History of Cape Coral
The city of Cape Coral is located in Lee County, Florida, United States, on the Caloosahatchee River near its intersection with the Gulf of Mexico. Cape Coral was developed as a large subdivision of single-family homes through Gulf American Land Corporation founded in 1957 by brothers Jack and Leonard Rosen. Promoted as a “Waterfront Wonderland” with more canals than the city of Venice, Italy, Cape Coral has over 400 miles of navigable waterways, more than any other city in the world. With an area of close to 120 square miles, geographically Cape Coral is the second largest city in Florida and the largest city between Tampa and Miami. Incorporated in 1970, Cape Coral has transformed over the years into a vibrant city with a current estimated population of 200,000.
Paleoindians and the Calusa
Florida was inhabited by Paleoindians as early as 12,000 years ago. By 800 C.E. (Common Era) the coastal region between Port Charlotte and Marcos Island, including the area around the mouth of the Caloosahatchee River and several of the barrier islands such as Cabbage Key, Pine Island and Sanibel, was home to the Calusa. The Calusa were one of six aboriginal bands living on the Florida Peninsula. They were probably the most powerful native group in the American Southeast with more than 20,000 people in 50 to 60 communities across an area that encompassed 150 to 200 kilometers of coastal and inland terrain (Thompson et al. 30).
The Calusa and the Spanish
When the Spanish arrived at Mound Key in 1513, the Calusa controlled most of south Florida. The Calusa domain was “demographically and geographically extensive—much more so than other southeastern groups at the time” (Thompson et al. 77).
They were hostile to Spanish incursions into their territory. Relations between the Calusa and the Spanish were a mixture of political alliance and military warfare, with the Calusa able to prevent Spanish colonization in their domain (Thompson et al. 73).
The ultimate effect of European colonialism on the Calusa (i.e., depopulation due to disease and eventual abandonment of their homeland) was similar to other Native American groups. The historical events leading to this outcome, however, were much different and the Calusa were “among only a few Native American groups in the American Southeast to weather the incursion of Europeans for an extended period” (Thompson et al. 73). For all intents and purposes, the Calusa no longer existed after 1763.
Just as the Calusa began to disappear, tribal bands from southern Georgia and Alabama began migrating into north Florida. In the 1700s these native American groups included bands of Creeks from South Georgia and Alabama as well as Yuchis, Yamasses and a few aboriginal remnants and runaway slaves. They began appearing in North Florida around 1716. The Spanish called them cimmarones, meaning that they were groups separated from their original ancestral homelands. This term translated into the Muskogean language as Seminole. By the 1760s, British began using some form of the term Seminole to refer to this group. (Weisman, 196-197). Gradually these groups of Native Americans and runaway slaves called themselves Seminoles and settled primarily in the region that included Tallahassee, Central Florida, and Tampa Bay. By the early 19th Century, Seminole prosperity and expansion throughout Florida was driven by trade with the Spanish, British and other native groups. As bands of runaway slaves became attached to the Seminole, the entire group became known as “wild people/runaways” (Weisman 201).
Conflicts between the Seminole and European settlers significantly intensified with the transfer of Spanish Florida to the United States, in three major wars between 1816 and 1858. The United States Army engaged the Seminole, ostensibly to protect white settlers from attack, and to continue the U.S. government’s policy of Indian Removal. These federal government goals conflicted with promises made to the Seminole and triggered Seminoles to retaliate. Redfish Point in today’s Cape Coral, was the site of the Massacre of Harney’s Point during the Second Seminole War in 1839. Fearing that the U.S. Army intended the encampment to be a staging ground for further “Indian Removal”, a band of Seminole allies, the Spanish Indians led by Chief Chekaika, attacked the encampment which was under the command of Colonel William Harney, killing 13 soldiers and forcing Harney and his remaining men to escape down the Caloosahatchee River (Monaco 127). Harney and a detachment of ninety men returned the following year, killing nine warriors and Chief Chekaika (Monaco 131-132).
Seminole attacks against United States forces and the US policy of Indian Removal ultimately reduced the Seminole population from 5,000 to a small remnant of 200 people by 1858 (Weisman 203). It is from this remnant that today’s Seminole people are descended.
Homesteaders in Southwest Florida
As farmers and planters from Alabama and Georgia were extending southern plantation culture and economy to northern Florida in the early 19th Century, central and southwestern Florida remained sparsely settled wilderness populated by a few pioneering homesteaders whose main occupations were farming and cattle ranching. The primary connection between southwestern Florida and the capital of the Florida territory in Tallahassee, was mainly via boat along the coast or Florida’s inland rivers.
