Lee County Visitor and Convention Bureau: The History of Sanibel and Captiva

Welcome to Sanibel and Captiva!

These islands, which lie off the coast of western Florida, near the city of Fort Myers, were formed by the prevailing currents in the Gulf of Mexico about 6,000 years ago. Sanibel and Captiva are best known today for world-famous shelling, wildlife-watching and natural beaches.

But the area has shared a rich history with the Calusa Indians who arrived 2,500 years ago. The first modern settlement on Sanibel was established by the Florida Peninsular Land Company in 1832. The company began marketing Sanibel as a planned community that would “become the garden of Florida.” A few pioneers began planting sugar cane, pineapple, pumpkins, melons, corn, sisal and hemp (both used in the making of rope, hammocks and nets). Many turned to farming, in particular tomato growing. With a nine month growing season, October to June, tomatoes became a huge export from Sanibel.

Tomatoes were exported by boat and train and were taken to cities throughout the east coast. Unfortunately, a hurricane in 1926 covered the island with salt water and destroyed the soil for farming.

By the early 1900′s Sanibel was on its way to being a prime destination for vacationers: wealthy families from the northeast. Sport fishing became popular and to some extent replaced farming. Some of the greatest tarpon fishing is just off shore from Sanibel.

In 1928 a ferry service began to and from the mainland. Henry Ford and Thomas Edison visited the island regularly looking for new plant species and shells for study and identification.

In May 1963 a causeway linking Sanibel and Captiva to the mainland was opened. The resulting explosion of growth led to islanders incorporating the City of Sanibel in order to control development in the interests of wildlife, the natural beauty of the island and its residents. The original causeway was replaced in 2007; and features a “flyover” span tall enough for sailboats to pass under, replacing the old bascule drawbridge span.

With increased visitors to the islands, conservation became an important issue. The J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, which was established in 1945, is closely tied to the history of the conservation movement. J.N. Ding Darling, best known as an editorial cartoonist, came to Captiva Island in 1936 while serving as the head of the U.S. Bureau of Biological Survey under Franklin D. Roosevelt. He was passionate about conserving Sanibel and Captiva for their unique environments and wildlife.

Today the J. N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge consists of more than 6,400 acres of mangrove forest, submerged seagrass beds, cordgrass marshes, and West Indian hardwood hammocks. Approximately 2,800 acres of the refuge are designated by Congress as a Wilderness Area. It provides important habitat to more than 220 species of birds and welcomes thousands of visitors each year.

Many conservation efforts, including the “no live shelling law,” have helped Sanibel and Captiva islands earn their reputation as the “Shell Capital of the World.” Large parts of both islands are made out of shells. When dug, backyards yield conch, whelk, scallop and clam shells, often perfectly intact. The islands rank top for shelling because of geography. Sanibel and Captiva are among few barrier islands with an east-west orientation: most are north-south. Its alignment acts like a shovel scooping up seashells that the Gulf currents import from the Caribbean and further south. The resulting abundance and variety draws people from all over the world. Throughout the year, shell shops sell seashells and by the thousands. Shells are the dominant motif in island decor and boutique gifts.

Sanibel and its shells even made it into the Guinness World Records. Last year at the 75th annual Sanibel Shell Show & Fair, hundreds of locals and visitors came to Bowman’s Beach to break the world record for “largest treasure hunt game.” They showed the rest of the world their favorite shell-bent position, the “Sanibel stoop,” to hunt for sea shells.

The beaches on Captiva and Sanibel islands offer unrivalled space for families, walkers and fishermen to enjoy a climate that offers sun, sand and sea throughout the year. Sanibel and Captiva retain the charm and natural beauty that has always characterized the islands and makes it a unique visitor destination.

Source: Sanibel Captiva Chamber of Commerce and the Lee County Visitor & Convention Bureau.

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