Useppa Island: Playground for the Rich and Famous

Dated: September 6 2021

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We just spent the weekend cruising around Pine Island Sound, doing a little shelling and fishing with friends.  Although I have been here many times over the years, I never get tired of spending time on the water surrounded by the islands of Pine Island Sound.   

Pirates, Indians, and Fishermen

Since I am a little bit obsessed with pirates,  Useppa Island has always captured my imagination since legend has it that Jose Gaspar used to hang out on Useppa where he kidnapped the Spanish princess Joseffa de Mayorga.  When she refused his advances, Gaspar kept her prisoner on Useppa which became known as “Joseffa’s Island.”

Long before Gaspar and his merry band of pirates roamed the Sound, the only humans to inhabit the islands were the Calusa Indians and a few Cuban fishermen.  Eventually, the Indians succumbed to slavery, warfare, and disease.   One of the Cubans who lived on Useppa in the late 1700s was Jose Caldez who opened a fishing camp on the island using Cuban and Native Americans to help harvest mullet.

Second Seminole War

Henry Crew was a customs official who was assigned to the island in the mid 1800s.   In 1835, the Second Seminole War was well underway with the removal of Indians from U.S. Territories. This affected the “Spanish Indians” who worked on the ranchos on Useppa and other islands in the sound. A year or so later,  Henry Crews was killed, most likely by the Indians.  American soldiers were afraid that the fishing ranchos were protecting the Indians, so they burned down these settlements.  According to the Useppa Island Historic Society, Crew’s replacement was Alexander Patterson who reported that there “were no living persons in Charlotte Harbor.”

The Civil War 

During the Civil War, Union soldiers camped on Useppa as Charlotte Harbor was blockaded to prevent shipment of beef to the Confederacy.  Hunters, fishermen, and farmers were the only other people who lived on the islands at that time.  Some of these people were union sympathizers who were protected by the Union army.  By 1870, the census showed two people living on “Giuseppe Island.”

Barron Collier

In 1894, a Chicago streetcar magnate named John Roach purchased the island and built a home there so he could get away from the cold Chicago winters.  It did not take long for his rich friends to discover his island getaway.  They convinced him to build a hotel on the island so they could enjoy his island home.  One of the guests was Barron Collier, who was developing much of Southwest Florida.  Collier fell in love with the island in 1906 so he bought it and turned it into a getaway for rich industrialists, politicians, and Hollywood celebrities.  These wealthy visitors flocked to the island for its tranquility, its first-class accommodations, and tropical atmosphere.

The Izaak Walton Club

In 1908 the Izaak Walton Club was founded which brought more visitors to the island to enjoy the world famous tarpon fishing that was becoming popular.  Some of the famous people to visit the island included the Vanderbilts, Herbert Hoover, the Rockerfellers, Rothschilds, Gloria Swans, Shirley Temple, and Zane Grey.

War and Hurricane Slow Growth

The 1944 Hurricane and World War II caused the island’s closing until 1947 when the Collier family operated a seasonal resort until 1960. In 1960, the CIA used Useppa for secret training of officers for the Cuban invasion.

In 1962, William A. Snow purchased Useppa Island.  He fixed and updated the buildings, installed a pool, septic system, and air strip.  After the 1966 Hurricane, Snow sold the island to Jimmy Turner who put in new docks and operated the resort on a year-round basis for the first time.  Four years later, the island closed once again.

Island Reopens and is Thriving

In 1973, Mariner Properties purchased Useppa from Turner but did not develop it. Three years later, Garfield Beckstead purchased Useppa from Mariner and began restoring the resort to its former glory.  The Useppa Island Club was re-opened in 1976.

By 1996, the Renovations to Collier Inn were completed and rooms were once again offered for rent.  Development began on the final phase of lots on the island—those on the southern end where the former airstrip was located.

Today, the Useppa Island Club consists of individual property owners who are committed to maintaining the island’s tradition of excellence where it continues to thrive as a private island club dedicated to preserving the best island experience for its members and guests.


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Ellie and Bob Bunting

Ellie has returned to real estate sales after spending the last 40 years teaching English at Florida SouthWestern State College in Fort Myers She has teamed up with her husband, Bob, who has been a....

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