Spanish conquistador Juan Ponce de León, who had sailed with Christopher Columbus, discovered the area that would become Florida after colonizing the island known today as Puerto Rico. He was searching for both gold and a legendary fountain of youth, and his 1513 and 1521 stops likely included the barrier islands of Lee County. He attempted to settle a colony in Florida in 1521 near what is now Fort Myers, but he quickly changed his mind and headed to Cuba after being shot by an arrow during an ambush by the Calusa Indians.
One of the most famous residents in the history of Fort Myers was inventor Thomas Alva Edison, who visited the village in 1885 and decided to make it home. The Seminole Lodge, his home and laboratory, was built on the banks of the Caloosahatchee River. He encouraged royal palms to be planted alongside Riverside Avenue, known today as McGregor Boulevard, which eventually would lead to the city's nickname of the “City of Palms.” Edison's Fort Myers winter home is now a museum that draws hundreds of thousands of tourists each year.
The area around the Lee County coastline is believed to have been home to "real" pirates during the early 1700s. These pirates made their mark by plundering cargo ships sailing to and from the New Orleans port, another area known as a hotbed for buccaneers' activity. Tales of piracy still float throughout Florida's history, and treasure hunters believe there are pockets of gold both around the state and in waters along its coast.
Famed automaker Henry Ford, founder of Ford Motor Co., followed in the footsteps of his buddy Thomas Edison. Ford bought three acres next to Edison's home in 1916 and named his winter home “Mangoes.” The home still exists today and is open to tourists, who can see some of the early Ford vehicles, such as a 1914 Model T and a 1929 Model A. A statue of Ford, Edison and Harvey Firestone is located at Centennial Park on Edwards Drive.
The United States government's longest continuous war wasn't against a foreign power. It was right here at home, as the military fought the Seminole Indians in Florida. The conflict stretched back to the early 1700s and continued past when Florida became a U.S. territory in 1821. The military built Fort Myers along the Caloosahatchee River while fighting the Seminole Indian Wars and named it after Col. Abraham C. Myers, the son-in-law of the commander of Fort Brooke in Tampa. It was built around what today would be Hough, Monroe and Second streets in downtown Fort Myers.
They say lightning never strikes the same place twice, that is, unless you live in southwestern Florida. The average annual temperature of 76 degrees makes southwest Florida a very attractive place to live. But all that outdoor activity could partially be blamed for the nickname “lightning capital of the world”. In the decade between 2000 and 2009, seventy people were killed by lightening strikes in Florida, compared with runners up Colorado and Texas, at only 27 each during the same time frame.
The military abandoned Fort Myers after the Seminole Indian Wars, but that wouldn't be the end for this southwest Florida military establishment. Historical accounts state that the Union Army reactivated the fort during the Civil War as a way to set up in Confederate territory, bugging those Confederates just a bit as Florida had seceded from the Union. The Confederate 1st Battalion Florida Special Cavalry, known as the Cow Cavalry, attacked Fort Myers in 1865. The fort withstood the attack, but later Union soldiers decided it was time to head out.
The Civil War would be the last use of Fort Myers by federal troops. When built, it included more than 50 buildings of yellow pine. After the war, it became a clearinghouse of sorts for settlers searching for building materials. Why let all that wood go to waste? The settlers dismantled pieces of the fort and carried it all away to construct their homes and other buildings. Some of the fort's lumber likely became the start of what would later be downtown Fort Myers.
Fort Myers literally lost much of the fort when people decided it was ripe pickings for lumber. That wasn't the only way the “fort” was lost, though. Historical accounts state that the United States Post Office took the “Fort” out of the village's name in 1876 because it didn't want confusion with Fort Myer, Va. The town became “Myers” until the government legally restored the name “Fort Myers” in 1901.
The Tamiami Trail, which connects Tampa, Miami and Fort Myers, helped spur the growth of Fort Myers in the 1920s as it cut through an area of wilderness and swamps previously not crossed by paved roads. The road took 13 years to build. Today it is part of U.S. Highway 41.
Gotten the hang of the history of Fort Myers? Check out our Pensacola history round up.