While its current beauty could lead you to believe that the area has been a vacation haven since the beginning of time, the area of Sanibel Island actually has been an area of bloodshed between different groups of Native Americans and European settlers, jostling for ownership of this prime plot of land.
Sanibel’s first-known settlers were the Calusa, a powerful and well-organized Indian tribe who dominated the majority of the land in Southwest Florida more than 2500 years ago. The Calusa were proficient in creating canals and waterways, which allowed them to live primarily on a native seafood diet.
In 1513, the Calusa were met by Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon and his fleet. The initial intent was for both sides to trade, but the Calusa chief refused the offer, attacking the Spanish with war canoes. Over the next 100 years, the Spanish continued to pursue control of the area, slowly whittling away the Calusa tribe members who became ill due to exposure to new diseases brought over by the Europeans. By 1760, many remaining Calusa members had fled to Cuba or were absorbed into the well-known Seminole tribe.
After the Spanish gained controlled of Sanibel Island, its original listings on maps got a bit confusing. The first known map to detail the island dubbed it "Puerto de. S. Nibel", evolving from San Nibel. Some argue that this name actually derived from Santa Ybel, or Point Ybel, which is where the current Sanibel Island Light stands. Folklores suggest that the island may have gotten its name from Sanibel, the lover of Roderigo Lopez, the first mate of Spanish pirate Jose Gaspar. But that idea is strongly refuted and considered as completely mythical.
“Legendary pirate's dens aside,” as a Wikipedia contributor aptly puts it, the first modern settlement on Sanibel Island was established by the Florida Peninsular Land Company in 1832. Disbanding just 17 years later, the colony’s existence was short lived. It wasn’t until 1884 that a real population of settlers began to grow, due in large part to the construction of the still standing Sanibel Island Lighthouse. But visitors to Sanibel Island know the importance of the Sanibel Causeway, which wasn’t built until 1963, and was the missing piece to a true boom of tourism and real estate growth to the island.
When it was determined that the creation of the causeway meant vacationers were ready to flock to Sanibel in droves, the City of Sanibel was shrewd to swiftly pass restrictions on residential and commercial development. To this day, the only buildings on the island taller than two stories high were those constructed before 1974. Multi-lane highways, fast-food restaurants and towering condo buildings are nowhere to be found on Sanibel Island, and is why visitors laud the efforts to preserve the land and maintain that true feeling of relaxation.
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