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History of Sanibel & Captiva Islands, Florida

Sanibel Island is an island located on the Gulf coast of Florida, just offshore of Fort Myers. Located within Lee County, Sanibel is a barrier island – a collection of sand on the leeward side of the Gulf Stream from the more solid coral-rock of Pine Island.

The city of Sanibel incorporates the entire island, with most of the city proper at the east end of the island. The community of Santiva is at the northwestern end of the island. After the causeway was built to replace the ferry in May 1963, the residents fought back against over development by incorporating the island as a city in 1974. A new, higher bridge without a bascule (drawbridge) having to open for tall boats and sailboats, was completed in late 2007. The 1963 bridge was broken up and dumped offshore to create an artificial reef.
The island's curved shrimp-like shape forms Tarpon Bay on the north side of the island. It is linked to the mainland by the Sanibel Causeway, which runs across two small manmade islets and the Intracoastal Waterway. A short bridge links Sanibel Island to Captiva Island over Blind Pass. The Gulf side beaches are excellent on both islands, and are world renowned for their variety of seashells, which include coquinas, scallops, whelks, sand dollars, and other deeper-water mollusks, both univalve and bivalve. The Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum is the only museum in the world dedicated to the study of shells.

Sanibel Island is home to a good variety of birds, including the Roseate Spoonbill and several nesting pairs of Bald Eagles. Birds can be seen on the beaches, the causeway islands, and the reserves, including J. N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge. Common sights include pelicans, herons, egrets, and Anhingas, as well as the more common birds like terns, sandpipers, and seagulls. There is a population of American Alligators, and a lone rare American Crocodile has been seen at the refuge as well. Plants on the island include the native sea grape, sea oats, mangroves, and several types of palm trees. The Australian pine is an introduced species that has spread throughout the island, to some extent overpowering native vegetation and trees. Once mature, the pine blocks sunlight and drops a thick bed of pine needles that affect the soil's pH and prevents new native growth. The ground is very soft.


Sanibel and Captiva formed as one island about 6000 years ago. The first humans in the area were the ancestors to the Calusa, who arrived about 2500 years ago. The Calusa were a powerful Indian nation who came to dominate most of southwest Florida through trade and their elaborate system of canals and waterways. Sanibel remained an important Calusa settlement until the collapse of their empire, soon after the arrival of the Europeans.

In 1765 the first known appearance of a harbor on Sanibel is labeled on a map, listed as Puerto de S. Nivel. An official Spanish map from 1768 identifies the island as Puerto de S. Nibel (the "v" and "b" being interchangeable); thus, the name may have evolved from "San Nibel". Alternately, the name may derive, as many believe, from "(Santa) Ybel", which survives in the old placename "Point Ybel", where the Sanibel Island Light is located. How it would have gotten this name, however is a matter of conjecture. One story says it was named by Juan Ponce de León for Queen Ysabel (Isabella) of Castile; the island may indeed be named for this queen or the saint whose name she shares, either by Ponce de León or someone later. Another tale says it was named by Roderigo Lopez, the first mate of José Gaspar (Gasparilla), after his beautiful lover Sanibel whom he had left behind in Spain. Like most of the lore surrounding Gasparilla, however, this story is apocryphal, as the above references to recognizable variants of the name predate the buccaneer's supposed reign.

Sanibel is not the only island in the area to figure prominently in the legends of Gaspar; Captiva, Useppa, and Gasparilla are also connected. Sanibel also appears in another tale, this one involving Gaspar's ally-turned-rival Black Caesar, said to have been a former Haitian slave who escaped during the Haitian Revolution to become a pirate. According to folklore, Black Caesar came to the Gulf of Mexico during the War of 1812 to avoid interference from the British. In the Gulf he became friends with Gasparilla, who allowed him to set up on Sanibel Island. Eventually the old Spaniard discovered Caesar had been stealing from him and chased him off, but not before his loot had been buried.

Legendary pirate's dens aside, the first modern settlement on Sanibel (then spelled "Sanybel") was established by the Florida Peninsular Land Company in 1832. The colony never took off, and was abandoned by 1849. It was this first group that first petitioned for a lighthouse on the island. The island was re-populated after the implementation of the Homestead Act in 1862, and again a lighthouse was petitioned. Construction on the Sanibel Island Light was begun in 1883, but the community remained small. In May 1963 a causeway linking Sanibel and Captiva to the mainland was opened, resulting in an explosion of growth. The City of Sanibel passed new restrictions on development after it was incorporated; these were challenged by developers, to no avail. Currently the only buildings on the island taller than two stories date before 1974, and there are no fast food restaurants allowed on the island except a Dairy Queen. A new causeway was completed in 2007; it replaced the worn out 1963 spans, which were not designed to carry heavy loads or large numbers of vehicles. The new bridge features a "flyover" span tall enough for sailboats to pass under, replacing the old bridge's bascule drawbridge span.