Karen Nelson

January 8, 2019 – Karen Nelson of the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation spoke to a group of village volunteers about the life of the Calusa, Sanibel’s earliest inhabitants. Nelson became interested in the Calusa about 15 years ago. She participated in a few digs, was a tour guide at the Randell Research Center on Pine Island, and served on the board of the Southwest Florida Archaeological Society. Nelson has spent the past five years or so researching a novel about the intense period of interaction between the Calusa and the Spanish in the 1560s on Mound Key in Estero Bay.

“We were delighted to have Karen talk to a group of more than 30 of our volunteers,” said Village Executive Director Emilie Alfino. “Our volunteers are always anxious to learn more about the history of Sanibel, and the Calusa is a subject that might be overlooked as we all focus on the pioneers of the island. This was a good opportunity to expand everyone’s knowledge.”

Karen explained that her interest in the Calusa started back in 2002, when SCCF offered a Mound Key cruise and a native plant tour to Randell Research Center on Pine Island. Captiva Cruises took the students over to Pineland, and Nelson tagged along to write a story for the Islander, at which she was a reporter. “The following Saturday, I returned to Randell for their regularly scheduled tour,” Karen explained. At that time, there was no visitor center but basically a small footpath for the trail and some picnic benches by Brown’s Mound and a couple of porta-potties. “For that first tour, Randy Wayne White was hosting a writing weekend, and he came through the middle of the tour and spoke a little about the Calusa,” Karen added.

“Then, in July 2004, I had the chance to walk the trail with Randell Director Dr. William Marquardt and Dr. John Worth, who was then at Randell as the on-site manager,” Karen said. “Although it was frustrating — I felt that I didn’t know enough to ask really good questions — it was that tour that hooked me for good. Dr. Marquardt had his book, “Calusa and Their Legacy,” coming out that fall and I decided to organize a CalusaFest as a book signing in November.”

Hurricane Charley nearly derailed CalusaFest, but she carried on, and people did come and it was a wonderful event.

That 2004 tour also inspired Nelson to write a Calusa novel. “It’s taken a lot of years of start-and-stop research and then writing and rewriting and rewriting, but I’m really close to finishing it,” Nelson said. Called “Calusa Crossroads,” it focuses on the period of intense interaction between the Spanish and the Calusa from 1566 to 1569. “There was a fort and a Jesuit priest on Mound Key, the Calusa capital at the time,” Nelson said. “A lot of what we know about Calusa culture and religion comes from three surviving letters of the Jesuit priest. It’s just a fascinating period.”

Nelson made that period come to life in her talk, which was very well received by the volunteers. “The volunteers were great! They asked wonderful questions, which kept the discussion lively,” Nelson said. “The Calusa are part of the history of Sanibel, and the Historical Village incorporates that.”

The Historical Village puts on these speaker programs for volunteers, called Volunteer Updates. They are held the first Monday of the month in Shore Haven at the Historical Village. On February 4 the speakers will be Ralph and Jean Woodring, and on March 4 Mariel Goss will speak about the formation of the shared-use paths.

The Sanibel Historical Museum and Village is open Tuesdays through Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Full guided tours take place at 10:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. at no additional charge, depending on docent availability. The Sanibel Historical Village is located at 950 Dunlop Road (next to BIG ARTS) and there is handicap access to the buildings. Admission is $10 for adults over 18. Members and children are free. For more information or to make a donation, visit

Sanibel Historical Museum and Village is open Tuesdays through Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. The Sanibel Historical Village is located at 950 Dunlop Road (next to BIG ARTS) and there is handicap access to eight of the nine buildings. Admission is FREE for SHMV members and $15 for non-members (adults ages 18 years and up).  For more information, call 472-4648 during museum hours or visit

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