Little remains of the town that once stood at the site, or the building that once housed the southern terminus of the International Ocean and Telegraph Company (IOTC) line – which ran underwater from Punta Rassa to Key West and then underwater again to Havana, Cuba. The town also served as a steamship port for people wishing to go to Key West. Former director of the Fort Myers Historical Museum Patricia Bartlett is quoted as saying, “For a long time Fort Myers was merely a freckle on the face of the earth, and Punta Rassa was the far more important of the two.”
Colorful character and “Cracker Storyteller” Butch Harrison came up with the idea for the plaque when he was visiting the area a couple of years ago.
“I read about Punta Rassa in the book ‘A Land Remembered’ by Patrick Smith,” Butch told us. “And I don’t know of any place that has more historical and archeological significance than this spot. So I came down here and I was shocked that there was no marker to let people know about the place’s history. I went over to Sanibel and asked at Bailey’s General Store, and then I called the Lee County Commissioner’s office. They put me in touch with Mike Mulligan from Lee County Parks and Recreation, and we got the ball rolling.”
Butch said that the plaque was the result of the combined effort of a lot of people including Joe Akerman, Jr., Professor Emeritus of North Florida Community College – and author of ‘Florida Cowmen’ and Jacob Summerlin – King of the Crackers’- who designed the colorful plaque and Hank. O. Hendry, who signed on for “a bit of local color.”
It all came together on Saturday afternoon when Harrison, Akerman and Sara Nell Hendry-Gran gave a presentation about the history of Punta Rassa followed by the unveiling of the plaque.
“The Calusas called it “Point of Swift Waters”,” Butch began. “A total of four civilizations of Indians made this area home, dating back to as far back as 10,000 years ago. In 1521, Ponce de Leon brought the first cattle ever introduced to the U.S. to Punta Rassa, naming it ‘flat point’ – one of the earliest areas named by the Spanish.”
Harrison said that De Leon, who was here on his 2nd voyage, also brought a small band of settlers. “The Calusas, sometimes known as the ‘Vikings of Florida’ for their warrior nature, attacked the party and Ponce De Leon died of his injuries some time later.”
Throughout the 1700’s, the Indians became master cattlemen, having learned it from the Spanish. The Seminoles were particularly adept at it, keeping their cattle herds strong despite raids by the English. Since Florida did not have a fence law until 1950, cattle roamed free all over the state, identifiable by the brands they carried.
In the early to mid 1800’s white settlers, including the Hendrys and Summerlins, moved their herds down through central Florida (which was primarily graze land in those days) to the Caloosahatchee River, and then down the ‘Cracker Trail’ – a cattle trail running from Ft. Pierce to Punta Rassa – where they were shipped to Cuba, which had lost a lot of cattle in revolutions. These men, known as ‘crackers’ because of the distinct sound of their 12’ to 14’ braided whips, would spend many weeks on the trail, sleeping at night on blankets and saddles. In 1838, Punta Rassa became the site of Fort Dulaney, established as a supply depot during the Second Seminole War. By 1840, 30,000 head of cattle were shipped out of Punta Rassa each year.
“The Cubans and Spanish liked the taste of Florida cattle better than Texas cows because it had a venison like quality,” said Harrison. “Our cattle usually weighed about 600 pounds, and it was said that Florida grasses were what gave the meat the taste and texture that the Cubans liked.”
Butch talked about the qualities exhibited by the ‘cow-hunters’, as they were called. “The early cattlemen were strongly individualistic and independent. They were all woodsmen, and many were trained in the veterinary arts,” said Butch. “Most had befriended and learned from the Indians, and they were all resourceful. They had a strong spiritual dimension, and while they were men of ambition, that ambition ran more towards wonder and curiosity instead of money.”
Florida was the third state to secede from the Union, three months before the fighting began at Fort Sumter. Most of the cowmen had few – if any – slaves, and supported the Confederacy solely because Florida was in the war. During the summer of 1861, Union forces had imposed a naval blockade along the west coast, including Punta Rassa (where they reactivated Fort Dulaney). This did little to stop Summerlin and Hendry from getting their cattle out to the Cuban markets and to help feed Confederate soldiers, and ‘blockade running’ became quite common.
Following the war, Punta Rassa thrived on the flourishing cattle industry. Cowmen were paid in Spanish gold, which greatly helped since Florida, like most of the Confederate states, was left virtually destitute during Reconstruction.
“In 1866, the International Ocean and Telegraph Company took over the fort and port of Punta Rassa,” Florida historian Joe Akerman told us. “They also controlled the shipping rights, pens and the dock. For the use of these facilities, the company usually charged 15 cents a cow.” Cattleman Captain F.A. Hendry, a strong believer in private enterprise, responded by building his own cow pens along with a wharf and charged only 10 cents a cow. In the fall of 1878, Jacob Summerlin bought all of this from Captain Hendry for $10,000 and erected what came to be known as the famous Summerlin Hotel.
“The hotel accommodated hunters, drovers, ranchers and Spanish cattle buyers from Cuba,” said Ackerman, reading from his book “Jacob Summerlin – King of the Crackers”. He went on to say that, “By 1873, there were approximately 500,000 head of cattle in Florida, valued at $4,322,000.”
