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Recalling early Calusa excavations on Florida’s Marco Island

Word of Capt. Bill Collier's discoveries on Marco Island in 1895 reached Colonel C. D. Durnford, a knowledgeable lieutenant colonel in the British Army who had come to Naples to fish.

Explorer Frank Cushing anchored the Silver Spray just off Capt. Collier's coconut grove. He and his crew "went ashore in a light draught double sailed sharpie." ( Durnford came to the island by boat and dug near Collier's site.

He found amazing things:

- A wooden trencher, oval, with carved handles, measuring 10 by 18 inches, extremely well made;

- A "clam shell funnel;"

- Netting of three-ply cord, varying in diameter from three-sixteenths of an inch to one inch;

- A series of 20 to 30 float pegs joined with twine at about one-foot intervals;

- Small well-made pieces of board with holes drilled in them,

- And more netting with about a two-inch mesh.

On his way back to England, Durnford showed his findings to Dr. Pepper of the Archaeology Department of the University of Pennsylvania and to a patient of Dr. Pepper's, Frank Hamilton Cushing, who happened to be in consultation.

Cushing, as it turned out, was employed by the Bureau of Ethnology (now the Smithsonian Institution).

The artifacts created so much excitement and interest that Cushing volunteered to investigate the site.

He received permission from Maj. Powell of the bureau to make a preliminary visit to Marco Island and arrived in early June.

Cushing's finds

Cushing wrote in his diary June 5, 1895, "Excavations alongside the diggings made by Col. Durnford and still further in toward the center and one side of the muck bed although made under water mostly (for the rainy season had set in) revealed within a few hours ... other relics of the kind Col. Durnford has described, net pins, seine stays, small fragments of netting, rope made of palmetto and agave fibre, and the like, as well as burnt thatch, a long and beautifully finished spar or post, fragments of a burnt mud hearth and of pottery, some highly finished wattling plummets and sinkers, two beautifully shaped fish clubs, 5 mounted busycon shells, one of which was edged to serve as a celt, several of the shell funnels which proved to have been mounted on handles as spoons, many necklace pendants, etc. etc." (Cushing 1895a)

"Calusa," by Dean Quigley, reproduced with permission by Alton Martin depicts a scene of life in the village. Before leaving Marco, he secured permission from Capt. Collier to come back, bring men, and excavate the place more thoroughly.

Thus the Pepper-Hearst Expedition was arranged.

It was sponsored jointly by the Archaeology Department of the University of Pennsylvania and the Bureau of Ethnology.

Mrs. William Randolph Hearst, Dr. Pepper's patron, helped financially while Jacob Disston, of a prominent Philadelphia industrial family, offered his schooner, the Silver Spray, from his sponging fleet at Tarpon Springs.

The two institutions agreed to an equal division of artifacts.

Sail to Marco

Cushing arrived on Marco Island in February 1896. He described his sail to Marco Island in a preliminary report to the American Philosophical Society the following November:

"From Naples City the sail to Marco was short; for squalls were rising over the Gulf, making it's opalescent waters tumultuous and magnificent, but to my sailors, terrible, driving us now and anon furiously fast through the rising billows, though our sails were reefed low.

"Big Marco Pass opened tortuously between two islands of sand; the northern one narrow, long and straight, backed by mangrove swamps; the southern one broad, generally flat but undulating, and covered with tall, lank grasses, scattered, scrubby trees, and stately palmettos.

Calusa fishermen navigating a boat carved from a hollowed-out cypress log. (by Dean Quigley)"The mangrove swamps sundered by numerous inlets on the one side, this wide, straight-edged sandy island on the other, bordered the inlet that led straight eastward a mile or more to the majestic coconut grove that fronted Collier's Bay and Key Marco ... the key, and many other places of the kind, was now more or less connected with contiguous land.

"Yet obviously, when built and occupied, it had stood out in the open waters. It was not even yet joined to Caximbas Island (present day Marco Island) at the northwestern angle of which it stood, save by a wide and long mangrove swamp that was still washed daily by high tide."

When Cushing and party came for the two-month dig in February 1896 in the Silver Spray, they anchored:

" ... inside Marco Pass, northeast of the key at sufficient distance to protect us from the mosquitoes. We went ashore in a light-draught, double sailed sharpie."

Cushing describes the horrible working conditions:

" ... three or four of us worked side by side in each section, digging inch by inch, and foot by foot, horizontally through muck and rich lower strata, standing or crouching the while in puddles of mud and water; and as time went on we were pestered morning and evening by swarms and clouds of mosquitoes and sand flies, and during the mid hours of the day, tormented by fierce tropic sun heat, pouring down, even this early in the season, into this little shut-up hollow among the breathless mangroves."

Author: Betsy Perdichizzi | Source: Marco Island Florida [October 14, 2010]


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