The Wild West: Searching for the History of Southwest Florida

All about crackers, hush puppies and the rough times Florida’s earliest settlers learned to endure

BY February 26, 2016

Collier County has a history as rough and rugged as anything in the Wild West. I certainly was surprised on a recent trip around Southwest Florida when I discovered that the state’s first settlers lived a life hard enough to make even a plains pioneer quake. From the cattle country to the coast, I drove the old roads, searching out the history of this area.

My journey began on State Road 82, the Immokalee Trail, once a footpath for the Calusa Indians who inhabited Florida before the Spanish arrived in the 1500s. The Indians used the trail to move from the wilderness along the Caloosahatchee River to settlements inland, close to Lake Okeechobee. When the Spanish came, the old moccasin trail took on new significance. The dirt packed down under the hooves of horses and cattle as soldiers and missionaries passed through.

In 1821, Spain handed Florida over to the United States. Elsewhere in the country, manifest destiny swept frontier families westward to the newly opened territory on the far side of the Mississippi River. Florida, however, remained a land of heat and mosquitoes, impenetrable swamplands and dry coasts. The largely uncharted peninsula became the hiding place for runaway slaves and Creek Indians displaced from Georgia and lower Alabama. These Native Americans, sometimes joined by former slaves, became known as the Seminole, a term adapted from Spanish that means “runaway” or “wild people.”

When the first white settlers began pushing into Florida, the Seminole pushed back. From 1816 to 1858, the United States waged three wars in an effort to move the Seminole out of Florida. The one-time moccasin trail, now State Road 82, became a rough wagon route used to supply troops. The Seminole Wars were disastrously expensive for the United States, but they achieved their mission. In 1858, the Seminole agreed to move west into Oklahoma, leaving behind a few hundred Indians who disappeared into the Everglades. The wagon route became a pioneer trail.

I drove along State Road 82 under a blue sky dotted with clouds. Hot and humid, it was the kind of day that makes people ask, “How did anyone survive here before air conditioning?” The road took me to Roberts Ranch in Immokalee, a 15-acre homestead now part of the Collier County museum system. Built in the early 1900s, the ranch includes a church, a main house, a cowboy bunkhouse and a barn, all carefully preserved. Even today, the homestead gives off an aura of rugged determination. Standing on the grounds, it’s possible to appreciate the sort of character it would take to settle in the Florida wilderness.

The state’s first pioneer families were mostly poor farmers from Georgia and South Carolina. These early homesteaders were called Crackers, a term that may have come from the sound their whips made as they herded cattle—a sharp “crack!”—or it might have been tied to their diet, which consisted primarily of cracked corn. Either way, the word “Cracker” was meant to be derogatory. But the early pioneers—lean and tough—took to the name. They called themselves “Crackers” with pride.

These Crackers lived on isolated ranches. They raised chickens and hogs, and they planted melons, beans, squash, pumpkins, sweet potatoes and corn. Farmsteads might be separated by many miles, and homesteaders could go long spaces of time without seeing another family.

As I walked around the Roberts Ranch, buzzards circled lazily overhead. Grasshoppers hummed in the tall weeds, and the humidity gave the heat a palpable quality. My grandmother came to Florida as a child, the daughter of early pioneers. Her family drove an oxcart to the shores of the Okeechobee, where they built their homestead. In later life, when I knew her, my grandmother was very much a lady. But she still had a flintiness. There, at the old settlement, I understood for the first time how the hardscrabble life of early Florida must have shaped her character.


The word “Cracker” was meant to be derogatory. But the early pioneers—lean and tough—took to the name. They called themselves “Crackers” with pride.


Not all of Florida’s first pioneers settled inland. Some chose to live along the coast. Those who lived near the shores of the Gulf were the poorest settlers, people without the resources to start their own farms. They often didn’t have enough money to buy even a mule. These dirt-poor families set up makeshift camps on the barrier islands along the Gulf of Mexico, small plots of land with a thin layer of topsoil. There, they could grow a few crops, fish and hunt game. In those early Florida days, ships ran the trade route from Fort Myers to the large port in Key West. The boats would stop at these island homesteads and buy winter produce, dried fish and pelts to ship to northern markets.

The coastal pioneers lived a transitory life. When hurricanes washed ashore, the storm surge would cover the land in saltwater, souring the earth. If a family didn’t have enough provisions to last out the many months until the soil became arable again—and most didn’t—they’d be forced to move on to another plot of land.

After my visit to the Roberts Ranch, I drove south, following the old train route along Highway 29 to Everglades City. It was a deserted stretch of road surrounded on both sides by cabbage palms and sawgrass. Swallowtail butterflies drifted beside the highway, and box turtles pulled themselves slowly across the asphalt. I didn’t pass a single car. There were several home sites along the way, places with rusted-out trailers that had a lean, hard-living look. By the time I reached Everglades City, I felt as if I had passed through a portal directly into Old Florida.

There, I stopped and had lunch at a small diner. As I ate my crabcake sandwich, I overheard the two white-haired men next to me discussing the origin of hush puppies.

