Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Florida Cracker Cowboys

It wasn't our intention to follow Western painter Frederic Remington around but it appears this is what we've done.

From upstate New York, where he was born, to Omaha where we admired his bronze sculpture at the Joslyn Art Museum, we find ourselves crossing paths with him from time to time.

We ran into Remington most recently in connection with paintings he did in Florida. Circuitous routes often lead to interesting destinations. This is what has happened with Remington and us. 

 From a chance encounter with one of his Florida paintings - the one titled "The Cracker Cowboy" - we've advanced our interest in Florida Cracker Cowboys.

We're familiar with Remington as a Western artist. We've seen his paintings and bronzes as museum displays and as reproductions.

We've visited his boyhood home at Ogdensburg, a small town on the St. Lawrence River. I remember the surprise of it. This man so identified with the West has his roots way back East. 

We commented then that the St. Lawrence River, with its gentle countryside on either side, could have been his life's work. It was right in front of him.

Throw in the beautiful Andirondacks, which shoulder their heights not far from Ogdensburg, and you shrug  at the irony of his missed painting opportunities. 

He didn't consider them missed opportunities. His destiny was in the West. The West gave him the focus and the horizons his artistic outlet needed. 

He found his metier in Western scenes and went on to establish himself him as a premiere painter of  the West.

His paintings and bronzes of cowboys, and depictions of the U.S. Calvary and the Indians of the transmountain West were timely recordings. 

This piece of our country was fading away. The frontier West and pioneering eras which followed were passing from the scene.

The West was being settled, fenced and  tamed like a calf in the corral. Remington captured the courage and adventure of the  West in transition to easterners who vicariously lived its romance.

His works form a powerful collective image of the West. We can't separate the West from Remington. He's the spokesperson through his artistic interpretation and perhaps artistic license.

The fact that his body of cowboy art includes paintings of Florida Cracker cowboys therefore came as news. It started me on a hunt to learn about the cowboys of the peninsular state. 

It's an interesting trail to follow. The cowboys of central and southwest Florida wound up my area of study.

From Kissimmee to Arcadia to the Everglades there have been through the years fascinating cowhands and wealthy cattle barons to fill not one but several books.

This gets me to 1895 when Remington visited Florida on assignment with Harper's Magazine. He was there to chronicle the Florida cracker cowboys who rode what some were calling America's last frontier. 

The August 1895 issue reproduced Remington's paintings alng with his account of his time spent among the cowboys at Arcadia. 

His illustrated report cracked open the mystique of the palmetto cowboys who differed in many ways from their counterparts of the Western range. 

Differences aside, all had expert skills in rounding up and getting their herds of cattle to market. 

They shared the free spirit which it takes to live a harsh and demanding outdoor existence and one which is also joyful and largely satisfying.

Bone Mizell is the Florida cowboy in the painting called "A Cracker Cowboy." Remington has painted him astride his horse which is called a marsh tackie.

Remington didn't invent the name Cracker Cowboy, as one source I read puts it. All the same this picture of Bon Mizell helped make the name stick.

Cracker is a name with long useage in Florida. It likely comes from the sound of the crack of the leather whip which cowmen used to organize and move the herds.

Somewhere I read that Florida cattle were called cracker cattle well back in time. This term, too, probably derives from the cracking sound of the whip which can be heard  some distance. 

The painting of Bone Mizell, and the five other paintings in the series, are the type of illustrated feature a national magazine like Harper's is pleased to commission. 

Readers warm to novelty and they like to entertained as well as informed. Remington's article did all. In addition it put attention on Florida which was becoming a winter respite for wealthy northerners.

Morgan Bonaparte Mizell, known as Bone, is arguably the most famous Florida cowboy. He's certainly one of the best known of his era. 

He was a legend in his time. Remington's painting of Mizell doesn't flatter him. It strikes me as more a caricature of a Florida cowboy than as a portrait. 

This painting, and the other Florida paintings, have a detached quality about them. The artist isn't settting himself up to be the storyteller. He lets the cowboys do that for themselves.

They don't look concerned whether they're being painted or not. Remington has  them going about their business even if the business if keeping an eye out for the enemy. 

In Florida cattle country of the late nineteenth century this means rustlers sure as anything. The cowboys are one with the scene, intent upon what they're doing, in every situation Remington puts them.

The painting of Mizell, of the six in the series, most invites me in. The painting grows on you and you go back to look at it again and again. 

It doesn't  suggest specific action as some of Remington's Western paintings do. It's more laid back. It's a more casual rendition of the cowboy life. 

Maybe Remington was simply catching Mizell's weariness at the end of a day in the saddle. Perhaps he wanted to avoid a heroic theme as one can believe he put into his Western art.

Perhaps he felt something was missing in the Florida cowboys. The rough edges were there as with the Western cowpokes. It was something else. 

Possibly Remington had grown along with the maturing body of his work. He was observing with a more authentic eye.

