Florida’s cattle were the first in North America, brought here by the 1521 expedition of Ponce de Leon. Cattle ranching began before the Seventeenth Century around America’s first city, St. Augustine. When Florida became a US territory in 1821, it was a frontier region plentifully stocked with wild cattle. By the eve of the American Civil War, Florida was second only to Texas in the per capita value of southern livestock. Central and South Florida were open range areas.
Here’s something else about Florida: it was a thoroughly dangerous place in the early 1800s for man and beast. Even in areas where the land was firm (unlike the swampy and quicksand laden savannah), thick saw grass could cut man and beast to ribbons. Humans were in constant danger from heat and humidity, malaria and yellow fever, poisonous snakes, large panthers, and constantly irritated insects.
Florida crackers couldn’t move herds without drovers, but more to the point, Florida ranchers needed drovers who were familiar with Florida’s seacoasts and swamps. The vegetation in Florida was so thick that entire herds could wander or vanish within an hour in the trackless region. Drovers were critical to the cattlemen because there was no rail system anywhere south of the Florida/Georgia border. Significant demand for Florida cattle in Cuba drove the industry for over a decade, beginning in the late 1840s. After 1850, free-ranging cattle in South Florida, south of an imaginary line from Orlando to Fort Myers, not only attracted cattle drovers and hardy pioneers, but the area also attracted murderers, rustlers, armed robbers, military deserters, and runaway slaves.
In 1859, Florida’s semi-wild herd approached around 700,000 head — nearly five times as many cattle as people. South Florida was “cow country.” Except for Key West and Tampa, only about 3,500 people lived south of present-day Orlando/Kissimmee.
The distance from South Florida to the Georgia railhead was between 300-400 miles. A cattle drive over this distance would take around a month. Discussions about moving rail systems south did occur, but for some reason, cattle ranchers resisted it.
The Remington Connection
1861 was the year Frederic Remington was born in Canton, New York. Today, we remember Frederic Remington as a painter, illustrator, and sculptor who left us with depictions of the Old West. He gave us images of cowboys, Indians, and the old US Cavalry.
Frederic’s father’s name was Seth Pierrepont Remington. His mother was Clarissa Bascom Sackrider. Seth’s family were prominent hardware merchants — immigrants from Alsace-Lorraine from around the mind-1600s; Clarissa’s family originated in the French Basque Country in the early 1600s. Her ancestors helped establish the colony in Windsor, Connecticut.
During the Civil War, Seth Remington served as a colonel in the Union Army. Before then, he was a newspaper editor, a staunch Republican active in local politics, and a breeder of horses. Frederic’s other family included cousin Eliphalet Remington, the Remington Arms Company founder, and legendary mountain men Jedediah Smith, Jonathan T. Warner, and Robert “Doc” Newell.
Frederic grew into a large man, healthy, strong, and active in such outdoor activities as hunting, riding, swimming, and fieldcraft. Seth, who wanted his son to attend the US Military Academy, enrolled him in several private military preparatory academies. Still, despite these efforts, Frederic was a poor student in the one subject he needed most for the USMA: mathematics. Frederic’s problem wasn’t intellect; it was a lack of interest. He was pleasant, laidback, good-humored, generous, and kind-spirited. His strength was in his ability to draw or sketch humans, animals, and landscapes.
Frederic attended art school at Yale University. In his third year, his mother called him home to help attend his ailing father, who passed away from consumption in the following year. Frederic subsequently headed west to Montana. He intended to start a cattle ranch and invest in mining, but lacking the necessary capital, he sought other opportunities.
Eventually, three events prompted him to pursue art as a vocation. The first was his failure as a saloon keeper and hardware store owner. The second was that his wife, fed up with his lazy lifestyle and business failures, left him. The third was his realization that the west was shrinking. Barbed wire fencing reduced the vast prairies to pastures, hunters (intentionally) killed off vast herds of buffalo, and Army policy destroyed the free-roaming American Indian. These realities prompted Frederic to capture Old West images on canvas.
By 1890, easterners proclaimed that the Old West was officially a thing of the past. There was no more American frontier, they said. Of course, this wasn’t altogether true, but it was an adequate predictor of things to come. Wyatt Earp was still alive, just an older man who was no longer involved in law enforcement. John “Doc” Holliday had passed away from consumption, and Butch Cassidy’s remaining days were almost in single digits. The old west cattle ranches had become a corporate enterprise, and technology had begun to change the ways of the ranch hands.
