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Historical good fishing on the Indian River Lagoon

The History of the Indian River Lagoon

Florida's Natural Waterway and Good Old Days

Thursday June 21, 2018

Above Photo: Bob Paty
North Merritt Island on the IRL

Little is known about the history prior to early European explorers and settlers on Florida's central east coast on the Indian River Lagoon. The Spanish evidently named the lagoon "Rio de Ais" after the Ais Indians that inhabited the area during their original exploits. Later, settlers would simply modify the Spanish name "River of the Ais" to the Indian River.

Modern day settlers or pioneers would inhabit, change and develop the Indian River over the course of many decades. Inevitably the Indian River and it's communities would grow in popularity as a warm weather mecca and opportunity for workers and retirement. Thousands of years of virtually uninhabited or sparsely inhabited coastline would give way to European advancement in less than 100 years.

The Early Years and Ais Indians

Early accounts of Central Florida Coast recorded a very hostile group of Native Americans called the Ais or the Indians of the Coast. The Ais and Timucua Indians lived adjacent to one another, but the Ais dwelled roughly from Cape Canaveral and southward to where Ft. Pierce Inlet is today. Very few European settlers successfully had relationships with the Ais and the Spanish were never able to Christianize them. Disease, war among neighboring tribes and with each other evidently had more to do with their demise than conquest from the west. There seems to be more speculation from historians that warring with neighboring tribes and cannibalism may have doomed the Ais. The last recorded sightings of Ais were above where present day Vero Beach near Sebastian in the early 1700's fishing in canoes. Prior to the foraging and hunting Ais Indians, there is little evidence of earlier inhabitants other than a small instance of early inhabitants near Titusville, Florida. It's difficult to determine how early native Americans dwelled along the Indian River Lagoon.

The Ais lived off the land and their primary diet was shellfish, fish and hunting. Large mounds of shells marked many of the camps and villages where the Ais lived. What caused the Ais to be violent and non accepting to outsiders is up for speculation.

After the Ais...

From the early 1700's till the 1800's became a silent period for east Central Florida's Indian River lagoon. With the Ais gone and no other indigenous people recorded in the area, parts of the Lagoon and particularly the Banana River may not have seen a human for almost 100 years until the first American Pioneers attempted to inhabit the area. There simply was not enough Spanish, French and other Europeans that were interested in the central Florida Coastline during that period. American was still sparsely populated and the trend westward had more appeal to pioneers and settlers alike.

The Louisiana Purchase was the catalyst that allowed pioneers to explore, settle, squat and purchase land in Florida after 1803. One of the prominent pioneers and settlers on the Indian River was Capt. Douglas D. Dummitt who would successfully establish citrus groves on north Merritt Island and ship fruit northward on the Indian River. The 1830's would start an agricultural revolution along the banks of the Indian River and central Florida. Indian River Fruit would practically be patented as the world's finest and has maintained that status today.

Small settlements and towns would spring up in Brevard and Indian River County for the next 100 years, but significant growth was slow and tedious. Henry Flagler would build and maintain the Florida East Coast Railway bringing visitors and residents to south Florida's Palm Beach and Miami area. Flagler built several resorts and hotels along the way and established himself as a real estate tycoon of the late 1800's. it seemed as if the Indian River part of Florida would be overlooked again as many travelers simply skipped over this region of Florida for south Florida's bluer waters where Ernest Hemingway looked further south toward Key West and Cuba in the 1920's and 30's.  But travelers slowly took notice and our sleepy area slowly grew with each successive year as new tides of people slowly ebbed onto the shores of the Indian River Lagoon. New history was covering up old tales of Indians and pioneers only to be replaced by newer generations of Americans seeking opportunity in Florida's sunshine.

The Turning Point on the Indian River Lagoon...

December 7th 1941 will be "a day that will live in infamy" for the Indian River Lagoon and Florida's east coast. With the coming of WWII and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor the United States government funded roads, bases and employment on Central Florida's east coast. No longer was Henry Flagler's Florida a resort destination, it was an employment opportunity for new residence. The real estate boom shortly started and the Indian River Lagoon would find itself being crossed by concrete modern bridges and bordered by roads, industry and residents. Brevard County would soon become the Space Coast and the Long Range Missile Test Range would become the Kennedy Space Center and men would be launched to walk on the moon from the shorelines of the once sleepy lagoon where Ais Indians fished and foraged two centuries earlier.

Space... The Final Frontier...

"As a child growing up on the shores of the Indian River Lagoon from the early sixties, I took for granted that it had always been the way it was.  My youthful ignorance has haunted me now as a fishing guide and resident for the last fifty years. Watching the Apollo space craft lift men to the moon and witnessing the first and last of the space shuttle launches, my curiosity about my predecessors on the Indian River Lagoon has changed my outlook about it's past and future..."  explains Captain Richard Bradley.  "The glory days of fishing on the IRL were prior to 1962 when I was born, the roaring 20's and depression years of the 30's and early growth years of the 1940's undoubtedly established the Indian River as the "Trout Capital of the World". Commercial interest in the 60's, 70's and 80's devastated the fish population for almost 30 years until the residents of Florida spoke up and changed commercial fishing by establishing a Net Ban preventing entanglement netting within three miles of shore."

"Florida's growth in the last 60 years has outpaced the management of it's resources and it shows in the Indian River Lagoon. I often daydream about what it would have been like to live during the undeveloped hay day on the Indian River Lagoon when sawfish were a common sight and manatees were more prone to southern waters where power plants did not afford them a wintertime hot tub to bask in.  It's difficult for me to accept that many parts of the lagoon have changed so drastically they will NEVER recover from over development, storm water runoff and commercial interest. But I must remain optimistic that mankind endeavor to save their own spaceship earth while their attempting to explore other worlds and beyond..."

A Historical look at the history of Florida's Indian River Lagoon on the East Coast of Central Florida. Beautiful waterways, spoiled islands and estuaries.

Published by: Captain of Lagooner Fishing Guides©

Author Captain Richard Bradley

Captain Richard Bradley is the author and contributor for many of the articles written on the Lagooner website. Richard is a professional fishing guide, taking anglers in his native waters near the Banana and Mosquito Lagoons on Florida's central east coast almost three hundred trips seasonally. When not charter fishing, Captain Richard enjoys time with his family surfing, fishing, camping and various other outdoor activities.

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