They call it the Paradise Coast for a reason. Naples and the surrounding areas are beautiful destinations to call home or great locales for a Florida vacation. Learn more about the history of Naples, Florida, and how it became a world-class destination; so you can truly appreciate this astonishing area.
The history of Naples, Florida, is rich and varied. The region’s history dates all the way back to the Calusa Indians, who made contact with Spanish explorers in the 1500s. The modern history of Naples, Florida, begins a few hundred years later when settlers started to call the area home. Take a trip back in time by exploring this post about the history of Naples, Florida, and the surrounding areas.
History of Southwest Florida: The Shell Indians and Beyond
The Calusa Indians were the first people to call Naples and the surrounding areas home. In fact, the Calusa inhabited most of Southwest Florida. At the tribe’s peak, there were as many as 50,000 members settled throughout the region. The Calusa first made contact with the Spanish in 1513, according to information from the University of South Florida. Records from the Spanish explorers say that the Calusa were not friendly to the Spanish, and there were many attacks and skirmishes between them.
Unlike other Native Americans, the Calusa did not support themselves through farming. Instead, the Calusa lived off the water. They fished for food along the coast, bays and waterways of Southwest Florida. According to historical information, the men and boys of the tribe used palm trees to make nets. The nets were used to catch native fish like mullet, pinfish, pigfish and catfish. Spears were used to catching eels and turtles. Instead of making stone arrowheads like other tribes, they fashioned fish bone arrowheads to hunt deer and other animals. Women were also in on the hunt, catching shellfish like crabs, clams, lobsters, conchs and oysters.
The Calusa discarded their shells to form mounds. You can still see these shell mounds today. One of the most prominent shell mound sites is located at Estero Bay in Lee County. Mound Key is home to a large earthwork made completely of shells and clay. Scholars and historians believe this is the site of the chief Calusa town, where the tribe leader lived. You can find Mound Key Archaeological State Park at 3800 Corkscrew Road in Estero. Mound Key is only accessible by water through Koreshan State Park.
This history of the Calusa in Naples and Southwest Florida fizzles out in the 1700s. Rival tribes from Georgia and South Carolina headed south to raid the Calusa. Many of the Calusa people entered the slave trade, too. Additionally, the Calusa became susceptible to diseases brought to America by European explorers. Smallpox and measles wiped out entire villages and according to some historical records, the last of the Calusa relocated to Cuba when Spain gave Florida to England in 1763.
Florida eventually ended up in the hands of the Spanish again. Spain turned Florida over to the United States in 1821. By then, Naples and the surrounding areas had become inhabited by the Seminole tribe and runaway slaves. The U.S. waged three wars to move them away from Florida. These wars, spanning from 1816 to 1858, were known as the Seminole Wars. Many of the battles in the Seminole Wars took place in Southwest Florida. What are now State Roads 82 and 93 became essential arteries for supplying troops. By 1858, the Seminoles surrendered and agreed to move to Oklahoma. However, a few hundred Seminole Indians were left behind, hiding in the nearby Everglades.
Pioneers and Crackers in Southwest Florida
The roads that once served as supply arteries during the Seminole Wars soon became wagon trails, bringing settlers into Florida. According to historical records, the region’s first pioneers were poor farmers from Georgia and South Carolina. These early settlers became known as Crackers. Legend has it that the name “Cracker” came from the cracking sound their whips made. It might have also come from their diet, which consisted of cracked corn. Regardless of which legend you choose to believe, the term was meant to be derogatory. That didn’t matter to the early settlers, as they embraced the term with pride.
The Crackers and early settlers lived on ranches. These ranches were often isolated from each other, so the Crackers had to be self-sufficient. Because homesteads were miles apart, people would often go for a long time without interacting with anyone outside their immediate family. Crackers lived off the land. They raised cattle, hogs and chickens. They planted crops adapted for the Florida soil. These crops included beans, corn, melons, pumpkins, squash and sweet potatoes.
Many of the Crackers were cowboys who spent their day rounding up cattle. During the pioneer days, cattle were left to roam the woods and prairies. Cracker cowboys would be tasked with rounding up and driving cattle to market. They would search the woods and drive the cattle back using cattle dogs and whips.
The Cracker people also had a distinguishable culture. Unique architecture, musical traditions and diet all round out what makes Cracker culture unique.
