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Lost Florida tribe may have fled to Cuba

Researchers have discovered the first birth records of the Calusa Indians outside Florida, providing evidence that the once-mighty South Florida tribe might not have been wiped out as previously thought.

Anthropologist John Worth said new information from his search of records shows several dozen members of the tribe, which lived in southwest Florida from 100 A.D. to the early 1700s, escaped to Cuba after invading American Indian tribes, Spanish soldiers and diseases overran their region.

Though most of the band died from typhus or small pox within three months of arriving, records show at least one Calusa woman survived and gave birth, said Worth, the director of the Randell Research Center, which is located at the site of one of the Calusa's largest Florida settlements.

The woman, who arrived in Cuba in 1711 as an infant, was baptized in the Catholic church, and gave birth to two daughters in 1729 and 1731, Worth said.

No records have been found to show what happened to the girls, though Worth said he's now trying to trace their paths to determine whether Calusa descendants may still be alive. "The chances are probably fairly slim, but hope springs eternal," he said.

Calusa Indians, nicknamed "The Fierce Ones," were the most powerful people in South Florida when the Spanish arrived in the 16th century. They built large shell-mound settlements, most of which were torn down in the 20th century to be used as road fill, or removed to make room for development. But lost manuscripts from the 1890s recently found at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., provide a new picture of the tribe's life on Pine Island.

The manuscripts are from archaeologist and ethnographer Frank Hamilton Cushing, who explored the region in the late 1800s. Including maps and sketches, they describe a much larger complex than researchers believed existed.