Southwest Florida was shaped and reshaped by centuries of flooding during the Ice Ages. Each time the polar ice sheets reformed and lowered the surrounding sea level, another layer of sand and shell was deposited, creating the limestone and sandy sediment that underlie much of Collier County today. The southern tip of Florida was last submerged about 25,000 years ago. Rich fossil finds show that this region was once home to camels, mastodons, mammoths, and huge herds of bison, deer and wild horses.
The first humans reached Southwest Florida at least 10,000 years ago, when the climate was colder and drier. The earliest archaeological evidence of man in Collier County was discovered in 1980 at the Bay West Site, northeast of Naples.
Centuries before Columbus, Florida's Paradise Coast was controlled by the Calusa Indians. Once numbering as many as 10,000 people, the Calusa were ruled by a single chief, supported a nobility and strong military force, dug canals, built huge mounds of shell and earth for their temples and important buildings, and collected tribute from towns and villages reaching all the way across southern Florida to the Atlantic.
Juan Ponce de Leon discovered and claimed Florida for Spain in 1513
and led the first recorded European exploration of the Gulf coast. He
returned to colonize Southwest Florida in 1521, but was mortally wounded
by Calusa warriors. Other Spanish explorers attempted the conquest of
Florida over the next 40 years. The expeditions failed, but decades of
warfare, enslavement and runaway epidemics of European diseases
destroyed the Calusa. By the early 1700s, small bands of Creek Indians from Georgia and Alabama began making their way into Florida. Eventually, these breakaway groups of Indians joined with escaped black slaves and refugees from other tribes to forge a new identity as the Seminole. Ongoing disputes and skirmishes with white settlers eventually led to Government pressure to move the Seminoles to reservations west of the Mississippi River. Risking death over deportation, vastly outnumbered Seminole war parties fought the U.S. Army to a stalemate in the longest, bloodiest and most expensive Indian war in U.S. history. The few surviving Seminoles found refuge deep in the Everglades and Big Cypress Swamp where they developed a culture uniquely suited to the climate and terrain of south Florida.
Southwest Florida remained virtually uninhabited until after the Civil War when farmers and squatters made their way south. Early pioneers fished and hunted for a living, raised crops of cabbage, peppers, tomatoes and pineapples, dug clams, made charcoal, sold bird plumes and trapped otters and alligators for their pelts and hides. Trading posts started by Ted Smallwood on Chokoloskee Island and George Storter at Everglades City became important gathering places for the few isolated settlers and Indians. Amongst the first settlers in the late 1860s were Roger Gordon and Joe Wiggins, a river and inlets still bear their name.
In the late 1800s, U.S. survey teams were surveying the southwest coast of Florida and reporting back to the United States Senate what a beautiful place Southwest Florida could be. A senator from Louisville, General John S. Williams, was spellbound by the description and suggested to friends a plan to go to Southwest Florida, buy land and develop a city. There, they could sell lots, make some money and have a winter retreat for themselves and their families. One of the men recruited for this adventure was Walter Haldeman, the owner of the Louisville Courier Journal newspaper. Haldeman was a man with the means to fund such a venture. In 1885, the men chartered a boat and sailed down the Southwest Florida coast looking for a piece of mainland where they could establish their city. As they sailed by the location of present-day Naples, they noticed the miles upon miles of beach, and when they discovered a bay just behind the beach, they thought that they had found paradise.
A persistent theme throughout the boom of the 1880s, according to Ron Jamro and Gerald L. Lanterman in their book The Founding of Naples, was the romantic notion that the Florida peninsula could somehow be molded into a mirror image of the sunny Italian peninsula. This preoccupation with Italy was on the minds of the men who formed the Naples Town Improvement Company during a strategy session in Tallahassee in the autumn of 1886. They had decided to establish a town and name it for Naples, Italy, a thriving seaport on the Mediterranean. They purchased 3,712 acres between the Gulf of Mexico and what is now known as Naples Bay. The price was $11,136, or $3 an acre.
Walter Haldeman and General Williams both bought land, and in a few years they were running the Naples Town Improvement Company. In the next few years, both Williams and Haldeman built homes on the beach, hired a Fort Myers firm to build a pier and had survey teams plan their city. At the center of their city was a 16-room hotel. They located their hotel two blocks inland from the pier at the narrowest piece of land between the beach and the bay. The hotel opened in 1889 and Rose Cleveland, the sister of President Cleveland, was the first guest.
By 1889, the Naples Town Improvement Company was running short of funds and borrowing monies from Walter Haldeman. Haldeman had so far invested $35,000 in the venture, and other investors were getting tired of losing money. On January 10, 1890, the Naples Town Improvement Company was sold at public auction on the steps of the Naples Hotel. The only bidder was Walter Haldeman, and for $50,000 he bought the company. Walter Haldeman now owned 8,600 acres of land, the hotel, the pier and the steamship Fearless that transported guests to and from Naples and General Williams' house. General Williams was so upset about losing money that he threw his house into the auction. Mr. Haldeman continued to promote Naples, but more and more over the years he ran the hotel and Naples as a loving hobby.
Ed Crayton came to town in 1912 or 1913 from St. Petersburg, where he had been successful as a land developer. He met a woman who was working for Walter Haldeman's son as a secretary. They fell in love and were soon married. At the same time, Mr. Crayton bought all of Haldeman's property except for his home. Thus, a new chapter in Naples history was started. Mr. Crayton worked on Naples development until his death in 1938, at which time his property passed to Mrs. Lindsey Crayton. Mrs. Crayton held most of the property until the 1950s. It was during the time the Craytons owned most of Naples that many important changes took place. In 1926, Naples got electric power. In 1927, rail service came to Naples, and in 1928 the Tamiami Trail was completed. At the time, Mr. Crayton was sure his town was about to take off, but the market crashed in 1929 and then World War II came along a few years later. Naples stayed a small but lovely oasis along the Gulf until the mid 1950s.
Collier County's creation in 1923 and its early economic growth were closely tied to Memphis-born millionaire, Barron Gift Collier. With his fortune from streetcar advertising, Collier introduced paved roads, electric power, telegraphs and countless new businesses and homeowners to Florida's last frontier. The completion of the Tamiami Trail in 1928 also unlocked the region's enormous agricultural and resort potential.
World War II introduced hundreds of aircraft servicemen to Naples and Collier County when the U.S. Army Air Field (now Naples Airport) was activated in 1943 to train combat pilots. At one point, several hundred men and 53 aircraft were assigned to the Naples base. Many veterans returned after the war as prospective home buyers and businessmen. A direct hit by Hurricane Donna in 1960 stimulated Naples' growth with an infusion of insurance money and loans.
The county seat was transferred from Everglades City to East Naples in 1962, signaling a new era of sustained growth in agriculture, tourism and real estate that has made Collier County one of the fastest developing areas in the nation.