But in 1890, Florida still had cattle ranches; they still had cowboys (whom everyone called Crackers), saloons were ever-present, and Florida had gunfights as real as anything one might have encountered in Dodge City, Kansas.
Harper’s Weekly wanted to do a story on the Old East (Florida) and sent Frederic Remington to write about it and illustrate it. Remington arrived in Arcadia in 1895, and he could not have been less impressed with Florida cattlemen or the flatlands that extended as far as the eye could see. It was not, Remington wrote, a country for a high-spirited race of moral giants. Neither was Mr. Remington impressed with Florida’s scrub cattle. They were “scrawny creatures,” he complained. As for the cow hunters, they were “wild-looking individuals” who always presented an unkempt appearance.
Frederic Remington’s problem was that he didn’t dig deep enough into Florida culture. He missed the cattle roundups, cattle drives, cattle rustling, thoroughly dangerous gunslingers, and the hostile Indians of South Central Florida. Today we can drive to Kissimmee and spend a day or week in Disney World (but not much more than a week), but in 1895, Kissimmee was known as a thoroughly lawless and dangerous place and had been for more than 20 years.
The Civil War didn’t ravage Florida in the same way as it did other Confederate states, but Floridians did join the citizens of other southern states in the humiliation and suffering of Union Reconstruction. People were dirt-poor and remained that way for a very long time. In 1865, if Floridians could save their state, it would have to be through its massive cattle population that ranged on Florida’s enormous prairie.
Once the Union lifted its blockade of Florida ports, cattlemen could establish trade with beef-hungry Cuba. If a rancher could deliver his annual herd to buyers in St. Augustine, Tampa, and other port cities, he could sell them for hard money (cash), which was in short supply. For a time, Spanish currency was more abundant in Florida than American dollars.
An armed robbery was rare in Florida but did produce deadly results. Most of the theft involved cattle rustling, and the way Floridians dealt with it was through vigilante justice. Vigilantism was prominent and necessary because few people were ever arrested or convicted of cattle theft. In plain truth, dirt-poor Floridians were unwilling to convict their neighbors for stealing cattle because it was a community endeavor. Everyone was involved in it. Lawlessness was rampant and walking down the street in Orlando, one was likely to observe a gunfight or a brawl outside any of a dozen saloons. Orlando was so violent that respectable citizens didn’t leave their homes at night.
Moses and William Barber migrated to Northern Florida from Georgia in 1833 and settled near the town of MacClenny. Indians killed William in 1841, but Moses (Old Mose) established one of the largest cattle empires in the state. In 1860, Mose owned land valued at $21,400; he owned other property valued at $116,000. He also owned 100 slaves. When the Civil War erupted, federal authorities seized the Barber family’s cattle to feed Union troops and seized Mose’s slaves as contraband. Old Mose’s son Isaac lost his life at the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863. Isaac’s death prompted Moses Jr. to convince his father to uproot the remaining family and move them south of Orlando to Kenansville, where the Barber clan reestablished their ranching interests.
William, Luke, and David Moselle fled religious persecution in France to settle in North Carolina before the American Revolution. Luke’s descendants later migrated to Alabama. William’s clan moved to South Georgia. David’s offspring relocated to Florida. David’s grandson, also named David, anglicized his name from Moselle to Mizell and settled in present-day Lake City in the mid-1830s. Indian hostilities resulted in the deaths of two family members — an event that prompted David Jr. to enlist in the army against the Indians. The army stationed him at Fort Christmas in Central Florida.
David Jr. convinced several family members to join him in settling near Orlando. Four of David Jr.’s sons fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War. Sons Thomas and Joshua lost their lives; John served as a captain, while David saw little action because of an illness.
Despite his service in the Confederacy, Captain John Mizell gained favor with reconstruction officials. He obtained a judgeship in the Orlando area and convinced the Reconstruction governor to appoint his brother David as Sheriff of Orange County. The Mizell’s became the most powerful political family in the area. It also earned them the title “Carpetbagger” by their pro-Confederate neighbors.
