About Useppa Island
Useppa Island lies along Florida’s storied Southwest stretch from Sarasota to Fort Myers – offering 5000 years of history and tall tales. Just a mile long and a third of a mile at its widest point, Useppa nevertheless is recognized on the US National Register of Historic Places for its pivotal role in the nation’s history.
The country’s earliest settlers thousands of years ago discovered Useppa… long before Presidents, tycoons, and legendary names made it their preferred fishing escape near the turn of the 20th century.
Inhabited first by Paleo-Indians before naturally separating from the mainland, Useppa Island was later a stronghold of the Calusa tribe. Some 50,000 members lived in southwest Florida by the time the Spanish arrived in the early 1500s. The Calusa were one of the most sophisticated tribes in North America – known for the innovative use of tools, fishing techniques, and the engineering of canal systems centuries ahead of their time. Warfare and European diseases led to their disappearance by the mid 1700’s.
Just like the Indians, later settlers came to Useppa to fish. Relations between Creeks and Cuban fisherman flourished under relaxed trade policies during the short-lived British rule of Southwest Florida in the mid-1700s, with huge catches of mullet salted and shipped to Havana and other markets. When the Spanish ceded much of Florida to the United States in 1821, tensions flared with new laws that led to the Seminole Wars.
Jose Caldez, a prominent ship master, customs agent and Useppa Island resident, was murdered by Spanish Indians in 1836. A small band of Seminoles burned the Custom House and destroyed the fishery Caldez had established on the island. Fort Casey was built in 1850 in hopes of stabilizing the area, later attracting Union sympathizers during the Civil War. Seeking refuge on Useppa island, they helped navigate Union ships through local waters. By the end of the war, 22 enemy supply ships had been seized thanks to their efforts, eventually leading to the capture of Fort Myers.
Useppa sat uninhabited in the years that followed, until Chicago streetcar magnate John Roach purchased the island in 1894 as the site of his winter home.
In 1908, American advertising entrepreneur and land developer Barron Collier bought the island for $100,000, and began creating one of the most exclusive sporting clubs in the world. At the time, Collier was the state’s largest landowner, along with hotels, bus lines, several banks, newspapers, a telephone company and a steamship line. He brought the same grand touch to his two homes on Useppa, one known today as Collier Inn. A golf course and sand beaches were added – and the world’s luminaries came calling.
With its reputation as a premier tarpon fishing destination and luxurious retreat, visitors included the likes of Teddy Roosevelt, Mae West, Zane Grey and Herbert Hoover. American reel maker Edward vom Hofe’s tarpon experiences inspired the creation of the iconic star-drag reel, which provided the control and ability to catch big-game fish.
In 1960, Useppa became an unwitting player in the country’s efforts to overthrow Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. President Dwight Eisenhower selected the island for CIA training to prepare both military and civilians for the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion, a military maneuver that ended almost as soon as it began as Cuban exile forces were quickly defeated.
By the early 1970’s, reliable infrastructure was added including pathways, utilities and a marina … transforming Useppa into the luxurious private club visitors find today.