Monday, January 4, 2021

A Yankee Visitor to Charlotte Harbor - 155 Years Ago Today

by Graham Segger

USS Honduras at anchor in Key West, 17 January 1865. Source:
Scott De Wolf Collection. Image from Flickr courtesy of Florida Keys Public Libraries photo # MM00042290x

Those of us who enjoy reading and learning about history will, from time to time, encounter a source which pulls together many other diverse events, personalities or facts to make more sense of or shed more light on all of them. This is exactly what happened when I came across the 1865-66 journal of George Franklin Thompson which included a section describing his visit to Charlotte Harbor and the Peace River. The leather-bound volume chronicles, in 124 hand-written pages, a tour of inspection through central and lower Florida including a visit to Fort Ogden from December 31, 1865 to January 2, 1866 (155 years ago this month). The journal was also supplemented by a series of five newspaper articles written by Mr. Thompson for the Tallahassee Sentinel in 1867, though none of the articles touch in any depth on his visit to the Peace River.

Thompson had been appointed to this tour of duty as an Inspector for the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, the federal agency charged with the task of overseeing Reconstruction in a non-slave South. This was a politically sensitive role as Thompson was an unapologetic Yankee and those he encountered in Florida were understandably cautious and just a little suspicious about his motives. While not a carpet-bagger as such, he did carry some baggage in the form of a condescending attitude toward many of the Southerners he encountered.

What makes the journal of most interest to me is Thompson’s account of his meetings with two of the significant personalities in the early history of Southwest Florida. James McKay, Sr. of Tampa and Jacob Summerlin of Polk County were conducting business at the McKay dock in Fort Ogden when Thompson arrived at this outpost located ten miles up the Peace River from Punta Gorda.  Thompson describes in some detail their characters, businesses and politics. Also present was Lt. J.C. Shaw in charge of 39 members of the 99th U.S. Colored Troops. The Fort Ogden dock was built in 1860, primarily to facilitate the shipment of cattle from the Peace River valley and to deliver supplies to the cattlemen entering the area after the close of the Third Seminole War two years earlier.

Florida Peninsular – Oct 27, 1860, page 3  Source: University of Florida Digital Collections

James McKay was a Scottish born ship captain who had arrived in Fort Brooke (Tampa) with his family in 1846 and owned a merchandise store there as well as shipping interests. He had been mayor of Tampa in 1859 and was a leading citizen of that town (both a son and grandson also became mayors of Tampa). During the Civil War he regularly ran the Federal blockade with his ship from Tampa and Fort Ogden and was detained then released in Key West in 1861 and then captured with his ship and imprisoned in Key West in 1863. There is much speculation about his true allegiances after being released again and some have theorized that after 1863 he may have been working covertly for the north. Thompson noted about James McKay that “during the war he however floated with the current into secession and I presume with the defeat of the rebellion glided as gracefully back to Unionism as any man in Florida”.

Jacob Summerlin was the largest cattleman in southern Florida operating from his base in Bartow. George Thompson claimed that Summerlin had 15 to 20,000 head of cattle to draw from. Thompson described Mr. Summerlin as “a man of naturally great will power but devoid of culture in any of the refinements of life.  The poor look up to him as their superior and revere his ideas as law.  Though rough & uncouth in exterior from what we learn of him by others I believe he has a kind heart for quite a number testify that during the war he assisted the families of both refugees and rebels and relieved a great amount of suffering by furnishing bread and meat to them”.  Later in life (1875) Summerlin became the first President of the Orlando City Council and his family name still lives on as a major thoroughfare in Fort Myers leading down toward the cattle dock he built in Punta Rassa. Thompson further reported that “Mr. Summerlin had a party of ten or twelve men with him to herd and load the cattle. They are the poor class in the country & termed "crackers." They were as a class entirely destitute, ignorant and generally ambitious only for enough to eat regardless of quality to satisfy their hunger. They are governed almost exclusively by the cattle proprietors and present a sorry spectacle of what depths of ignorance and stupidity human nature is capable.” Ouch!

Summerlin was a pragmatic businessman who sold cattle to both the Confederates and the Union. He responded to a question about the politics of the locals by saying "I will tell you sir, though they pretend to accept the result [of the war] yet their hatred is just as intense as ever and if an opportunity is offered by a quarrel between France and the United States they would do all they could to break down the government.”

