History of Shelling on Sanibel Island

Welcome to The History of Shelling on Sanibel Island

Visitors who come to this balmy and breezy little island that shares its size with Manhattan, New York are immediately swept up by its untamed natural beauty. Passing over the bridge that connects the island with the mainland, the fast-paced world is transformed into a place of quiet solitude. Sanibel is a place visitors of all ages do not soon forget.

The island is situated at a special place in the Gulf of Mexico - it has an east/west alignment. From the south comes a prevailing wind and strong currents that cause this eleven mile-long, 3 mile-wide island to become a scoop for seashells (Scherman, 159). It is one of the top places in the world to observe, collect and admire these natural treasures.

Interestingly, modern day islanders and visitors are not the only ones who have benefited from the island's abundant natural resources. Through archaeological studies, it is known that indigenous peoples lived on Sanibel Island long before the arrival of the first European explorers, thriving on the abundant fish and shellfish. When Europeans first arrived, the Calusa Indians inhabited the Southwest Gulf Coast of Florida within a diverse ecosytem, abundant with many species of fish, other animals, and plants. Politically dominant over most of south Florida, they lived in a highly stratified society, complete with extensive navigable canals that linked towns together. The abundant nature of shells on the island was incorporated into the Calusa culture and had both utilitarian and aesthetic purposes.

An Island For All Senses - Tropical Sun by Day, Starry Sky by Night

A Sunset Walk on a Beach in Sanibel Island, FL.If sunset walks like this one captured by award-winning Sanibel photographer, David Meardon, is your idea of slipping into a calm, relaxing tropical evening, Sanibel is the place to be. Even after dark, take a good look upward into the dark sky - it will be absent of bright city lights. The Sanibel sky is strewn with a palette of thousands of bright stars.

The Milky Way announces itself as the real thing - not a projected image from a seat at the planetarium or the fruitless search for the first star to come out at dusk in the city. Gathering your senses, you hear an invisible chorus of crickets in the seagrapes, singing the same songs their ancestors had before them, the way they were heard by the Calusa thousands of years ago.

Standing at the water's edge, on this island ten miles out into the Gulf of Mexico, the white sand is soft as powder under foot. The only sound you can hear is the gentle lull of the waves and the windchime of thousands of seashells being coaxed back into the Gulf.

Sanibel Inside Scoop: Filter Outside World

If you are one of the many people who prefer to park their car and travel to their destinations by bicycle, you will enjoy peddling along bike paths nestled by seagrapes and other island vegetation. One main path runs parallel along Periwinkle Way, the main street, that runs the length of the island. Efforts to filter the outside world are apparent - streets are named after shells (e.g., Donax, Pen Shell, Paper Fig) and, complementing the theme, there are no street lights. Many visitors make a point to visit the island's lighthouse, which began as a government project when the island was first inhabited by settlers in the 1880's. Many years later, the lighthouse is still in operation, but the former keeper's quarters are leased to the City of Sanibel from the U.S. Coast Guard and serve as private dwellings.

Rough Scallop ShellThe Economy of Seashells

Seashells have created an economy for Sanibel's residents since the time of the Calusa Indians and are highly integrated into the culture and the economy of Sanibel. As many as 20-30,000 visitors come to Sanibel and its neighbor island Captiva each week at peak season, drawn by the desire to walk Sanibel's beaches and its shells. Nearly 15,000 seasonal visitors travel to Sanibel in escape of the cold winter weather in the northern regions, including Canada.

No matter where they come from, tourists of all ages spend their time learning about the island's history at the Sanibel Historical Museum, learning about the diverse wildlife that inhabits the island at the J.N. Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge, or the ecology of the most famous island inhabitants, mollusks, during their visit to the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum. Visitors also enjoy the art of local artists in many cozy little boutiques and shops that sell wind chimes, jewelry, lamps, paperweights, decorative boxes and ornaments. And of course, conversations in these shops are usually centered around shelling. They provide a good stopping point between a day's activities, and a good place to catch up on island news and the tide report!

Website Mission

Crown Conch
This website has been developed as a source of information about Gulf Coast seashells and their vital role in the lives of past and present people who have inhabited the island and its diverse ecosystem. As a student of sociology/anthropology at Florida International University Miami, many fascinating questions came to mind while building this website: How did the first inhabitants of Sanibel use shells for their subsistence? What were the events that occurred in European society that led to the interest in collecting shells? Who collected them and how did that lead to their use by mainstream society?

Of the many expeditions that sailed to the New World, shells were among were among the items brought back to Europe. The pages ahead address the significant uses and meanings of shells in societies in addition to the Calusa Indians of southwest Florida.

The mass production of material goods during the Industrial Revolution made available countless products, including shells. These treasures of the sea became immortalized. They have been advertised, bagged, boxed, cast, collected, etched, glued, molded, mounted, painted, photographed, sealed, sculpted, stamped, studied - in other words - incorporated into our everyday lives as symbols of nature.

Wherever you decide to stop on your visit to Sanibel, you will be embarking on an adventure in a place filled with history - and shells!


Many thanks to the individuals who have contributed materials and suggestions during my research and building of this non-profit, educational website. Please visit the acknowledgments for a complete list of contributors. A full list of source materials can be viewed on the source link.

Do You Have a Sanibel Story? Poetry?

We would like to hear your Sanibel stories and poetry. Please send your submissions by clicking on Contact Us below. Please visit the Sanibel Stories page for interviews of Sanibel Islanders and the Seashells page for poetry. We would like to hear your comments and questions about this website.

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