South Florida was still an isolated wilderness in 1885. There were no roads, rail lines, or north to south rivers. This made communication with the rest of the U.S. difficult. Not many people lived here–just a few thousand crackers living off the land and some Seminole Indians. Nevertheless, the U.S. Postal Service established a mail route from Jupiter to Miami. The route required the mailman to walk on the beach and row across various bodies of water. In 1887 this route was split between 2 postal workers. One man carried the mail from Jupiter to Palm Beach, and the other carried it from Palm Beach to Miami. A schooner took the mail from Miami to Key West. The route from Palm Beach to Miami consisted of 40 miles of beach walking and 28 miles of rowing. The route started with a boat ride across Lake Worth followed by a walk to Delray Beach where the carrier stayed overnight at the Orange Grove House. The next day he walked to Fort Lauderdale and stayed at the Fort Lauderdale House. On the 3rd day he boated across the New River, walked to Biscayne Bay, and rowed across the Miami River. The route from Palm Beach to Miami and back took 6 days.
These carriers were known as barefoot mailmen because it was easier to walk on harder wet places of sand, not well suited for shoes. On one occasion some stupid jerk rowed a barefoot mailman’s boat to the other side of the New River. In an attempt to retrieve the boat, James Hamilton, the 2nd of the 3 men to have this route, tried to swim to the other side, but either drowned or was killed by a shark, alligator, or crocodile. His body was never recovered. In 1892 an overland road was built connecting south Florida with the northern part of the state, and a rail line soon followed. This marked the end of the barefoot mailman’s route.
For a naturalist this route on the still pristine beaches of south Florida would’ve been a fantasy come true. Many varieties of sea shells, now rare on Florida’s crowded beaches, were common then. Schools of mullet and mackerel could be observed from the beach, and these fish were so abundant, it would take 20-30 minutes for the schools to pass. Predatory fish such as amberjacks were often seen attacking the schools which would break apart, then reunite after the predators satiated their hunger. A magazine article published in 1893 (referenced below) illustrates the former abundance of fish here. William Henn, his wife, and a small crew sailed from the Indian River to Cape Sable. Everyday, they caught as many pompano and blue fish as they wanted, and they saw large sharks and sawfish while boating over a shallow sandbar. At Cape Sable their boat was left aground by an ebbing tide. Mosquitoes forced them to set up camp on the shore where they built large smoky fires to drive away the mosquitoes. To amuse themselves, they used 4 pound mackerel as bait and in less than an hour caught 5 sharks that ranged in length from 9-12 feet long. Scientists estimate the average size of an ocean fish caught by sportsmen off the Florida coast since 1956 has declined from 40 lbs to 5 lbs. 60 years earlier, the fish were even larger. The really large fish are gone now.
The Hypoluxo Natural Scrub Area in Palm Beach Florida. The beginning of the mailman’s south Florida route looked just like this 130 years ago.
Theodore Pratt wrote an interesting short novel based on the adventures of the early barefoot mailmen of south Florida. They walked from Palm Beach to Miami–a 6 day round trip.
Results of a fishing trip off Key West Florida, Circa 1956. A modern day sports fishing trip using this same charter boat company will yield results weighing on average 88% less. At the time of the barefoot mailman route, fishing was even more pristine than during 1956.
The bird life would have also been a wonder. Shorebirds and wading birds had plenty of nesting habitat before hotels crowded them. Songbirds that favored the beach scrub habitat serenaded the barefoot mailmen. Wolves were not yet extirpated here, and black bears searched the beaches at night for turtle eggs. Florida panthers hunted deer and wild hogs.
The people who occupied south Florida when it was a wilderness frontier lived an interesting way of life. They built their houses with lumber salvaged from shipwrecks. The roofs were made from palm thatches. They also scavenged supplies from shipwrecks, so that some commodities could temporarily became abundant in these seaside communities. Hunting and fishing provided much of their protein, though some raised cows and chickens. They grew sweet potatoes, corn, watermelons, squash, beans, and tomatoes. Many tried re-establishing orange groves with the wild oranges originating from the, by then, ancient Spanish settlements. These wild oranges were usually sour but could be grafted with scions yielding sweet fruit. Some gathered arrowroot and made starch (still used today as an ingredient in baby cookies). Alligator skins, egret feathers, and otter fur were traded for cash.
I wouldn’t want to give up my life of modern conveniences, but for just 1 week, I’d like to trade places with 1 of the barefoot mailmen, so I could see what Florida’s beaches looked like before developers ruined them.
Henn, William Lt. U.S. Navy
“Caught on a Lee Shore”
The Century Magazine June 1893
“Documenting Loss of Large Trophy-Sized Fish from the Florida Keys with Historical Photographs”
Conservation Biology 2008