As a young man Remington went West, to try his luck in the world as young fellows do. He dipped his paint colors in the bright memory of those first impressions. 

This early experience may easily have embued his Western works with a certain vigor the commissioned paintings lack. 

The Florida series is from a different phase of his career, which makes the differences in technique understandable.

I hand it to Remington that of his own honesty he didn't try to paint something into the Florida cowboys he didn't see. 

The characters, less colorful in appearance and performance than the riders of the Western range, are free to reveal themselves to the viewer without painting them larger than life.

Mizell's weatherbeaten exterior, forever captured by dint of Remington's magazine commission, points to his survivor skills as a topnotch Florida cowboy. 

He has dealt with wild animals. He's withstood mosquitoes that can drive man and beast crazy, and which can suffocate a calf to death as they fill its nose and throat. 

He's been caught in torrential rains and burnt by subtropical sun. 

What he isn't able to do is curb in his excessive drinking. It's his biggest undoing and ultimately the cause of his death in 1921 at age 58.

Mizell was famous among his peers and and well known throughout Florida, and became nationally recognizable with Remington's painting. 

To his associates and friends he was the dependable cow hunter whose skills were as legendary as he was.

His cattle skills included expert use of his long braided bullwhip, which was the method for riding herd on cattle in the scrub brush. 

He had something like photographic memory in regard to the cattle brands and personal marks which identified cattle as they roamed free. 

Cattle rustling, rebranding and illegal selling of cattle bred considerable violence in the Florida cattle country. Mizell was mostly legal in what he did but not always by his own accounts.

It amuses me that Mizell, so far removed in all distinctions from the imperial court of France, was given Bonaparte as a middle name. 

His father, whose first name also was Morgan, admired Napoleon and named his son, born in 1863, eighth of twelve children, for the French Emperor. 

The name soon shortened to Bone. Mizell stood over 6 feet tall. He shot up as if to early on disprove physical or any other similarity with the little emperor of the brooding manners. 

He was liked by those in powerful circles and by the ordinary citizen who saw in Mizell something greater than his cowboy skills.

They gained from his vitality. They relished his humor. They respected his basic decency and honesty. They benefited from his generosity.

They mostly tolerated his knack for getting into trouble. All sorts of things put him on the wrong side of the law. 

Somehow he managed to get back on the good side of everyone which added more stories to the legends growing about him.

He was somewhat in the way of being the hometown hero. He wasn't perfect by anyone's measure but many had a certain pride of association with him.

There was potential in him that was held back by many things. People were at ease with him, for the most part, except perhaps when the drinking came on him. He didn't try or pretend to be someone he wasn't.

In cow country, where you got on with jokes and razzing, he was the butt of jokes and the teller of jokes and it didn't much matter whether he was taking it or giving it out. 

It didn't matter usually who was laughing at who. There was a live-in-the-moment attitude that was prevalent that threw caution to the wind. 

You took life as it comes. You enjoy it. You work at what you know and hope it suits you. It didn't take profound thinking for Mizell and his cow hunter friends to own a philosophy. 

The history of cowboys in Florida goes back a long way. Bone Mizell is actually a latecomer in the Florida cattle story. 

Florida celebrates its 500th year this year and this tells you how far back the Sunshine State's cow herding tradition goes. 

Juan Ponce de Leon, the Spanish explorer we remember for the story of his quest for the fabled Fountain of Youth, landed on Florida shores in 1513 and began the years which led to permanent European settlement.

Traveling with the Spanish explorers were missionaries and soldiers. Cattle to feed them were cargo aboard their ships.  

These herds are the origin of the thousands of wild cattle that came to roam free through Florida for the next four centuries. Florida didn't have a fence law until 1950 is a fact come upon in reading about the cracker cowboys.

First in the St. Johns River area of northeast Florida, and then the Kissimmee and Peace River areas, and across central and southwest Florida, cattle herding became a way of life.

It was taken up by the first settlers and their descendants and by new arrivals from Georgia and elsewhere.

The Seminole Indians are also part of the cattle herding heritage. They made the Everglades their land after their native grounds were taken from them.

The cow hand had a hard life. Rounding up cattle into pens in central Florida was almost an impossiblity. 

Rough and wet terrain, thick scrub and climbing vines over which to trip were everywhere. Deep water-filled holes caused horses to stumble or cattle to sink in the muck. 

It was the companionship of the work, as well as the lonely sojourns with self and nature, and often knowing no other way of life, that kept these cowboys at the job.

A friend, learning of my interest in Florida cracker cowboys, recommended a historical novel that he says is part of the reading curriculum in the elementary and middle grades in Florida schoosl.

The book is called A Land Remembered. It's considered important to students as a means of partaking in the state's history through a thoroughly researched and highly readable story.

The author is Patrick D. Smith, a prolific Florida author. The story begins in the troubled years just before the Civil War. 

