"Don't tell fish stories where the people know you; but particularly don't tell them where they know the fish." - Mark Twain
In the waters around Pine Island, there have always been fishermen. For thousands of years there were the Calusa Indians. Other fishermen followed in the 1800s.
Starting in the fall of 1831, long after the Calusa were gone from our area, a group of fishermen arrived to fish the waters around Pine Island. They were from New England and fished from approximately 30 large boats. They caught many fish and turtles and sold them, either live or freshly caught, on the Havana market. The fishing in this area was seasonal for these fishermen, being limited to the fall and winter months. ("Honey, I'm going away fishing for the winter and the only place the fish are biting is Southwest Florida"). During spring and summer they fished back home because of better weather.
Another group of fishermen arrived each fall to fish the waters surrounding Pine Island. These were the Spanish fishermen who sailed up from Cuba in small skiffs. Unlike the New England fishermen who sold their catch live or fresh, the Spanish fishermen salted and cured their fish, selling them over a more extended period of time back home.
The two groups did not interfere with each other. The former lived on their boats and the latter lived in their "ranchos." These were dwellings approximately 10-foot by 10-foot square and consisted of a framework of wood with palm thatched walls and ceilings. They were equipped with some cooking utensils, a few stools and perhaps a roughhewn table.
Evidence suggests large "fishing villages" of ranchos were located on the northern tip of Pine Island in the Bokeelia area; on Useppa Island (called Caldez Island back then); a couple of miles up the Caloosahatchee River on the Cape Coral side; and at Punta Rassa. Other ranchos were scattered on various unnamed islands.
A typical village contained 10 to 12 buildings, some of which were used to store the cured fish for market.
It is interesting to note that when the fishing season was over for the Spanish fishermen, they would go into the countryside, or on the neighboring islands, and plant crops such as corn, sugar cane, pumpkins and sweet potatoes. They would harvest these crops when they arrived back here the following season.
Fishing was very good for these Spanish fishermen. We know from duty receipts at the Key West Custom Office that for the 1883 fishing season their exports to Havana consisted of dried fish, fish roe and fish oil. Total value: $18,000. Now $18,000 was a lot of money back then. In today's dollars that is $486,486.49!
A fish story? You decide.
For more history of Pine Island, visit the Museum of the Islands, Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., and Sunday, 1-4 p.m.
The museum is conveniently located next to the Pine Island Library at 5728 Sesame Drive off Stringfellow Road. Call 239-283-1525.
Tim Knox is the museum historian at the MOTI.