Florida’s Frontier Heroes: The Barefoot Mailmen

By Natalia Heguaboro

Only one historical figure from Florida’s frontier days has had the dubious distinction of being portrayed as the hero of a major Hollywood movie – and the hero in question was actually a composite of several men.

That 1951 movie, The Barefoot Mailman, was one of Tinseltown’s “inspired by true events” films, meaning that the studio — Columbia Pictures during the tyrannical reign of the quintessential studio boss, Harry Cohn — embellished the historical record with a lot of contrived drama.

The real history is dramatic enough. In the 1880s, settlers were beginning to do what settlers do: settle. Some were even trickling into the relatively isolated Southeast Florida area that now includes Palm Beach, Broward, and Miami-Dade Counties. In those days, this vast coastal area — roughly from today’s ritzy enclave of Jupiter in northern Palm Beach County to the agricultural town of Florida City in southern Miami-Dade County – was all Dade County’s.

Moreover, the region was beginning to grow. Indeed, between the decennial U.S. Census of 1880 and Census of 1890, the population increased by a dramatic 236 percent – albeit a gain a bit less dramatic when you note that the area’s total population rose to a mere 861 from 257. For reference, today that region is home to approximately 7 million residents, plus thousands of visitors and, evidently, billions of voracious mosquitoes.

Filming of movie The Barefoot Mailman at Silver Springs, Florida. Courtesy of Florida Memory.

In the 1880s, however, South Florida’s miles of primeval wilderness offered less than an ideal environment for the inhabitants. Air conditioning and mosquito control – two 20th Century developments that contributed mightily to Florida’s livability and growth – were still years away, and the state’s coastal zones, in particular, were periodically plagued by outbreaks of malaria and yellow fever.

Despite the hardships, however, some hardy migrants chose to settle in this overgrown territory because of its balmy climate and inexpensive, abundant land. As the population grew, the lack of communication between this isolated region and the rest of the state and nation was a cause for concern. Regularly receiving mail was deemed essential. The residents’ sense of isolation was exacerbated because mail took a minimum of six weeks reach them. At that time neither a highway nor a railroad linked this region to the rest of Florida.

To address this problem, citizens petitioned the U.S. Post Office Department (1792-1981), the predecessor of today’s U.S. Postal Service, to create a mail route so they could stay connected to the rest of the country.

Mural panels of Stevan Dohanos’ Legend of James Edward Hamilton, Barefoot Mailman. Courtesy of Florida Memory.

Postal authorities decided that creating a walking route for mailmen from Palm Beach to the area of the present-day Miami would prove quicker and more efficient than the previous routing. No longer would mail need to pass through multiple states and even to Cuba before arriving in the Miami area. Addressing this decision led to the establishment in 1885 of a route served by the independent postal contractors who much later became known as the barefoot mailmen.

These men were entrusted to carry and deliver mail along one of the nation’s most complicated and dangerous routes. The route – marked by a line drawn on a map – was infested with prowling alligators and swarming mosquitoes. For much of the year, it also featured subtropical heat and humidity.

Yet nothing – not even hurricanes – could deter these loyal men from doing their job. For $600 a year they endured the rigors of the job to deliver important mail to eager citizens. To do this, they traveled a 136-mile-long round-trip route, 96 miles on foot and 40 miles by boat. The route led from Palm City (Palm Beach) to Lemon City (Miami) and took just under a week to complete. The weekly route amounted to approximately 7,000 miles per year.

Mural panels of Stevan DohanosLegend of James Edward Hamilton, Barefoot Mailman. Courtesy of Florida Memory.

As the name implies, the mailmen traveled without shoes in order to better maneuver along the sandy coastline. Because no roads existed in this area, they found it beneficial to walk along the beach in order to avoid the tangle of uncharted vegetation and the potential danger that lurked therein.

In order to lessen their burden, the carriers traveled light. They wore an oilcloth knapsack filled with a week’s worth of necessities such as fresh water, food, and obviously, the mail. In an effort to garner more revenue, some of the mailmen allowed “foot passengers” to accompany them on their travels for a fee of $5.

Of course, the rough terrain, heat, and miles of travel were a recipe for danger. Accounts of mailmen whose trek took a turn for the worst were not uncommon. The most infamous of these journeys gone wrong is that of the young James “Ed” Hamilton, who handled the route for only a few months in 1887.

In October, when Hamilton arrived at the Hillsboro Inlet crossing, he noticed that the small postal raft he needed to cross the inlet had been left on the opposite side. Most historians believe that in an effort to continue his journey without an undue delay, he attempted to swim across the inlet to retrieve the boat. He was never again seen alive, and his body was never recovered.

View of Hillsboro Inlet and Lighthouse, ca. 1910. Courtesy of Florida Memory.

Later a fisherman named Waring claimed that he saw Hamilton crossing the inlet by boat when a shark suddenly appeared, tore into the boat, and eventually feasted on the mailman himself. However, historians question the fisherman’s tale, given that his “eyewitness” account originated in faraway Jacksonville, and the physical evidence at the scene was inconsistent with the claim.

What really happened? Some officials speculated that an October storm might have caused the inlet to be infested with more alligators than usual, while others argued that Hamilton might have drowned because of the choppy waters and strong tides. Given the sketchiness of these accounts, many historians – upon examining the accounts of Hamilton’s death and various tales of daring-do by other mailman – have dismissed these accounts as reflecting an effort to sell more newspapers to eager readers.

The Hamilton story isn’t the only such tale. Another tells of James “Acrefoot” Johnson, a talented mail carrier famous for his swiftness in delivering mail and his colossal, size 12 boots. Johnson was also revered for his strength and bravery, which seemed like a prerequisite for all of the mailmen in these stories. A witness even claimed that he watched Johnson wrestle and kill three alligators at once with his bare hands!

These legend-like accounts, whether fact or fiction, reflect the high opinions citizens had for their beloved and brave postal carriers. After all, they maneuvered through areas where few dared to tread and where hazards loomed around every turn.

As Florida’s population continued to grow, the days of the barefoot mailman became numbered. In 1892, a paved road finally connected Miami to Jupiter, so mail delivery was switched to stagecoach, a safer and more efficient method.

Ultimately, their courage, determination, and navigational skills were not forgotten. Many years after the termination of the walking route, books and songs were written, movies were made, honorary ceremonies were initiated, and statues were sculpted all to honor Florida’s early heroes: The Barefoot Mailmen.

Editor’s Note: This Florida Verve article was originally published on August 15, 2016.