Tobias MacIvey is bringing his wife Emma and their infant son Zech from the red clay hills of Georgia into Florida to settle and make a bigger life for themselves.

The book is much too engrossing to give much away. One of the places covered in the story is Punta Rassa. I want to talk about this a bit. We came to know about this place, and its history, during a stay at Fort Myers.

Summerlin Road, which we came to know in our time there, is a busy local route to the Gulf beaches. It's named for Jake Summerlin, one of the great Florida cattle men.  

The road somewhat, or very closely (I don't recall now) follows the trail Summerlin used for moving his cattle to Punta Rassa, the shipping port on the Gulf of Mexico.

A historical marker at a neighborhood park a couple blocks south of Summerlin Road as you near the Gulf says the site was once a watering hole used by Jake Summerlin  for his cattle as he moved them down the trail. 

The watering hole was the last watering stop for the cattle before they were went to market at Punta Rassa, the shipping port on the Gulf. 

As the final day on the road it was a chance to water and rest both the cattle and men. 

Summerlin, like the fictional Tobias MacIvey, made Punta Rassa the delivery point for their annual drives.Punta 

Rassa is mostly a footnote to history as you drive by on the Sanibel causeway. Look down and to the right and its remains are below you. 

Punta Rassa was on the south shore of Caloosahatchee River where it joins the Gulf. The site today is a popular boat ramp. 

Sanibel Harbour Resort and Spa is in the near vicinity. A historical plaque on Punta Rassa is a somewhat recent addition.

It's worth a detour to pull off the causeway before the toll booth and take the dead- end Punta Rassa road. 

Pause at Punta Russa, if you do make the drive, and consider for a moment the changes that touch all places as one layer adds to another.

In its heyday Punta Rassa had a significant role. It never was big. It was small row of wooden buildings along the white beach sand. 

Cattle holding pens and the wharfs completed this compact commercial area which was smelly with cow and horse manure and commingling of other odors probably too numerous to single out.

After days on the trail, sleeping in bedrolls, and riding herd on cattle through punishing climate and terrain, Punta Rassa was payment and party time. It was the the end of the journey and its reward.

The din created by the cattle herds and cowboys traveled far out over the estuary. First and foremost there is the bawling of uneasy cattle as they're loaded onto the steamers for transport to Cuba and Key West. 

Horses neigh, dogs bark, greetings are called out  and whoops of celebration play against the brisk cadence of business being carried out.

The smell of manure lies heavy in the humid air. It's not glamorous but cattle driving is a living and many at Punta Rassa at market time can conceive of no better livelihood.

The cattlemen received payment in Spanish gold for their cattle. The buyers at Punta Rassa paid an average price of $14 per head. 

Tobias MacIvey is paid $13,840 in Spanish gold doubloons for the 860 head of cattle on his first drive in Patrick D. Smith's novel. 

As he gains experience, and establishes cattle buying points along the way, he and his crew a few years later make a late summer drive of  2,000 head of cattle and get a correspondingly higher payment.

Jake Summerlin, who played an important role at Punta Rassa as cattle driver and businessman, was a generation previous to Bone Mizell. 

His career in the Florida cattle industry spanned much of the nineteenth century. Summerlin died November 4, 1893 in Bartow, Florida. 

A story on Florida cowboys isn't complete without mention of Collier County pioneer and cattleman Robert "Bob" Roberts Jr. 

Roberts moved his family 100 miles across difficult palmetto prairie by oxcart in 1914 to settle at Immokalee. 

The wide open territory, with its unfenced spaces and free grass, furnished the start to Roberts' successful ranching venture. 

He was active in his local church, community and state cattlemen's organizations. He and his wife Sarah were later joined by their adult children in the ranching enterprise. 

Roberts Road in Immokalee honors the Roberts family and Bob Roberts Jr. specifically. The 1927 two-story Roberts ranch house is the site of a Collier County museum. 

The Collier County museum at Immokalee is well worth a visit. You may find it puts you on a trail of your town to cowboy stories to enjoy, share and collect.

Book sources used for this article:

A Land Remembered by Patrick D. Smith, published 1984. Winner of Florida Historical Society Tebeau Prize for most outstanding Florida historical novel

At the End of the Oxcart Trail by Maria Stone, published 2001 (family-told record of the Roberts ranching family of Immokalee, Florida).

Florida Cow Hunter  The Life and Times of Bone Mizell, by Jim Bob Tinsley, published 1990 by University of Central Florida Press/ Orlando

Jacob Summerlin: King of the Crackers, by Joe A. Akerman, published 2004 by  Florida Historical Society. (This book is added here although not used in my research).

Ro Giencke - February 26, 2013


  1. How much of the fictional character Tobias MacIvey, is based on the real life of Jacob Summerlin?

  2. I attended a lecture that Patrick Smith gave on "The Land Remembered" and I asked if the book was based on one specific family or was it a composite of various families. He said it was a composite of numerous families.