Prior to 1884, the government didn’t want anyone on the island during the Indian Wars. (The second Seminole War was in 1836.) In those times, there was no “law” closer than Key West. The government singled out the Spanish Indians (part Indian, part Spanish), rounded them up, and relocated them in Arkansas. The islands drew runaways, pirates, and refugees from around the world. Esperanza Woodring told Mary Bell that Black Caesar’s well was behind the Sea Horse Shops. There was a shark factory there too. They used the fins for glue, tanned the hides, and used the livers for oil.).
Some people tried to raise castor beans (some are still around) for oil. Some tried their luck at raising sisal for rope and twine. All of these ventures were unsuccessful. Jake Summerlin was a cattle rustler, rounding up not only strays but also some cattle owned by ranchers. His name has been sanitized over the years and a road is named after him.
Because of all the cattle trade with Havana at the time, an International Telegraph line was installed between Cuba and Punta Rassa, crossing Sanibel at the lighthouse. (It was on this line that the country first learned about the sinking of the Maine.)
Once the lighthouse was built in 1884, things changed. The lighthouse was built opposite Punta Rassa because it was then a big seaport. The lighthouse was at first lit by oil, then in WWII by gas, and finally was electrified in the 1960s. Because of power outages, it was not lit during much of the 1970s. People kept trying to keep it lit – which it is now. In 1972, the Coast Guard proposed discontinuing the lighthouse, but feedback provided by local residents and mariners convinced them to keep it lit. The city of Sanibel assumed management of the lighthouse property, except the tower, in 1982, and city personnel were allowed to live in the dwellings rent-free in exchange for helping to maintain and supervise the grounds.
The property was transferred from the Coast Guard to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in 2000. The BLM accepted an application from the city of Sanibel for custody of the property in 2004; after a lengthy delay, the lighthouse was officially transferred to the city during a ceremony held April 21, 2010. Using a $50,000 state historic preservation grant and money from its beach parking fund, Sanibel City Council awarded a $269,563 contract to Razorback LLC in May 2013 to restore the lighthouse. During the summer of 2013, the contractors replaced sections of deteriorated steel on the tower and then sanded and painted the exterior.
The homesteaders came in 1888. They had to be 21 or the head of a household, agree to stay five years, cultivate the land, and pay a small fee — $1.60 per acre. There was also a requirement that a homesteader never raised arms against the United States. As many potential homesteaders had served in the Confederacy during the Civil War, often land was homesteaded in the wife’s name. In 1889 there were 21 houses on the island, 40 families, and 100 people. By 1980 there were 3,363 permanent residents, and by 1990 there were 5,500. Temporary residents and visitors staying in condos are estimated to boost the population to 30,000. Laetitia Nutt, a woman of means from Kentucky, accompanied her husband to battle, along with her three daughters, throughout the Civil War. She wrote a journal published as “Courageous Journey.” After the war, the family moved to Louisiana, where her husband was an attorney. After his death, she lost most everything and decided to move to Sanibel. She came with her mother-in-law, brother, and three daughters. She was the first postmaster and also brought some culture to the island. Her daughters were educated and were teachers in the area. They also were very civic-minded, having founded two hospitals in Ft. Myers and the Sanibel Community Center on Periwinkle Way (they donated the land for the Community Center). Only one of the three girls ever married, as none of the suitors was good enough for Laetitia.
Oliver Bowen and family were the first white people to settle at Wulfert. He served in the South Navy, was a good seaman, and later built boats. When delivering a boat to South America, he met his wife and brought her here. He died before the five-year homesteading period was up, but she carried on.
Reverend Barnes was a minister from Kentucky. He spent 20 years in India, where his two daughters and one son were born. When he returned, he homesteaded 160 acres. He built the Church of the Gospels on the shore, hoping to attract sailors when they heard the singing of hymns. A hurricane in 1910 destroyed it. He built a lodge called The Sisters, which later became Casa Ybel. Thistle Lodge was built as a wedding present for one of his daughters, who met and married one of the guests of the lodge.
Mary Bailey was a widow with three sons who had a failing tobacco business. Frank and brother Ernest were partners in the business here. They were not homesteaders, but Ernest optioned six acres in 1894. They farmed and formed The Sanibel Packing Company and general store. Frank was known as the hard worker. He was everything to this island at the time. He was the Justice of the Peace, he extended credit to poor farmers, and was known as a very good man to all the islanders. There was a big freeze in 1898, but they worked, especially Frank, and survived and prospered.