Guest column: Rediscovering Naples' Ancient Indian Canal

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By Judy Bishop Naples Executive Director, Naples Backyard History

Naples Backyard History is digging deep into the ancient history of our unique community. “Digging” is in the form of an archaeological dig to explore age of the Indian Canal that crossed the Old Naples peninsula. Also referenced as the Calusa Canal, it was constructed many hundreds of years ago by an industrious community of Indians associated with the Calusa tribe.

The purpose of the canal was to provide quick and safe passage for canoes from the Gulf to the bay.

Naples Backyard History, with the assistance of archaeologist Bob Carr and ocean engineer Todd Turrell, is planning an excavation specifically designed to reach the bottom of the canal and verify its age and construction.

The meandering route begins at the Gulf just south of 10th Avenue South, crosses near the park at Broad Avenue South and Third Street South and reaches the bay south of 13th Avenue South.

Knowing more about our region’s varied and unique history and providing this knowledge to our community is our goal. Only a few of these canals are known to have existed throughout Florida and our country.

With sufficient funding, exploratory work is planned before the end of this year. Donations are needed.The estimated cost to complete the project is $25,000.

Naples Backyard History, a 501(c)3 non-profit, hopes the community will join this exciting opportunity — for us as well as our children and grandchildren.

Donations can be sent to the organization at P.O. Box 2149, Naples 34106.

Our ancient history is documented by our Collier County museums, and a pictorial rendition of the Calusa Indian way of life is currently available. Yet, because our canal was filled in the 1920s, present-day Neapolitans have only a tenuous connection to that part of Naples’ past.

Just recently a group of us went to see similar work done by the University of Florida at the excellent Randell Research Center in Pineland in Lee County. A small section of the Pine Island Canal remains at the 50-acre site, once a major town of the native Calusa.

If you have not been there, it is worth a visit.

The Naples Canal was first documented in 1874 and the Smithsonian’s 1881 report to Congress includes a map.

In 1883 archaeologist Andrew Douglass described the canal as a work of great antiquity. As stated in The Naples Company promotional brochure of 1888, “One of the most curious of these (relics) is a canal about one and a half miles long, extending from the Gulf to the Bay, across the lower end of the town site. It is forty-seven feet wide, twenty-five fee deep, and an excellent piece of engineering work, but by whom was it built or for what purpose is a matter of conjecture.”

Early settlers believed that the canal had been dug by pirates or European explorers. It was inconceivable to them that it could have been built by native Indians whose wooden and shell tools were thought to be inadequate for such a monumental task.

Working with us, Carr and Turrell were able to take advantage of a brief window of opportunity in November 2011 when a new storm sewer system was installed along Gulf Shore Boulevard. At 10th Street South, a known canal crossing point, archaeological technician Scott Faulkner had only a few minutes to scurry eight feet down into the excavation to obtain a soil and wood sample.

Analysis of the sample provided a date of 1670 AD of our canal. However, since the material was obtained well above the canal bottom, an initial construction date of the Indian Canal is estimated to be 1200 to 1400 AD.

It is not possible to do a full excavation or replicate a canal of these dimensions, but a controlled archaeological dig will not require a lot of space. Frequently, small artifacts from this type of excavation are found in very good condition since the muck at the bottom of a canal is often devoid of oxygen thereby preventing significant deterioration.

To learn more about our exciting Indian Canal, a talk at our museum by Bob Carr can be viewed on our website www.naplesbackyardhistory.org.

Please join us in unearthing the details of this exciting Naples treasure.

The Naples Backyard History Museum is located in the plaza at 1170 Third St. S., facing Broad Avenue South; 239-7742978.

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