making charcoal (out of buttonwood), and hunting birds (their plume feathers were popular in women’s hats). Conditions were difficult, with fleas and mosquitoes, as well as hurricanes, presenting challenges to early settlers. While still recovering from a 1909 hurricane, the area was walloped by the worse hurricane on record in 1910, and only the highest grounds remained above water. Low-lying fields were flooded with salty water, and the cisterns were polluted with salt water as well. Many abandoned their homesteads.
Gladesmen also built small homes in the Everglades, as well as “glade skiffs” capable of navigating the narrow waterways in the Everglades. These men would hunt and fish in isolation all around the area, developing an intimate knowledge of the land and water, and how to adjust to all that nature had to offer. They became the best guides for researchers and surveyors who came. The Gladesmen culture still exists, even though their ability to survive off the land is more limited now that the Everglades are a national park.
Expanded dredging efforts in South Florida in the 20th century transformed wetlands into agricultural land, stimulating a boom. The creation of railroad access made the are more accessible to tourists, and by the 1920s, droves of visitors and new residents arrived in the growing towns of Fort Lauderdale, Miami, Fort Myers, and others. As the populations grew, developers worked to build more roads and canals. They removed mangroves from coastal areas and replaced them with palm trees, in order to ensure lots of ocean views. All of this development displaced native habitats.
The Civilian Conservation Corps, the New Deal program that send young men across the country to complete conservation work at different state and national parks, completed a number of tasks in Royal Palm State Park, which was established in 1916 and became part of Everglades National Park.
Everglades National Park was authorized in 1934 and established in 1947 when it was dedicated by President Harry S. Truman. The park has since been expanded through the Everglades Expansion Act in 1989, the donation of Chekika State Park by Florida, and the addition of Tarpon Basin in 2010.