Thompson traveled to the Peace River on a small sailing boat captained by Louis Bell of Tampa. In his journal he recounts an interesting encounter on the night before passing Punta Gorda and arriving at Fort Ogden. “At dusk cast anchor near an island about 7 miles from mouth of Peace Creek. Here we were attacked by Musquitoes at first by Brigade then by Division and afterwards by Corps and doubting our ability to withstand their charges we concluded it would be wiser to retreat. Consequently we fell back about two miles and passed a miserable night in the boat.”

At Fort Ogden Thompson dined onboard James McKay’s steamer the Governor Marvin (formerly the USS Honduras which was active during the Civil War as part of the federal blockade of Florida ports and the May 1864 capture of Tampa).

USS Honduras at anchor in Key West, 17 January 1865. Source:
Scott De Wolf Collection. Image from Flickr courtesy of Florida Keys Public Libraries photo # MM00042290x

Thompson reported that McKay was buying cattle from Summerlin for $10-$15 per 350 lb. cow for transportation then sale in Havana for $17-$27 per head. Thompson further described McKay as a “large commanding person of open, frank countenance gentlemanly & kind to everyone he meets.  Full of energy and enterprise he gives to Tampa whatever of life and business it possesses.” 

Thompson had this to say about the settlement prospects in the area.  “In this section I think a population would be obliged to depend upon the clouds rather than springs for their fresh water [due to the brackish nature of the water from wells].  We here find plenty of game such as deer, snipes & ducks, & wild turkeys.  The river is well supplied with fish, mullet being the most common”.

After leaving the Peace River Thompson visited the Caloosahatchee River, Fort Myers and two fishing encampments at Punta Rassa and Useppa Island. He did not reserve his negative views to the cattlemen of Florida. On January 7th, 1866 he reached Captiva Island where he camped for the night and had this to say about its prospects “this island is good for nothing except to help hold the world together and afford a resting place for weary travelers.”

Guest blogger Graham Segger is the author of Where Do We Live? Research by a Seasonal Resident of Burnt Store Road (aka the Burnt Store Road Book). His book is available at local book stores and also online at with all proceeds to charity. The material for this blog was first identified during research for a February 28, 2019 lecture about Charlotte Harbor Pre-1865 at Florida Gulf Coast University’s Renaissance Academy in Punta Gorda. For a summary of Mr. Thompson’s life and the full text of the journal and newspaper articles describing his 1865-1866 visit to Florida see the online transcription by James G. Cusick of the P.K. Yonge Library of Florida History at


Friday, December 25, 2020

Christmas on the Peace River in 1876.

 Almost  150 years ago, Frederick and Jarvis Howard built the first homes on the south side of the Peace River, where the Elks Lodge is today. They called their home site Punta Gorda Chica. They celebrated their first Christmas there with their families December 25, 1976.  

Jarvis in his diary tells us a bit about that Christmas. 

 At daylight their little ones were up looking for Santa.  “You never saw such delighted youngsters.  The schooner hit Freddie’s idea exactly.  Phil was wild over his red dinghy [toy boats].  The oranges made their eyes flash.  The molasses cake and popcorn seemed to please them as much as New York youngsters are pleased with greater variety.”. (Jarvis and Brenda had one other child, Hampkin, Frederick and Anna were childless)

The day before Jarvis had hunted their Christmas dinner - a large whopping crane.  (Not a bird we would hunt or eat today, but it was the frontier, no Publix or Walmart’s around.)  They prepared it and vegetables on a wood stove.  Fred and Jarvis dressed  up with starched shirts, collars, Fred with black suit, Jarvis a swallowtail and chocker [formal jacket with short front and long back]. Brenda, Jarvis’s wife, “donned her blue spotted dress costing only $1.50” Anna, Fred’s wife had a dress with white collar and cuff which Jarvis noted  was manufactured.  

The whooper was their “Florida turkey” and they enjoyed it with five different vegetables, sweet potatoes, beets, onions, carrots and white potatoes.  They used stewed prickly pears instead of cranberries.  They had Indian pumpkin pie for dessert.  

Jarvis noted that the thermometer stayed at 85 degrees all day.  

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

The Story of the Punta Gorda Fish Company

Of the many fisheries that operated from Punta Gorda during the late 19th century into the 20th, the one that ultimately became the largest and longest surviving one was the Punta Gorda Fish Company

Eugene Knight

Eugene C. Knight, the oldest son of Joel Knight, and L.B. Giddens started their fish business in the late 1890s on the old long dock (near where the Isles Yacht Club stands today).   They were among many other early dealers at the time including A.K. Demere, Carnes and Monk, Bill Lewis, M.M. Sullivan and sons, Blocksom and Lewis and the DeSoto Fish Company.  

