Ten years ago archaeologists excavating on Useppa’s Calusa Ridge uncovered fragments of ceramics known as Whieldonware and Jasperware, suggesting an occupation in the late 1700s to early 1800s. These artifacts were probably left by residents of the Cuban fishing rancho of José Caldez.

During the same excavation, a Scoville & Co. Extra “D” eagle uniform button lost by an American soldier was found, probably dating to either the Third Seminole War period (early 1850s) or the Civil War era, when a garrison was located on Useppa’s highest elevation. Useppa’s extraordinary historic era, which extends from the 1700s through today, involves several different government entities and an intriguing cast of characters.

aerial photo of Useppa Island
Useppa Island seen from the air, looking south. Photo courtesy Useppa Island Club.)

During the early 1700s while Useppa was part of Spanish Florida, armed Creek and Yamasee Indians acting on behalf of the English invaded the area, intent on capturing Calusa and other south Florida Indian people as slaves. During this episode, thousands were enslaved and those who resisted were killed. A few hundred natives escaped to the Florida Keys. By 1711, the slave raids had devastated the indigenous population, but in that year approximately 270 Indians escaped to Havana on Spanish ships. Although 80 percent of them perished in the first year, two daughters of a Calusa woman were baptized in the cathedral at Guanabacoa, near Havana.

Spanish Cubans had been familiar with southwest Florida waters since the late 1600s, and by the late 1700s Cuban fishing villages had been established on Useppa and several other islands. In 1821, Spain ceded Florida to the United States of America and for the next nine years the United States tolerated Cuban fishing operations. But in 1830 the United States Congress passed the Indian Removal Act and instituted a policy to deport non­citizens.

In 1833, U.S. Customs Inspector Henry Crews moved into the first American­ built cottage on the north end of Useppa. One­quarter mile southeast of his cottage stood the twenty palmetto huts of the commercial fishing operation of Cuban citizen José Caldez. His lucrative, seasonal mullet fishery had been established in 1784. He operated a commercial fishing business for over fifty years, employing Cubans and “Spanish Indians” (Creeks and possibly others). Many Indians had sailed to Havana and back on Caldez’s schooner, the Joseffa, to intermarry, be baptized, or confirm their children in the church of Nuestra Señora de Regla, near Havana. “Regla” is the patron saint of fishermen and the name of an island in southern Pine Island Sound.

When the Second Seminole War erupted in 1835, American soldiers stationed on Useppa were responsible for burning Cuban fishing villages in Pine Island Sound. In 1835 at the age of 93, José Caldez left Useppa for Cuba with his family and crew on the Joseffa. Indians who were not Cuban citizens could not enter Cuba with their spouses, nor could they stay behind and become American citizens. Families were broken up. Seminole resistance was fierce. Henry Crews was killed in 1836 ostensibly during an Indian raid led by Seminole Chief Wyokee. A new U.S. Customs Agent, Alexander Patterson, reported from Useppa in 1836, “…there is no living person in Charlotte Harbor.”

Fort Casey was established on Useppa for the Third Seminole War in 1850. Located on Calusa Ridge, it was garrisoned by 108 American soldiers. Intended as a supply depot for Fort Myers, it lasted only eleven months. Archaeological work there uncovered the remains of nineteenth century nails, part of a clay pipe stem, bones from large animals, and a broken green glass vessel, among other items. Military dispatches show that a small guard unit stayed on Useppa through at least 1857, which might account for the abundance of artifacts that can still be found on Useppa.

During the Civil War in the 1860s, Union ships blockaded the passes of Pine Island Sound to prevent cattle shipments to the Confederacy. Although Florida had seceded, southern Union sympathizers found refuge on Useppa Island. Some of them were active as Florida Rangers in raids against Confederate positions and cattle operations.

By the 1880s, reports of world­class tarpon fishing in Pine Island Sound began to appear in popular sporting magazines. John M. Roach, a Chicago streetcar tycoon, purchased Useppa Island in 1896 and built a hotel on the northern end of the Island called the Useppa Inn. In 1906 the grand accommodations cost $3.50 per day for a room with bath, a box lunch, breakfast and dinner in the dining room overlooking the Sound, and free towing of a fishing skiff to the passes. Gentlemen fished in three ­piece suits, ladies in long skirts, jackets, and crisp blouses with lace or ruffles. Roach later built a separate residence for himself.

In 1911 Barron G. Collier, a tarpon fisherman and businessman, bought Useppa Island for one hundred thousand dollars, and turned it into one of the most exclusive sporting clubs in the world. Roach’s former house became Collier’s residence. He built a nine­hole golf course, enlarged and refurbished the Useppa Inn, built several guest cottages, and fashioned a popular seasonal resort for the wealthy. Members of the newly formed Izaak Walton Club, named for the 1653 author of The Compleat Angler , tacked to the walls of the Useppa Inn the scales of gigantic tarpon. Upon each scale (the size of a man’s hand) was written the length and weight of the fish and the name of the angler. Some of the famous guests were Teddy Roosevelt, Herbert Hoover, Gloria Swanson, Shirley Temple, Zane Grey, Mary Roberts Rinehart, and members of the Vanderbilt, Rockefeller, and Rothschild families.

Collier dredged sand from Pine Island Sound for a beach on the east side, enlarged a marina on the west side, and on the southwest he named Whoopee Island after the popular song, “Making Whoopee.” It was set aside as a place to gather for socializing, dancing, and even amateur prize fighting. Today Whoopee Island is part of the Pine Island Sound National Wildlife Refuge. Collier died in 1939.

In 1960 intermediaries for the United States Central Intelligence Agency rented from the Collier Corporation all of Useppa Island for the secret screening of Cuban exiles for a planned Cuban invasion of the Bay of Pigs. Sixty veterans of the invasion returned to the Island in 1997 for the opening of the new permanent exhibit on this event at the Useppa Museum, now called the Barbara L. Sumwalt Museum.

Various developers purchased Useppa Island after Collier: William Snow in 1962, Jimmy Turner in 1968, Mariner Properties in 1973; and Garfield Beckstead in 1976. Electricity came to the island in 1981. The island now has 140 private lots, mostly seasonal residences. About eight of some twenty historic guest cottages dating to the 1920s line the “pink path” along Collier Ridge. They are made of heart pine and cypress and retain their original walls and ceilings. Although the original hotel was dismantled in the 1940s, the Roach/Collier residence still stands, known today as the Collier Inn. Its serves as Useppa Island members’ clubhouse and restaurant, and rooms can be rented upstairs.

Those interested in more information on the archaeology and history of the island may consult The Archaeology of Useppa Island, a book edited by William Marquardt.

This article was taken from the Friends of the Randell Research Center Newsletter Vol 12, No. 1. March 2013.