Old Punta Rassa

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.

Excerpt of an 1882 Rand McNally map of Florida showing Punta Rassa and Fort Dulany (Map Collection, State Library of Florida).

Excerpt of an 1882 Rand McNally map of Florida showing Punta Rassa and Fort Dulany (Map Collection, State Library of Florida).

The port had already been an important spot for some time before Florida cattlemen began using it as a trading center. A U.S. Navy schooner reported in the 1820s that a group of Spaniards and Native Americans were using the area as a fishery. The U.S. Army established a supply depot (Fort Dulany) in the vicinity during the Second Seminole War. It wasn’t until the 1850s that the cattle shipping business began to really take hold.

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. Not long after the war ended, the port and Army barracks passed into the hands of the International Ocean and Telegraph Company, which extended an underwater telegraph cable from Punta Rassa to Havana, Cuba, 110 miles away.

Jacob Summerlin, sometimes referred to as the

Jacob Summerlin, sometimes referred to as the “king of the Crackers” (circa 1870s).

Throughout this period, cattlemen from all over Central and South Florida would drive their cows to Punta Rassa to be sold. The telegraph company, the Summerlins, and later the Hendry family owned pens where cattle could be kept during price negotiations (for a fee, of course), and the port featured a number of places for the cattlemen to buy supplies, tools, and other goods not widely available in the interior of the state.

Range cattle in pens at Punta Rassa (circa 1900s).

Range cattle in pens at Punta Rassa (circa 1900s).

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. Longtime resident C.T. Tooke didn’t recall fights being all too common, but he did remember that the younger men liked to shoot when they got a bit “liquored up.” The walls and floors of the old barracks were riddled with bullet holes, he explained.

The barracks seen here were originally built by the United States Army during the Second Seminole War. Over time the building was expanded to accommodate a cable station and an increasing number of weary cattle drivers (circa 1890s).

The barracks seen here were originally built by the United States Army during the Second Seminole War. Over time the building was expanded to accommodate a cable station and an increasing number of weary cattle drivers (circa 1890s).

Toward the end of the 19th century, Punta Rassa began to transform yet again. Florida’s cattle trade was still significant, but competition from Texas and Central America was taking its toll on demand. Meanwhile, another group had discovered Punta Rassa and the surrounding area: wealthy sport fishermen.

In 1885, New York sportsman W.H. Wood reputedly caught the first tarpon ever to be landed using a rod and reel. Chain lines and harpoons had previously been the favored methods for catching these large fish. As Wood’s catch became famous through sports pages across the country, sport fishermen began flocking to Punta Rassa to try their hand at fishing for tarpon, Spanish mackerel, and kingfish. The Summerlins, Shultzes, and other families that had previously catered mostly to Florida’s Cracker cattlemen, now turned their attention toward building inns and other amenities to serve these new customers.

Punta Rassa Hotel (1913).

Punta Rassa Hotel (1913).

The port’s good fortune began to wane in the early years of the 20th century. In 1906, the Tarpon House, one of the elite lodges for sport fishermen, was destroyed by fire. Some of the hotel’s regular guests chipped in and helped finance the rebuilding, but the new structure burned in 1913. It was never rebuilt. Punta Rassa never quite came back from these losses, at least as a major business center. These days, most folks know it to be nothing more than a quaint section of roadway linking Sanibel Island with the greater Fort Myers area.

For more on Punta Rassa and its ties to Florida’s cattle industry, we recommend these books:

Joe Akerman, Florida Cowman: A History of Florida Cattle Raising. 6th ed. Madison: Jimbob Printing, 1989.

Prudy Taylor Board, Remembering Lee County: Where Winter Spends the Summer. Charleston: History Press, 2006.

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13 thoughts on “Old Punta Rassa

  1. An historical novel by Patrick Smith entitled A Land Remembered recounts Florida’s early days as mentioned above. Great reading.

  2. This is an excellent information for the present and future generations! Please, prepare a handy map with the historic and interesting spots in our county and place it everywhere, including hotels and gas stations! Some companies will be happy to cover the expenses. Also the teachers of our county should get it and use in their class as FYI!

  3. for a while I was the only baby in old Punta Rassa. Roy Hill was the mgr. for Tom Smoots fish house, It was there that Cuban fisherman would come by for ice for their trip back to Cuba, I first heard Spanish language spoken there and have admired the language and the culture ever since> Mr. Hill would always bring candy back from his trips to town. It was a simple but delightful life for young boys and girls. We all played beneath the Summerlin (toales) house My grandfather had a fisherman’ shack across the bay on fisherman key. I would take my row boat over the water to see him, muh to the chagrin of my mother.

  4. Our family (Daniels) lived there for years until we were all forced to leave as we were unfortunately swatters. I have fond memories of fishing, swimming and playing in the old tolls house . Mr & Mrs.Gailey lived next door in the building that had the cow dipping pool. My great uncle Burt and wife Alice lived there along with their son JB . They used to repair their fishing nets under the shade of what was left of the old building. Dad was Capt Earl on Mr Mckenzie’s ferry boats to and from Punta Rassa to Sanibel, which we rode over many times. We were happy as kids and left just before Hurricane Donna came through. Bill and Kathleen (Daniels) Goethe and my grandparents (Joseph and Ophelia Daniels ) lived there also.

  5. Fort Dulaney (Dulany, Delany) was established by U.S. Marine Captain William Dulany in late October-November 1837 under orders of General Jessup.

  6. Loved A Land Remembered. Was raised on a cattle ranch in CO. When my Dad visits me in FL next, is there anything historical in Punta Rassa to show him? I know he would find it very interesting.

  7. I Love the book by Patrick D. Smith, A Land Remembered, I am about half-way thru it now, It is very nostalgic for me to read it as My maternal people, The Bennett’s made their living off the Land as the MacIivey’s did. I am a Native Floridian, born and raised in Fl. in Volusia County, remembering my G’Pa Bennett catching fish and hunting ‘Gators, made it very easy for me to relate to this book. I was a war baby, born on 09/23/1946, so, fortunately I can remember the ways things were.

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