In 1897 Henry Plant pulled his rails to the long dock and it was soon abandoned.  The fish industry moved to the new railroad wharf at the end of King Street (now U.S. 41 North).   It was at that time,  Knight and Giddens went into business with Harry R. Dreggors to form the Punta Gorda Fish Company.  Dreggors soon bought Gidden's share in the partnership. In 1899, E.W. Smith joined the partnership.

After Mr. Knight's mysteriously death in Cuba, his family retained his share in the business.  Then in 1919 W.E. Guthrie joined the firm with E.W. Smith's interest passing to his daughter Mary Smith Knight.

King Street Wharf

Despite numerous catastrophes, including a disastrous storm in 1910 that destroyed boats and camp houses and a 1915 fire that wiped out many of the fish industy's buildings on the King Street Wharf, including the one owned by the Punta Gorda Fish Company, by 1923, the fish industry was thriving with dealers shipping over 7 million pounds of fish on ice from Punta Gorda.  

When Barron Collier took over the old Hotel Punta Gorda in 1928 to transform it into the elegant Hotel Charlotte Harbor, the King Street dock was removed to make room for a new bridge over the harbor. The fish industry was again moved to a new city dock at Maude Street.  The same year the Punta Gorda Fish Company was incorporated with Dreggors as President.

1947 photo of Harry Goulding (long term employee of the Punta Gorda Fish Company), W.H. Monson, and W.E. Guthrie (left to right)

In 1935, W.H. Munson, Eugene Knight's son-in-law, joined the company becoming its President in 1940.  In 1939 another tragedy struck, fire destroyed all the installations on the wharf except one. After this devastation, the West Coast Fish Company, owned by T.C. Crosland,  was taken over by the Punta Gorda Fish Company. 

During its history, the company operated many run boats from the fish dock, which delivered ice and supplies to the fish houses and returned fish to the dock.  The boats included The Ray, the Wallace, the Harris and others.  In 1954, the company acquired its first shrimp boat, the Miss Punta Gorda. 

The principal partners in the firm, Monson, Guthrie and Dreggors, passed away in the 1960s. The company - the last of the Punta Gorda fishing businesses - ceased operation in 1977 when the City revoked its lease on the municipal dock to make way for the development of Fisherman's Village. 


Recolletions of Martha Ellen Monson Fish (as told to Gussie Baker)

Harry Dreggors Obiturary, Punta Gorda Herald  March 1, 1962

Punta Gorda Herald, August 28, 1947

George Gatewood, "On Florida's Coconut Coast"


Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Punta Gorda celebrates the End of a war November 11, 1918

 It was November 11, 2018 and it took a train arriving from Fort Myers to bring the joyous news that the “Great War” was indeed over and an armistice was signed to Punta Gorda.  The day became the First Armistice Day now celebrated as Veteran’s Day. Major hostilities of World War I were formally ended at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, when the Armistice went  into effect.

The city, which had sent nearly 100 of its own off to training camps earlier that year many who ended up fighting the “Hun” in France, was ecstatic.  Flags were hung from many of the local businesses on Marion Avenue of the day:Goldstein’s Furniture Store (now Cubby’s),  the Seminole Hotel (FM Don’s), Ed Wotitzky’s store, Copper Hardware.  At 3 p.m. all businesses closed and people assembled at the Methodist Church for a service. Yes, it was a time to celebrate, but the war had had costs - two young Punta Gordan’s had been killed, Augustine Willis and John Davis.  Another seriously wounded seventeen-year-old would die in 1920 from his war wounds, Raleigh Whidden. 

At 7 in the evening a celebration was held in front of the Plaza Theatre.  Harry Goldstein played his violin, with JB Washington at the cello.  Stirring addresses were given by Mayor Trabue (the Founder’s nephew), Col. Hancock and others.  Norma Pepper, an early teacher, provided a recitation.  

Only a few years before, the Punta Gorda High School Valedictorian, John Boyle, told his classmates that they would likely have to join the war effort. many did including him. So did the town, sending  their town doctor, Dr. McQueen, one of Jones family, a Morgan, a Sikes , all local business people off to war in Europe.  The City also engaged in drives and other activities to support the fight. Now Punta Gorda could celebrate and that they did and continued to do commemorating the end of the war with parades, parties, picnics every year thereafter. 