The government was particularly oppressive to the Barber family by instituting stiff taxes on large herds of cattle. John and David Mizell had a duty to enforce the law and government regulation. In doing so, they incurred deep resentment from pro-Confederate sympathizers and from among the dirt poor folks who saw the Mizell brothers as oppressive agents of Yankee aggression. Deep post-war resentment permeated central Florida.
The Mizell’s attempted to enforce cattle regulations by making an example of Jackson (Jack) Barber, a son of William. According to Barber family accounts, the Mizell’s harassed Jack at every opportunity. Sheriff Mizell arrested Jack numerous times, and although acquitted each time, he was still required to pay “court costs.” Eventually, the Mizell’s did manage to get Jack convicted — of what, no one today is quite sure — and Jack ended up spending time in the Chattahoochee prison.
Jack’s nephew Deed Barber ran afoul of the Mizell family when they caught him removing a prize steer from Mizell’s property. The animal belonged to Mose Barber but had strayed onto the land owned by Morgan Mizell. Deed was 14-years old at the time. Sheriff Mizell wanted to arrest Deed for cattle rustling, but Morgan diffused the situation by agreeing to slaughter the animal and divide the meat between the families. It was a prized animal, but Morgan’s solution was probably the best one without proof of ownership.
The Barber-Mizell crisis came to a head in 1868 when Sheriff Mizell seized a large portion of the Barber’s heard for back taxes. Of course, Old Mose had it in his head that he wouldn’t pay any damn taxes to the Yankee government, and he’d warned David Mizell what might happen if he ever stepped foot on Barber land. David may have thought that Mose was only blustery; if he felt that, he was wrong. Old Mose and Moses Jr. were very serious about protecting their land from carpetbaggers.
The Barbers decided to challenge the Mizell’s in court during the fall term. Everyone was on edge. Most people anticipated that it would be one-helluva court battle. A delay in the trial caused a rescheduling of the hearing (the reason is unknown to me), but two days before the rescheduled hearing, the courthouse burned down, along with all of its records. Investigators later discovered bottles of turpentine around the gutted remains of the courthouse. It was clearly a case of arson, but there were no witnesses. Later, the jailhouse was set on fire as well. Matters in Central Florida were heating up to boiling temperature.
In early February 1870, Robert Bullock filed a complaint against Mose Barber for an unpaid bill for the sale of some cattle. Judge John Mizell issued a warrant for the arrest of Mose and sent Sheriff David Mizell to make the arrest. On the evening of 21 February, Mizell stopped for the night to water and rest his horses at Bull Creek. David thought it would be a nice outing, so he took his son Billy and his nephew Morgan. As darkness settled on their small camp, gunfire suddenly erupted from the surrounding woods, fatally wounding David but leaving the boys unscathed.
Morgan instructed the younger Billy to tend to his father while he rode back to Orlando for help. Along the route, Morgan met a man named George Sullivan, who rushed to Bull Creek to assist Billy. As Sheriff Mizell lay dying, he asked his son to tell the family not to avenge his death. Unhappily, the Mizell’s were as stubborn and as ornery as the Barbers, and Judge Mizell was not known for his forbearance.
When John Mizell learned of David’s death, he immediately called for a posse of twenty men and instructed them simply, “Bring the Barbers to justice, and take no prisoners doing it.” John appointed David B. Stewart to replace his brother as Sheriff.
The first person Sheriff Stewart arrested was Needham Yates. Needham was Jack Barber’s uncle. Along with Needham Yates, Steward also arrested Needham’s sons, William, and Needham Jr. Next on the list came Moses Jr.’s son Isaac. When the posse caught up with Isaac, they tied him to a tree and then shot him to death. News of this atrocious act spread quickly, which enabled Old Mose, Moses Jr., and Jack to escape before the posse arrived at the Barber ranch. Isaac’s widow, the fearless Harriet Geiger Barber, waited for the posse, including Judge Mizell. She soundly cursed these men, but the undeterred posse seized Barber cattle and quickly departed.
