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Spirit-of-the-Wild - History

historic photo of Captain Francis Asbury Hendry with a group of Seminole Indians.
Florida Photographic Collection Captain Francis Asbury Hendry (center, standing) poses with a group of Seminole Indians.

The Calusa Indians were probably some of the first skilled hunters and fishermen who harvested the bounty on lands that became Spirit-of-the-Wild. They inhabited coastal regions of southwest Florida and traveled up the Caloosahatchee River in dugout canoes to reach interior wetlands associated with Lake Okeechobee. The Caloosahatchee, which lies north and west of the WMA, means "River of the Calusa.” It flows southwest from Lake Okeechobee to the Gulf of Mexico (near present-day Fort Myers).

Later, soldiers of the Seminole Wars, cattlemen, hunters, trappers and traders came to the area, and by the 1880s, LaBelle and other settlements replaced military forts. Hendry County was named for Captain Francis Asbury Hendry, a cattle baron and Civil War hero.

The Caloosahatchee River was once a meandering river with its headwaters northwest of Lake Okeechobee. To provide flood control for surrounding counties and a navigable channel for steam boats from the lake to the Gulf of Mexico, dredging began on the Caloosahatchee in 1881. A canal was built to connect the river with Lake Okeechobee. This new connection opened the area to increased development and growth, but created significant flooding problems downstream.


historic photo of sugar mill at Clewiston
Florida Photographic Collection Aerial view of a sugar mill on south side of Lake Okeechobee near Clewiston.

During the 1920s, the town of Clewiston blossomed and sugar cane and citrus became important local industries. Southern Sugar, which became the U.S. Sugar Corporation in 1931, established a sugar mill in Clewiston. After 2,400 residents around Lake Okeechobee died in floods from hurricanes in 1926 and 1928, flood control began in earnest. A dike was built around Lake Okeechobee and the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers were dredged and channelized to create the Okeechobee Waterway, which connected the lake to the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico and allowed ships to cross Florida without going around the southern point of the peninsula. Lock-and-dam structures controlled water flow. The construction of this man-made waterway and a sprawling network of canals diverted much needed water to agriculture and urban uses and away from the surrounding areas and sensitive ecosystems of the Florida Everglades and Florida Bay.

At Spirit-of-the-Wild, Robert's Canal was dug in 1948-49. Most of the other ditching on the property was completed from the 1940s to the 1960s. Hydrological restoration at Spirit-of-the-Wild will take into account these manmade alterations and the WMA's location immediately adjacent to the publicly-owned, 32,000-acre Okaloacoochee Slough State Forest, a wetland that runs north to south between the Caloosahatchee River and the Fakahatchee Strand and Big Cypress National Preserve.

Agriculture and cattle ranching operations have flourished in the area since the 19th century. Today, agriculture is the base of Hendry County's economy. Sugar cane and citrus, followed by cattle and tomato farming are the county's most important commodities. Parts of Spirit-of-the-Wild have been managed in the past for quail hunting, winter crop production and cattle ranching. Much of the land to the south and west of Spirit-of-the-Wild consists of cattle ranches and vegetable farms, while much of the land to the east is in public ownership, including the Okaloacoochee Slough and Dinner Island Ranch WMA. Spirit-of the-Wild was sold to the state in 2002.