Over 10,000 years of Southwest Florida History is on display at our five museum facilities for all to enjoy...
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 Collier County 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 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 Collier County'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 County's beef cattle industry to national importance by the end of World War II.
Collier County's creation in 1923 and 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 and Collier County 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 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 Collier County one of the fastest developing areas in the to nation.