1882 Rand McNally map of Southwest Florida showing Punta Rassa and Fort Dulany; photo from State Library of Florida.
“The Barracks” housed an increasing number of weary cattle drivers in Punta Rassa circa 1890s; photo from the Florida State Archives.
“Passing through Punta Rassa on the way to or from Sanibel Island on Florida’s Gulf coast, you just don’t see many cows these days. It’s mostly condos, marinas, and businesses. That’s a big leap from how things used to be, as anyone familiar with the history of Florida’s cattle industry can tell you. For a good portion of the 19th century, Punta Rassa was a favored port for shipping cattle to Cuba.”
So begins a fun blog on “Old Punta Rassa” published on FloridaMemory.com. It continues:
“Punta Rassa could get a little wild when there were lots of cowhands about. The cattlemen were generally paid for their cows in gold coins, and the hands typically received their cut while still in town. Contemporaries recalled that some of this money often went toward having a good time drinking Cuban rum and playing poker. The younger men liked to shoot when they got a bit ‘liquored up’ and the walls and floors of the old barracks were riddled with bullet holes.”
Punta Rassa is the small 4.5-square mile area — today home to the Sanibel Harbour Marriott, Port Sanibel Marina and Punta Rassa Condominiums — that you see just before you reach the Sanibel Causeway.
There’s a historic marker that says there was a time when it was a port town that had the “constant bedlam of bellowing cows, the cracking of whips, barking of cow dogs, cries of cowmen, an occasional gunshot, the shrieks of ships’ horns and the clatter of hoofs,” along with “card games and an occasional fight.”
The marker further details it was a Calusa settlement dating back to 500 A.D. and that Ponce de Leon may have sailed by on his second and last trip to our coast in 1521. Fort Dulany was a U.S. Marine Post during the Second Seminole War of 1835 to 1842, before it was destroyed by a hurricane, ultimately to be re-established in the Civil War to help with naval blockade operations.
“One of Florida’s most famous cattlemen, Jacob Summerlin, helped establish Punta Rassa as a port. He and his brother Clarence came to the area in 1858 and began shipping cattle to Cuba. When the American Civil War struck shortly thereafter, the U.S. Army reactivated Fort Dulany and used the port to ship cattle down to Union-controlled Key West. Throughout this period, cattlemen from all over Central and South Florida would drive their cows to Punta Rassa to be sold.”
Not long after the war ended, the port and Army barracks passed hands, and in 1866, the International Ocean and Telegraph Company made Punta Rassa the American terminus for an underwater telegraph cable from Punta Rassa to Key West and Havana, Cuba. It was where the continental U.S. first learned of the destruction of the USS Maine in Havana, which led to the Spanish American War.
Telegraph operator George Schultz and his wife lived in one end of the “Barracks” and the telegraph office was on the other end. The Schultz’s found themselves letting Florida cowboys bed down on their floor during cattle drives. And from these meager beginnings, our area’s hospitality industry was born.
More on Old Punta Rassa tomorrow!