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Bonita & Estero Magazine

The Ten Thousand Islands are Still Untamed and Beautiful

The southern part of the Ten Thousands Islands is in Everglades National Park, which is the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States. Photo by Capt. Brian Holaway.

When I want to get away, I go to the Ten Thousand Islands, off the coast of Southwest Florida. There are a lot of things that pull me in that direction but it is the history of the area that pulls the hardest: The history of the plants, the people and the way of life in the mangrove and shell islands keeps me going back to a place full of watery solitude like no other in the United States.

The southern part of the Ten Thousand Islands is in Everglades National Park, which was established on Dec. 6, 1947, and put aside 1.5 million acres as preserve. The park is the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States and was declared a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO.

The waterway south of Chokoloskee Island is known today as the Wilderness Waterway. It is a maze of mangroves that can all look the same to the untrained eye, and averages 2 to 3 feet deep. If you travel down the Lopez River you can still see remnants of an old cistern from frontier days.

Farther south in the backcountry is a little key that used to be called Posseum Key. It is now named Darwin’s Key, after Arthur Leslie Darwin, a fifth-generation descendent of the famous English scientist Charles Darwin. Arthur Leslie Darwin died in 1977 and was the last private resident to legally live in the park.

Not far from Darwin’s place on the Chatham River is the Watson place. No story about the Ten Thousand Islands would be complete without mentioning Edgar J. Watson. He arrived in Southwest Florida in the 1890s and purchased a 40-acre pre-Columbian shell mound at the bend on the Chatham River.

Watson became known as a successful farmer, growing sugar cane for his “Island Pride Syrup,” and also tomatoes, potatoes and other produce for markets in Key West and New York City. The produce and syrup were taken to Key West in his schooner that was called Gladiator.

But there’s another side to the Watson saga: He supposedly killed the alleged outlaw and ex-spy Belle Star. Some of the locals claimed he had a temper; others just stayed away. He was involved in a fight with Adolphus Santini of Chokoloskee while in Key West. Watson had slit his neck but Santini lived to tell the tale. The “scrape” cost old Ed Watson $900 before he could return to his place at Chatham Bend.

Watson employed a handful of people on his 40 acres, to help with the cane harvest and other crops. Some were drifters, some picked up in Key West and taken to Watson’s place. Locals recall that certain employees would end up missing on payday or never be seen again. This was known in the Ten Thousand Islands as “Watson’s Payday.”

The Ten Thousand Islands today are still very isolated, buggy and tricky to navigate, even with GPS. It is still an untamed and beautiful place to enjoy solitude, nature and times forgotten.

Written by Capt. Brian Holaway, a Florida master naturalist and has been a Southwest Florida shelling and eco-tour guide since 1995. His charters visit the islands of Pine Island sound, including Cayo Costa State Park, Cabbage Key, Pine Island and North Captiva.