In Kathy Hepinstall's Civil War-era novel, Blue Asylum, Iris Dunleavy is sent to live in the Sanibel Asylum for Lunatics on Sanibel Island, Florida for the "act of defying [her] husband." Though the area is now considered a mecca for lovers of sea shells (SanibelHistory.org estimates that the resident population of about 6000 swells by 20,000 - 30,000 people per week during peak shelling season), it wasn't always such a relaxed place.
It is said that Sanibel Island formed about six thousand years ago. According to the Sanibel Captiva Chamber of Commerce, the process was the result of sediment rising from the sea "after being shaped by centuries of storm activity."
Dating back 2,500 years, the main inhabitats of the island were the Calusa Indians who "skillfully transformed the waterways around the island into abundant riches of food and tools. Whelks, conchs, clams, oysters, and other seafood were used for food, and their empty shells were crafted into tools. The Calusa proved to be skilled builders and craftsmen, perching their huts high atop shell mounds to provide protection from storm tides. Some of their shell mounds, which were also used for ceremonial, ritual and burial sites, remain intact today."
Explorer Juan Ponce de León later "discovered" Sanibel Island (which he purportedly named "Santa Isybella" after the Queen) in the early 1500s, and he and his posse warred with the Calusas for years. Incidentally, Ponce de León was shot with an arrow during these battles and later died in Cuba from the wound. The Sanibel Captiva Chamber of Commerce states that, "the Spanish were unsuccessful in establishing any kind of permanent settlement. However, their infiltration introduced European disease and slavery to Sanibel, and overcome by yellow fever, tuberculosis, and measles, the Calusa population all but became extinct by the late 1700s."
It's unlikely that a treatment facility such as that in Blue Asylum would have existed in the mid-1800s. At that time, the island was inhabited by pirates and was part of what was known as "The Buccaneer Coast." According to www.sanibeladvisor.com, around 1833 the Florida Land Company "began marketing Sanybel, a planned community, as a place that would 'become the garden of Florida'... During the Civil War federal prisoners were held in a prison on the Dry Tortugas, yellow fever became rampant and the only treatment was castor oil. Sanibel became the place to grow castor beans..."
However, as the Sanibel Captiva Chamber of Commerce states, it wasn't until after Florida was admitted to the Union as the 27th state in 1845 and after the Civil War ended that "increased military activity was able to secure the area and deem the island safe for settlers. In 1870, the U.S. Government ruled that Sanibel would become a lighthouse reservation and, on August 20, 1884, the Sanibel Lighthouse was first lit, and remains a working lighthouse to this day... In 1892, with a population nearing 100, Sanibel built its first schoolhouse, which visitors can now see displayed at the Sanibel Historical Village."
Fans of Randy Wayne White's Doc Ford crime novels will likely be familiar with Sanibel Island as it is a main setting for many of the novels. In fact, ardent fans of the series visiting Sanibel might want to drop in for a drink at Doc Ford's Sanibel Rum Bar & Grill which is owned by the author.
This article was originally published in May 2012, and has been updated for the
April 2013 paperback release.
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