You can take a step into the past and see the living history of the Crackers and early Florida pioneers at the Immokalee Pioneer Museum at Roberts Ranch. This historic settlement was once the home of cattlemen Robert Roberts and his family. You’ll find Immokalee Pioneer Museum at Roberts Ranch just outside of Naples in Immokakee. This interesting destination gives visitors a chance to see exactly how the Crackers of Southwest Florida lived and worked. The 13-acre ranch is home to 15 original buildings. The land and buildings tell the tales of the resilient people who once called the area home. You can find Immokalee Pioneer Museum at Roberts Ranch at 1215 Roberts Avenue West in Immokalee.
The Civil War also had a roll in the history of Southwest Florida. The Battle of Fort Myers took place in the last few months of the war and has been dubbed “the southernmost land battle of the Civil War.” Additionally, Fort Myers was built during the Seminole Wars and was Union-occupied during the Civil War.
History of Naples, Florida
The modern history of Naples starts when the land that became the city was originally surveyed. Advertisements were placed in northern magazines and newspapers that praised Southwest Florida and compared it to Naples, Italy. At the time, the surveyed real estate in Naples was listed for sale at $10 per lot.
During the late 1880s, Kentucky Senator and former Confederate General, John Stuart Williams, and his business partner, Walter N. Haldeman, took over the Naples Town Improvement Company. Halderman was the owner-publisher of the Louisville Courier Journal. According to information from the Collier County Museums, Williams and Haldeman then formed The Naples Company in 1887. The Naples Company’s main objective was building a town based on tourism as well as rail and sea commerce.
Williams and Halderman laid some serious groundwork for the city of Naples. In just a few short years, they established a 600-foot pier on the Gulf of Mexico, general store, hotel and post office. The Naples Pier remains one of the symbols of the city even today. By the summer of 1888, Naples had a population of about 80 people, and the hotel opened in 1889. Legend has it that Rose Cleveland, the sister of President Grover Cleveland, was the hotel’s first guest. Despite Haldeman and Williams and their bright ideas, slow land sales and increasing debts crushed the Naples Company. The Naples Company was sold at auction to Haldeman in 1890. His bid of $50,0000 (equal to more than $1.4 million in 2019 money) won him the Naples Company, the Naples Hotel, the pier, a steamship and 8,600 acres of land. Haldeman continued to promote Naples until his death, but development in the town paused. Despite the slow down, Naples remained a quiet winter resort town for wealthy families from Ohio and Kentucky.
Ed Crayton, a wealthy land developer from St. Petersburg, set his sights on Naples in the early 1900s. He met and fell in love with Haldeman’s son’s secretary, and the two were soon married. Crayton purchased all of Haldeman’s land and property in Naples. Crayton was responsible for the development on Naples until his death in 1938.
Crayton’s time in Naples was very productive. When the 1920s ripped and roared, roads and railroads finally made their way to the City on the Gulf. This opened the sleepy city up to even more development.
Collier County was established in 1923. Roads and other essential infrastructures were established in the 1920s that helped shape Naples into the city it is today:
- Electric power was introduced in 1926.
- Rail service reached Naples in 1927.
- The famous Tamiami Trail connecting Tampa to Miami and passing through Naples was completed in 1928.
The stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression slowed development in Naples. A few years later, World War II further impacted the city. The U.S. Army Air Forces built a small airfield in Naples. This field was used for training purposes. During the peak of the airfield’s use, several hundred men and 53 aircraft were stationed in Naples. In fact, many of these soldiers returned to Naples after the war as businessmen and homebuyers. Today this airfield is the Naples Municipal Airport.
Naples still continued to grow. In 1960, Hurricane Donna passed directly over Naples. Though no lives were lost, the city was badly damaged. However, the damage worked out to be a good thing for the city because the influx of money from insurance claims and loans stimulated growth in the area.
Today the city is home to more than 20,000 residents and Naples is the principal city of the Naples-Marco Island area. In addition to golf and shopping, Naples is known today for its breathtaking beaches. Sugar white sands flank the city and the calm Gulf of Mexico waters make Naples’ beaches favorites for locals and visitors alike.
News in Naples: Media History
News spreads in Naples. This is because our Southwest Florida city has a rich media history, dating all the way back to 1920s. And believe it or not, but the news in Naples has strong ties to the Commonwealth of Kentucky.
The publisher of the Louisville, KY, Courier-Journal was one of the first investors in the Naples Development Company back in the 1920s. News from Naples and the surrounding area was covered in the Louisville paper, which enticed others to take interest in the developing community in Florida. It has been reported that the paper’s subscribers were even offered homesites in Naples at a premium.