The population of homesteaders in southwestern Florida increased after the Civil War. The families who settled in what is now Cape Coral, were among thousands of US citizens who acquired land through the US government land grant program which essentially exchanged land for a homesteader’s promise to cultivate it and make it productive. Land was also auctioned at very cheap prices to attract settlers and investors, especially railroad builders. From the very early days of the Republic, the US government traded/sold its millions of acres of public lands to generate revenue and to encourage settlement and investment of the American western frontier. This practice was regulated through the 1862 Homestead
Act which applied to the southern frontier in Florida as well as to other parts of the country (Homestead Act of 1862. National Archives. archives.gov/education/lessons/homestead-act.)
Until the middle of the 20th Century, cattle ranching, logging, lumber mills, citrus groves, and gladiolus farms were mainstays of the southwest Florida economy. When the Rosen brothers purchased Red Fish Point in 1956, today’s Cape Coral was owned by a succession of lumber and cattle companies including the Atlantic Gulf Coast Canal and Okeechobee Land Company, the J.W. McWilliams Company, and the Matlacha Cattle Company (Zeiss 98-139).
World War II, Gulf American and the Founding of Cape Coral
World War II was the catalyst that transformed south Florida from rural, sparsely populated fishing and hunting grounds to the densely populated urban region that it is today. As a preferred location for training nearly two million GIs, the influx helped the state’s economy recover from its low point during the Great Depression a decade earlier. Many of these soldiers that trained here fell in love with Florida’s subtropical climate, affordable land, and outdoor sports, returned after the war as tourists and home buyers. As such, they were prime targets of postwar land developers and speculators who sought to capitalize on the post war real estate boom in Florida.
Aided by the state’s loosely regulated real estate industry, developers like the Mackle brothers and the Rosen brothers established the installment land sales industry to finance the development of large areas of subdivided land which they then sold to veterans and retirees as homesites in planned communities throughout the southern part of the state. Lehigh Acres, Port Charlotte and Cape Coral were all born from the installment land sales boom that spread throughout south Florida in the 1950s and 1960s (Mormino 43-76).
Cape Coral was the brainchild of Jack and Leonard Rosen, founders of Gulf Guarantee Land and Title Company, later renamed Gulf American Land Corporation. The Rosen brothers joined the post war land development boom during a visit to southwest Florida in 1956 when they purchased the 1,724-acre Redfish Point tract in Lee County for $678,000 (Cumming 23-24). By January 1958, they opened a sales office and began selling lots.
Cape Coral lots, like most of the lots sold in Florida between 1960 and 1975, were not sold through bank mortgages but were financed through corporations selling lots through installment plans, 10% down and $10 dollars a month. Upon full payment of the purchase price, ownership of the property transferred to the buyer. This arrangement allowed corporations to pass on the infrastructure costs of developing the land to the buyers (Vuic 19). In this way corporations financed “a ready-to-build lot, a ‘homesite,’ in a completely new community with roads, bridges, power lines, drainage systems, and perhaps even a golf course preinstalled” (Vuic 20). After five years, the Rosen’s corporation, Gulf American, had elevated its Cape Coral homesites to “a septic-tank-necessary 5½ feet above sea level by dredging millions of tons of dirt from miles of canals, three yacht basins, and fourteen artificial lakes” (Vuic 20).
From Company Town to Incorporated City
By 1967 when Gulf American’s land sales activity peaked, it was Florida’s fourth largest publicly traded corporation with more than 500,000 acres of land for sale in Florida and across the United States (Cumming 24).
From its inception in 1958 until its incorporation in 1970, Cape Coral’s growth was tied to the fortunes of the Rosen brothers and Gulf American Corporation. The relationship between the Rosens and the residents of Cape Coral was mutually beneficial. The Rosens and GAC built the yacht basin and yacht and tennis club, the country club, the Nautilus Inn and Surfside restaurant and an airfield to promote the community to potential buyers. For the residents, these amenities were locations where the friendships and community relationships were established that led ultimately to the campaign to incorporate the city in 1970. Through the Rosens’ efforts the Cape Coral Bridge was built, and a bank and medical center were established. GAC hired managers to oversee numerous municipal functions such as a security force, volunteer fire department, and road construction.
During the 1960s Cape Coral acquired a post office, houses of worship, a newspaper, and a small commercial district. All these additions to residential Cape Coral accelerated GAC sales as did the construction of an on-site tourist attraction, the Cape Coral Gardens. Cape Coral Gardens opened in 1964. From its rose gardens and electrified water sculpture known as Waltzing Waters, to its patriotic displays and its woman-designed model home, Cape Coral Gardens was in fact, one of Jack Rosen’s marketing schemes. Unsustainable as a profit-making enterprise, the park became too expensive to maintain and closed in August 1970.