“You know where that came from?” one said. “Cowboys would be sitting around the fire at night frying up dinner, and the dogs would get to fighting. The cook would throw a handful of cornmeal in the grease and then toss it to the dogs. He’d say, ‘Hush, puppies.’”

The other man laughed. “Is that so?”

“That’s the truth,” the first man said.

I smiled to myself. I’d heard the same story from my grandmother.


From the diner, I drove to Ted Smallwood’s Store on the Chokoloskee Bay. Built in 1906, the trading post—now a museum—once drew customers from every part of wild Florida. Hunters and trappers came from the interior with alligator hides that were salted, rolled and stored in empty sugar barrels. They brought plumes from snowy egrets and roseate spoonbills to feed the northern millinery industry and its hunger for lavish bird feathers. They sold otter pelts and raccoon skins in order to buy staples like flour, sugar, rice, coffee and grits.

The trading post also attracted Seminole Indians. Seminole families arrived in cypress-log pole boats and camped around the store for days, swapping information and gossip with the other traders. To sell, they brought hides and pelts, as well as fresh game, handmade baskets and palm-fiber dolls. While the trappers and pioneers operated on the barter system or preferred paper money, the Seminole sold their goods for silver coins. Some say Ted Smallwood had to have his pockets lined with sail canvas to keep them from splitting open under the weight of the silver. The Seminole would use the coins to buy rifles and ammunition, calico cloth, hand-operated sewing machines, thread, needles, knives and glass beads.

I pulled into the trading post late in the afternoon, dismayed to see that saltwater covered half the parking lot. The store sits on high stilts, and as I walked up the steps a man inside told me, “Tide’s coming in. And it’s a full moon.”

“Do you think my car will be all right?” I asked.

He poked his head out the window. “Should be.”

The trading post has been preserved so that it looks like the original store, and dry goods line the shelves. Out back, a porch gives onto the bay. I stood for a while and surveyed the gray waters. From that vantage point there is no construction, no development; only mangroves and the tides. Here, once, was an early Florida of Seminoles, trappers and pelt traders. I thought, what a lively gathering spot this must have been.

By the time I was ready to leave, I saw the tidewaters were high enough to make small waves in the parking lot. As I sat on the steps to take off my shoes, the man behind the counter stuck his head out the window.

“Will I make it?” I asked him.

“Not if you wait much longer.”

I waded across the knee-high water and climbed in my Fiat. With a deep breath and a silent prayer, I plowed my way through the tide. I wished I’d brought a pole boat.

From Ted Smallwood’s Store, it’s a 40-mile drive to Naples along the Tamiami Trail. Much of it is wilderness, what the Seminole called the “pa-hay-okee,” river of grass. But this terrain vanishes the closer you get to Naples. Housing developments begin and shopping malls crop up. Life becomes steadily easier, with a grocery store on every corner. As the wild parts of Florida recede in the rearview, it’s possible to forget the hardscrabble origins of this state, that it once took grit and determination to call Florida “home.”

Explore the History of Collier County

The Collier County museum system offers an excellent way to explore the history of Collier County with five separate museum sites, each dedicated to a specific part of the area’s past.

Collier County Museum, 3331 Tamiami Trail E., Naples, 239-252-8476. A 5-acre historical park in the heart of Naples, the Collier County Museum offers visitors an intensive look at Southwest Florida history dating back to primordial times. In addition to the information on ancient animal and plant life, the Calusa Indians and pioneer living, an outdoor area features several examples of frontier life, including a sugarcane press, summer kitchen and Seminole village.

Museum of the Everglades, 105 W. Broadway, Everglades City, 239-695-0008. In this preserved historic building, once a laundry, visitors learn about the history of Collier County with a focus on the Everglades City and Chokoloskee areas. Learn about the first settlers who set up camps near the coast and the ways of early fisherman. Includes exhibits on the Calusa and Seminole.

Immokalee Pioneer Museum, 1215 Roberts Ave., Immokalee, 239-658-2466. Set in the middle of Immokalee’s farm country, this former homestead and cattle ranch gives visitors an authentic perspective on early pioneer life. The museum includes an old church, farmhouse, cowboy bunkhouse and barn, plus tools and furniture from the early pioneer period.

Naples Depot Museum, 1051 Fifth Ave. S., Naples, 239-262-6525. Once a passenger station for the Seabord Air Line Railway, the Naples Depot Museum houses information and artifacts on the railroad boom in Southwest Florida. Visitors can tour the old station, including the segregated waiting rooms, and see menus, cutlery and souvenirs from the train lines that ran through this state.

Marco Island Museum, 180 S. Heathwood Drive, Marco Island, 239-642-1440. This museum offers an in-depth look at the Calusa Indians and examines Marco Island’s early history as a pineapple plantation and clam cannery. Don’t miss the recreated Calusa village.

Bonus: Historic Smallwood Store, 360 Mamie St., Chokoloskee, 239-695-2989. Though the privately owned Smallwood Store is not part of the Collier County Museums, it’s still worth a visit. Set directly on the waters of the Chokoloskee Bay, it’s easy to imagine Seminole traders visiting this outpost in their pole boats. The inside of the store has been preserved, and many of the items once for sale are on display.


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