The Calusa Indians were probably some of the first
visitors to the Spirit-of-the-Wild/Hendry County area. From A.D.
800 into the seventeenth century, these skilled hunters and
fishermen inhabited the coastal regions of southwest Florida and
traveled up the Caloosahatchee River in dugout canoes to reach
interior wetlands associated with Lake Okeechobee and the Kissimmee
River. The Caloosahatchee, which means "River of the Calusa," flows
southwest to the Gulf of Mexico (near present-day Fort Myers) from
Lake Okeechobee. The river lies north and west of
Spirit-of-the-Wild, close to the Hendry/Glades County border.
Florida Photographic Collection
Captain Francis Asbury Hendry (center, standing) poses with a group
of Seminole Indians.
Later visitors to the area included soldiers of the
Seminole Wars, cattlemen, hunters, trappers and traders. By the
1880s, settlements such as LaBelle, northwest of
Spirit-of-the-Wild, sprang up where forts had been built. 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 near Lake Hicpochee, 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.
Florida Photographic Collection
Aerial view of a sugar mill on south side of Lake Okeechobee near
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. 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,
35,000-acre Okaloacoochee Slough, 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 WMA. Spirit-of
the-Wild was sold to the state in 2002.