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

The Charlotte of Charlotte Harbor - the Woman Who our Bay was Named For

Our large bay has had many names, Bay (Bahia) de Calos, Bay de Carlos,   Bay de Juan Ponce de Leon, but the one that stuck was given to it by a dutch navigator exploring for the British - Charlotte Harbor.  It was in 1775 right before the American Revolution that a British cartographer, Thomas Jeffreys, first put the name “Charlotte Harbour” on a map.  At the time King George III was on the throne and his wife, the Queen, was “Charlotte” Sophia. 

Charlotte was born on May 19, 1744. She was the youngest daughter of Duke Charles of Mecklenburg and his wife, Princess Elisabeth of Saxe-Hildburghaussen.  Mecklenburg-Strelitz was small north-German duchy that was a part of the Holy Roman Empire.   When George III became King of England’s he was 22 years old and unmarried. Needing a wife, he sought someone who could bear children and not interfere with the running of the empire.  The 17-year-old Princess Charlotte checked all the boxes partly because she had been brought up in an insignificant north German duchy, and therefore would probably have had no experience or interest in power politics or party intrigues. 

When she married George, she spoke only German,  but quickly picked up the King’s language. She bore the first of their fifteen children less than a year after their wedding. She didn’t interfere much in the politics of  Britain, but she did have influence on the King.  

Interestingly, as it has been an important element on the shores of her namesake harbor, Charlotte loved music.  A young Mozart performed at her court and she sang an aria and played the flute with him.  He named an opus for her.  She was also an amateur botanist who helped insure that species of plants brought to Britain by explorers were expanded.  The official name of the Bird of Paradise was named for her.  

After the onset of his permanent madness in 1811, George III was placed under Charlotte’s guardianship.  She could not bring herself to visit him very often, due to his erratic behavior and occasional violent reactions. While she was popular in her  early years as Queen for her patronage of education for women and care of the sick, during regency to her son, Charles, she met with growing unpopularity.  

Many other places in the U.S were named for Charlotte, including Charlottesville, Virginia  and Charlotte, North Carolina.  Statues of Queen Charlotte stand in Bloomsbury, London, and at the airport and International Trade Center in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Sunday, September 20, 2020

The Sandlin House

Referred to by the name of the man who built it, the Sandlin house is one of Punta Gorda’s most treasured historic houses located in the downtown historic district.  

The Sandlin House was built  in 1893 by early merchant, shipper and developer, and town mayor James Sandlin.  With it’s gingerbread trim and wrap-around porch, the stately house is a stunning example of an old grand Floridian house.  Situated on Retta Esplanade, the house was built near the frontage of the harbor before land had been filled to extend the depth of the parks lining the bay.  The widow’s walk at the top of the home gave Mr. Sandlin a vantage point from which he could observe vessels bringing his merchandise to a nearby dock.

Sandlin came to the area before Isaac Trabue platted the town that became Punta Gorda. He originally lived on Alligator Creek.  He and his wife, Mary Lula Seward,  had six children.  Their first, who died in infancy, was the first child born in the new city of Punta Gorda.  Another boy, their second child, Felix, died at twelve.  

In 1909, Sandlin’s daughter, 14-year-old Mary, died in a fire at the house while pressing clothes using a gasoline-powered flat iron. The gasoline spilled onto Mary, catching fire.  According to local legend,  Mary’s ghost continues to haunt the house.  

James Sandlin died in 1903.  

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Elections in Punta Gorda 100 Years Ago

It was the year 1920, 100 years ago, and it  was an important election year for Punta Gorda.   In addition to an election that would ultimately put Warren G. Harding in the White House, Punta Gorda faced several other major decisions of its own. It would also be the last election where Punta Gordan voted directly for its mayor.  

With much controversy beforehand as was the case in many Florida cities at the time revising charters,  city residents were voting for members of a revised City Charter Board that would reframe the governance of the City to a city commission (council)/manager form of governance.  J.N Sikes who was re-elected in 1920 as mayor would be the last elected mayor of the City.  Also of note Marian McAdow, in the year woman were first given the vote,  was elected to the Charter Board. It was the first time a woman held any position of political importance in the City.  It was said had Marian been a man she would probably have been one of our mayors. 

The first commission was composed of three members who were ultimately elected in 1921 after the charter was finalized.  These were Max Price, R.K. Seward and T. C. Crosland.  The first advisory board was also established to include H.R Dreggors, J.N. Sikes, Clay Chadwick, Paul Garrett, C.L. Fries and W. M. Whitten  This board like current ones had no voting power.  Max Price was the first Mayor to be elected by the commission.  Soon thereafter, he took the position as first City Manger of Punta Gorda and resigned his place on the commission  

by Theresa Murtha