Kentucky’s media ties in Naples don’t stop with the printed news. George Dewey Polly, a Realtor from Harlan, KY, founded Naples’ first radio station WNOG in 1955. Mr. Polly brought in an expert broadcaster, Richard Goodlette, to run the station. WNOG and its founders certainly made a mark on Naples and Collier County, as Goodlette Road is named after the radio broadcaster. You can still listen to WNOG in Naples at 1270 on your AM dial.
Historic Sites Around Naples, Florida
History buffs love Southwest Florida. From Indian mounds to Civil War sites to museums and more, Southwest Florida is full of culture and history. Here are a few historic sites in Naples and the surrounding areas for you to explore.
The Atlantic Coastline Depot
Located at 1051 Fifth Avenue South in Naples, the Atlantic Coastline Depot was first used in 1927 — before it was even completed. The station was used until the railroad discontinued in 1971. Today the Naples Depot Museum is one of the oldest remaining buildings in the city. The depot joined the National Register of Historic Places in 1974.
Historic Palm Cottage
If you’re looking for a unique and charming piece of Naples history, look no further than the Historic Palm Cottage. The oldest house in Naples, Palm Cottage was built in 1895 by Walter N. Haldeman. Historic Palm Cottage is a two-story home built with unique Florida construction from a concrete mixture of sand, shells and water. Today you can walk through the home with a guided tour. Explore the history and step back in time. You can find the Historic Palm Cottage on the corner of Gulfshore Boulevard and 12th Avenue South in Naples.
The Naples Pier has a history almost as rich as Naples itself. Construction began on the Naples Pier in June 1888. The original Naples post office was located on the pier after its completion in 1889. The pier was also originally used as a fishing spot and to load and unload passengers and freight. By 1909, the pier featured its own bathhouse for beachgoers. Hurricanes damaged the pier in 1910, 1926, 1944 and 1960. Each time the city came together to rebuild the pier and make it stronger. Today the Naples Pier is still the city’s centerpiece. The pier now features a restroom, concession stand and covered eating area. The pier extends 600 feet into the Gulf of Mexico, making it the perfect place to observe dolphins, fish, take in a sunset and just enjoy the Florida sunshine. The historic Naples Pier is located at 25 12th Avenue South in Naples.
Olde Naples Building
Since its completion in 1921, the Olde Naples Building has been many things to the people of Naples. This building was known as a town hall, City Council chambers and a courthouse. It also was home to a number of thriving Naples businesses, including the city’s first pharmacy, a playhouse, movie theater, library, post office, doctor’s office, real estate office and a church. The building underwent a historic renovation in 2012 and today offers visitors a glimpse back in time to old Naples. Visit the Old Naples Building on the corners of Third Street South and Broad Avenue South in Downtown Naples.
Naples Zoo at Caribbean Gardens
Though today it is a nationally accredited place to see wildlife, Naples Zoo at Caribbean Gardens has deep roots in local history. Originally founded by Dr. Henry Nehrling, the gardens were once a private collection of tropical plants. By 1925, the gardens contained more than 3,000 species. The gardens fell into disrepair after Nehrling’s death, but restoration began in the 1950s. The gardens were ready to receive guests again by 1954 and featured a wide collection of tropical plants and birds. The site then opened under the name Caribbean Gardens. Other animals were slowly added to the collection over the years and by 2001, the Naples Zoo at Caribbean Gardens was recognized and accredited by the National Association of Zoos and Aquariums. You can visit the Naples Zoo at Caribbean Gardens just south of the Coastland Center Mall at 1590 Goodlette Road in Naples.
Old Marco Island Inn
Though today it offers luxury accommodations and vacation condos, the Old Marco Island Inn has deep roots in local history. Located on grounds originally inhabited by the Calusa Indians, the current inn dates all the way back to 1883. Known then as Captain Bill Collier’s Inn, the hotel was once a 20-room structure with a two-story outhouse. In the beginning, rooms were just $1 per day and guests were encouraged to bring their own meat. Despite its various expansions, the original inn still stands and is nationally recognized as a historic place. You can visit the Old Marco Island Inn at 100 Palm Street in Marco Island.
This history of Naples, Florida, is part of what makes this Sunshine State city so rich and inviting. Don’t just take our word for it: Book your Naples vacation home today and explore everything this enticing area has to offer.