While Judge Mizell and most of the posse returned to Orlando, a few other posse members decided to pursue Old Mose, Jack, and Moses Jr. Deputies Jack Evans, Joe Moody, and Bill Duffield almost succeeded in capturing the Barber trio, but Old Mose and Jack escaped leaving Moses Jr., in the hands of the law. That night, Evans, Moody, and Duffield made camp along the shore of Lake Conway. The lawmen, fearing that Moses might attempt to escape during the night, shackled him in irons. They later testified that when they awoke the following day, they found that Moses had escaped. As dutiful law officers, they tracked him to the shores of the lake. Moses must have been a very remorseful person because not only did he drown himself trying to escape custody, but he also shot himself numerous times. This incident may have been the first instance in the United States of a drowning/suicide while trying to escape. Within a few weeks, eight more members of the Barber family died violently.
The Barber-Mizell feud, which began just after the Civil War, lasted until 1940. Over many years, the feud resulted in the killing of 41 people.
Moses Barber died in November of 1870 at the age of 62. Jack became a respected citrus grower near Lake Conway in Orange County; he died in 1916. Judge Mizell, who led the campaign against the Barbers, became an influential figure in the state Republican Party, which held power until Reconstruction ended in 1876.
John Mizell eventually worked his way down the east coast of Florida, settling in a farming community just north of Fort Lauderdale. When the town incorporated on June 6, 1908, as Pompano, Mizell was elected the first mayor.
Frederic Remington never had to dodge any bullets or street brawls during the Barber-Mizell feud, but he did eventually meet the most famous Mizell character of them all. Morgan Bonaparte Mizell, known to everyone simply as “Bone,” was the son of Morgan Mizell, who was riding with his uncle, Sheriff David Mizell, the day of the ambush at Bull Creek.
Bone Mizell was a Florida cowboy, a drunk, and a practical joker who spoke with a lisp. He covered up his embarrassing speech impediment with a sharp wit that delighted his many admirers. He would sometimes light his pipe with dollar bills, and he occasionally rode his horse into a saloon and had his first drink while still in the saddle.
Bone was range foreman on a ranch near the Peace River outside Acadia, Florida, in DeSoto County. He was an expert horseman, crack shot with either pistol or rifle, and a respected wrangler. He was a fun-loving scruff whom everyone liked. Bone’s real fame, however, came from his tall tales and outrageous practical jokes. Frederic Remington immortalized Bone Mizell in a painting titled “A Cracker Cowboy.”
Sometime around 1890, Bone’s long-time friend John Underhill died while at cow camp in Lee County, and Bone laid John to rest in a solitary grave out on the range. A short time later, a young Jewish man from New Orleans drifted into cattle country and became friendly with Bone. The young man was already in failing health from a vigorous lifestyle and soon passed away. Bone buried him next to John Underhill. After a few years, the young man’s parents learned of their son’s death and sent money to an undertaker to return his body to New Orleans for a proper burial in the family plot. The undertaker hired Bone to collect the body.
As Bone rode out to the gravesite, he recalled John Underhill telling him that he always wanted to take a train ride but never had enough money to afford it. And he remembered the young man telling him that he was tired of traveling, never wanted to see the inside of another train, and never wanted to revisit New Orleans. Bone thought about this and decided it didn’t seem right that you had a young fellow who was tired of traveling and another fellow who never got to take a train ride. So, Bone unearthed John’s body, delivered it to the undertaker; Mr. Underhill finally got to ride on a train — and, on top of that, he got a Jewish funeral with all the trimmings.
Bone Mizell was a product of his environment, and just like everyone else in South/Central Florida, he was known to dabble in cattle rustling from time to time. The courts dropped most of the charges against him, but the Fort Myers court did convict him in 1896 and sentenced him to two years imprisonment at hard labor.
Such was Bone Mizell’s reputation that the prison was primed for his arrival. He was met officiously by the warden, who gave him a tour of the facility, fed him a nice dinner in the warden’s quarters. Shortly afterward, the warden presented him with a pardon and returned him to Acadia by train, a fully rehabilitated man. Almost.
Bone remained a hard-drinking fellow until the day he died in 1921. He just keeled over at the train station in Fort Ogden. The cause of death was simple and to the point — as was the custom in Florida back then: Cause of death, moonshine.
- Bass, M. I. Florida’s Frontier: The Way Hit Wuz. Magnolia Press, 1992.
Linton, R. B. Pine Castle: A Walk Down Memory Lane. Book Crafters, 1993.
Even today, or perhaps especially today, the country needs more Bone Mizell.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Not even Bone could save us now; we’re too far gone.
Never knew that about Florida.