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Times of the Islands Magazine

The Silence of Useppa: Evoking 10,000 Years of History

Useppa now. The island has been a home for the Calusa, a fishing resort and a getaway for the rich and famous. Photo courtesy of Nick Adams.

We arrived on Useppa Island bearing gifts—three copies of the Sunday New York Times and a half-gallon of organic whole milk.

Waiting on the dock on a splendid November morning to greet us was Useppa resident Virginia Amsler, who is editor of the quarterly Useppa Chronicle. Few if any people likely know the island, its history, people, charms and magic as well as Amsler.

“I reverence the silence of the past,” says Amsler, a Useppa resident for more than 20 years.
Useppa is a place of silence, evoking not only the recent past but also the distant past—eons before Europeans first ventured here in the 16th century.

Reaching this speck of an island in Pine Island Sound requires the same basic form of transportation as that used by the Calusa, the native people who resided in this area of Florida. In short, a boat. While the Calusa used muscle power to propel canoes through the sound and back bays and rivers, modern tourists ride in air-conditioned cars to marinas where they board boats that will shuttle them around local waters.

In this case, we head to South Seas Island Resort at the northern tip of Captiva. It’s there we had reserved two tickets on Captiva Cruises’ Lady Chadwick, a two-deck powerboat with amenities not available to the Calusa or the Spaniards.

The Lady Chadwick provides air conditioning, a sound system and ice for drinks. Although Lady Chadwick sounds like a name that might belong to a neighbor of Downton Abbey’s Lady Grantham, tour guide Eric Aldrich explained that the boat was named after a Chicago opera singer. Her real name was Rosamond Chadwick and she was married to a man named Clarence, once the owner of the land now occupied by South Seas Island Resort.

So, it is the Lady Chadwick that carries us through the calm, warm waters of Pine Island Sound under a cerulean blue sky.

Once on Useppa, visitors and residents have another modern convenience unavailable to the Calusa or Spaniards—golf carts. We hop on a cart Amsler had parked next to the dock, and she drives us to her duplex so she can refrigerate the milk we brought.

Then it is off for a ride along the island’s winding paths—some paved and some dirt. The cart bounces along and over little speed bumps and past more cottages, in and out of shade and under a warm fall sun.

Amsler talks as she drives, stopping periodically to point out a house, a tree, a turtle or to deliver one of those Sunday New York Times.

To many people, Useppa may be simply a vacation destination or place to fish or grab lunch at the elegant Collier Inn. To Amsler, it’s more—a sacred place that connects modern people to the long-gone Calusa, who were wiped out by European germs and weapons.

The island’s human history goes back even deeper than the Calusa, to paleo-Indians, who first moved into the area about 10,000 years ago.

“It’s an honor to be part of that 10,000 years,” Amsler says.

Useppa is a spiritual haven, a chunk of land and Indian mounds oozing evidence of a lost civilization. Amsler feels their presence in the breeze, the water, and flora and fauna of the island.

The island is a virtually silent haven, far from the hurly-burly of traffic-clogged highways or hubbub of crowds flocking through stores seeking bargains. The silence is profound, even while bouncing along in a cart and having a conversation.

Amsler talks about how the Calusa believed people had three souls—one behind the eyes, another one a person’s reflection in water and yet another in their shadow.

“You can hear the spirits,” Amsler says.

So much is packed into this brief visit to Useppa. We lunch on the deck of the Collier Inn under the sweeping shade of a magnificent banyan tree. From there we gaze east toward the sound and Pine Island and occasionally steal glances at the good-looking, prosperous people at other tables. Who are they? Are any of them famous for something? Opera, perhaps?

But on Useppa that doesn’t matter. It’s about the silence and the past. There is much more to see and do. We don’t have time to play croquet on the G. Robert Sumwalt Croquet Lawn, a swath of perfect green likely as fine as the greens at fabled Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia.

We do pop into the Barbara Sumwalt Museum for a glance at island history.
But time is running out. The Lady Chadwick awaits…

Written by Glenn Miller, president of the Southwest Florida Historical Society and a frequent contributor to TOTI Media.