The Incorporation of Cape Coral
Even though Gulf American Corporation managed the municipal requirements of the Cape Coral community, residents were concerned about growing tensions between Lee County government and GAC over the question of ultimate responsibility for the municipal needs of the Cape’s residents. These concerns increased when GAC came under state and federal scrutiny for some of its questionable sales practices. Starting in 1968, the Cape Coral Citizen’s Association began persuading residents to consider the idea of incorporation. The campaign intensified in 1969 as residents grew frustrated with the failure of Lee County government to service the community. Fear of increased taxes and suspicions of Citizen’s Association leaders led a significant group of residents to oppose incorporation. Nevertheless, the incorporation measure passed on August 11, 1970, by a vote of 2067 to 1798. The bill to incorporate Cape Coral was ratified by the Florida Legislature and signed into law in early summer 1970. Seven city council members were elected during the fall of 1970 and the first city council meeting was held on December 3, 1970. (Doddrill 259).
The City of Cape Coral
At the time of its incorporation, Cape Coral had a population of 10,193 people. Along with thousands of acres of pre-platted land that was not yet developed, the new city’s government inherited responsibility for numerous complications resulting from the way in which Gulf American platted and developed the land. Built in an ecologically fragile area, Cape Coral was faced with problems related to accessibility of potable water and water quality as well as competition for water resources from surrounding towns and cities such as Fort Myers. As potable water from aquifers became scarcer, the city invested in a reverse osmosis (R/O) treatment plant. When Cape Coral leaders sought to strengthen the city’s tax base by expanding business and commercial opportunities to build additional schools and a hospital, they encountered a range of legal issues stemming from GAC’s land sales practices and complex ownership arrangements which made it very difficult to acquire large enough tracts of land for these purposes. Many of these problems have persisted throughout the City’s first fifty years.
During the City’s first decade of existence, Cape Coral professionalized its police and fire departments, and built new schools, municipal facilities, and other infrastructure projects to accommodate an additional 22,000 new residents. Cape Coral Hospital opened its doors in 1977 and by 1980, the Coralwood Mall shopping center was completed.
Cape Coral continued to grow throughout the 1980s and 1990s. During this time the city continued to adjust its commercial, municipal and industrial base to accommodate an ever-increasing population which has grown, from approximately 30,000 in 1980 to 200,000 in 2021 (https://www.biggestuscities.com/city/cape-coral-florida).
While Cape Coral experienced incredible growth during its first 50 years, the city and its residents have been adversely affected by natural disasters and economic problems exacerbated by the rapidly increasing population and the environmental and economic consequences of GAC’s land development practices.
Cape Coral was developed as a large subdivision of single-family homes built in a fragile ecological environment that required the eradication of thousands of acres of wetlands, and the construction of hundreds of miles of canals. Cape Coral was not conceived as a planned city with a central business district, roads, water, sewer, and electrical infrastructure to support its large residential population. When the Rosen brothers purchased and developed the Cape, neither they nor their customers considered the long-term effects of building on a flood plain devoid of its natural array of environmental protections—the symbiosis of wetlands and vegetation that filtered and drained water. Major storms such as Hurricane Charlie in 2004 and Hurricane Irma in 2015 shined a light on the city’s vulnerabilities and the enormous cost of damage repair and preparation for a future of sea level rise, polluted potable water sources and the high cost of constructing infrastructure capable of sustaining the city as it grows older and larger in this environment (see Stroud 107-111).
Given the predicted climate crises of the next fifty years, Cape Coral will likely be shaped by an ongoing battle between the forces of nature and the pressures of Cape Coral’s residents to continue living in their “Waterfront Wonderland.”
Cumming, J. Bruce, “A Brief History of Florida Real Estate.” Appraisal Institute, West Coast Florida Chapter, September 6, 2006, a-brief-florida-real-estate-history.pdf.
Doddrill, David E. Selling the Dream, The Gulf American Corporation and the Building of Cape Coral, University of Alabama Press, 1993.
Monaco, C.S. The Second Seminole War and the Limits of American Aggression, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018.
Mormino, Gary R., Land of Sunshine, State of Dreams, a Social History of Modern Florida. University Press of Florida, 2008.
Stroud, Hubert B., The Promise of Paradise, Recreational and Retirement Communities in the United States since 1950. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995.
Thompson, Victor et al. “Collective action, state building, and the rise of the Calusa, southwest Florida, USA.” Journal of Anthropological Archaeology. vol. 51, no. 5, September 2018, Pages 28-44. doi:10.1016/j.jaa.2018.05.003.
Thompson, V. et al. “4 Political Ecology and the Event: Calusa Social Action in Early Colonial Entanglements.” Archeological Papers of the American Anthropological Association, vol.29, no. 1, July 2018, 68-82. doi:10.1111/apaa.12099.
Vuic, Jason. The Swamp Peddlers, How Lot Sellers, Land Scammers and Retirees Built Modern Florida and Transformed the American Dream. University of North Carolina Press, 2021.
Weisman, Brent R. “Florida’s Seminole and Micosukee Peoples.” The History of Florida, edited by Michael Gannon. University of Florida Press, 2013, p. 195-219.
Zeiss, Betty. The Other Side of the River, Historical Cape Coral. Cape Coral, Florida, 1986.