Culture of Cayo Costa

A view of the sunset between the trees at Cayo Costa.

Cayo Costa State Park is in a region where rich marine resources have supported humans for approximately 14,000 years. Archaeological research has shown us that an indigenous society thrived on Cayo Costa as far back as 4,000 years ago. They were part of the Caloosahatchee culture. Much of what we know about the Calusa people comes from the large mounds of debris and shells they left behind. Several of these mounds, or “middens,” have been found on Cayo Costa. By studying middens and the discarded tools, pottery, bones and other artifacts they are made of, archaeologists can see how people lived thousands of years ago.

The same fish and shellfish resources that made this area attractive to the Calusa also drew Cuban fishermen and their families to this area in the 19th and 20th centuries. Tariva “Captain Pappy” Padilla founded a small rancho, or fishing village, on the northern end of Cayo Costa shortly before the Civil War. The Padilla family and other fishermen lived in wood plank houses with thatched palmetto rooves and shipped their catch back to Spanish Cuba. At this self-sustaining frontier settlement, residents dug their own wells, grew crops and held many festivals with dancing and music.

In 1848, the U.S. military utilized the northern end of Cayo Costa and the southern end of the nearby Gasparilla Island as a military reservation. By the early 20th century, Cayo Costa was home to a military quarantine station and marine hospital, three pilots’ houses, a post office, a dock, and at least two fishing villages.

In the 1930s, Pappy Padilla was buried on the island at the Padilla family cemetery along with his wife Juanita. An estimated 30 Cuban fisherman who died during a 1910 hurricane may also be buried at this site, although much of the area has eroded into the bay.

The last of the pioneers and fishing village residents left the island in 1958. Today, the park is enjoyed by a variety of visitors from around the world. Continued research continues to reveal more information about the island’s long history and culture of the people that lived there. Additionally, being a state park ensures that Cayo Costa is protected and preserved for future generations.