But by the 1880’s Florida was beginning to have serious competition in the cattle industry from Texas and Central America. In 1885, New York sportsman W.H. Wood caught the first tarpon ever landed on rod and reel, and George Shultz, who ran the inn for the IOTC, renamed it “Tarpon House” as fame of a different sort began to spread.
In 1898, Punta Rassa was the first town in the country to hear about the Spanish sinking of the U.S. battleship Maine – via the telegraph.
By the early 1900’s, Punta Rassa was attracting sportsmen from around the world, though cattle were still being shipped from there. Sara Nell Hendry-Gran read some passages written by her Aunt Nell Gould – the schoolteacher there at the time – describing life in Punta Rassa in 1910.
“There were six buildings at Punta Rassa in 1910,” Sara Nell read. “These were the large Shultz Hotel, the Rufus Yent temporary dwelling, two neat white cottages which housed the telegraph office and the operator’s family, and the historic Summerlin House. The school was in large building over the water near the dock where cattle were loaded to be shipped to Key West.”
“There was no road to Punta Rassa in 1910. The Kinzie Brothers steamer ‘Gladys’ brought mail, passengers and freight en route to Sanibel and Captiva daily except Sundays.”
Sara Nell said her Aunt Nell told of how the cow pens were located near the “Summerlin-Towles house”, built in 1874. “The cowmen would camp underneath the house, cooking over a campfire and sleeping under mosquito nets at night, usually staying for one or two nights. When the men were ready to load the cattle onto the ship, they would put a few seashells into five gallon oil cans and startle the cows into running onto the ship.” She told us how her aunt recalled how they had received warning of a hurricane, and everyone at Punta Rassa went on board the steamship ‘Mildred’ until the storm had passed.
Shultz’s Tarpon Lodge burned down in 1906 and again in 1913. In 1927, Seaboard Air Line System President S. Davies Warfield planned to lay tracks to Punta Rassa – planning to rebuild it as a port. Unfortunately, Warfield died before these plans could be realized. These problems, along with the loss of the cattle industry, led to Punta Rassa being virtually abandoned. Except for the steamboat, which still took people to Sanibel and Captiva, the area remained this way as Ft. Myers grew up around it until developers took notice of the location and began building high-rise apartments and other residences. According to Akerman’s book “King of the Crackers”, one modern day developer was shocked to find evidence of the port’s glory days in the form of a certain unmistakable smell: “The woods for miles around gave off the pungent odor of cow manure where thousands of cattle must have once been penned,” said Theron Moore. “And no matter how deep we dug we still encountered the manure. Some of that cow dung must have come from some of old Jake Summerlin’s cows. That smell suddenly brought us way back in time.”
Today, Florida’s beef industry is ranked 10th in the country, and the value of the current herd still numbers in the billions.
When the plaque was uncovered to the applause of all present, Hank Mattson, dressed as a 19th century cowhunter, got up and recited his original poem “When This Old Hat Was New” about life in those bygone days.
The plaque itself is a work of art, featuring pictures of the Summerlin House and dock area, along with text outlining the storied history of Punta Rassa. Sara Nell Hendry-Gran remarked at how wonderful it was that there were children present, so that they could witness the historical event. Butch Harrison wowed the kids with his whip-cracking skills, saying, “Remember – this is part your history.”
“We’ve been working on this for two years,” said Hank Hendry of the plaque, located next to the public boat ramp. “This is a great opportunity to commerate Florida history.”
So the next time you’re putting your boat in the water at Punta Rassa’s ramp, or simply driving past on your way to Sanibel, maybe you’ll hear on the wind the whooping voices of long-gone cattlemen or, like Theron Moore, catch a pungent whiff of the past – when Florida was a much different place and when Jacob Summerlin and Captain F.A. Hendry competed for the title of Cracker Cowhunter King.
When This Old Hat Was New – Hank Mattson
I am an old Cowhunter boys
Come listen to my tale
Memories now are twice as sweet
Of the old cracker trail.
Fer Jacob Summerlin we rid
Fences then were few
When I was just a skinny kid
And this old hat was new
When the yearly ‘round up came
We rode off unaware
How often we’d be preyed upon
By Seminole or bear.
But when the herd was sold
And shipped across the blue
What bounty we’d behold
When this old hat was new.
At the Summerlin Hotel
Old Jake he’d take his place
And shake our hands as we came in
A smile upon his face.
His son sat at the table
And gave each man his due
In Spanish gold, believe me boy
When this old hat was new.
But the good times quickly changed
The Country was at war
And while the battle raged up north
Down here, the Federals closed our shore.
But Jake the blockade runner
Kept goods a sailin’ through
And Cuban trade was still maintained
When this old hat was new.
Well we lost the war but not the land
Full pardons we was given
Our beef again was in demand
And we thanked Jake and Heaven.
But lovin’ the work ya do’s the thing
It made our dreams come true
When Jake was Cracker Cowhunter King
And this old hat was new.
originally published in the Island Sand Paper, Issue 374, April 11th, 2008