Cattle rustling is pretty low on the list of things Southwest Florida is known for these days. But about 150 years ago, it’s what helped put places like Punta Rassa on the map.
Pre-Civil War, Florida actually had the second most livestock per capita in the South, behind only Texas. Cattlemen had to brave swampy conditions with oppressive heat, however, on long cattle drives north to ports in Savannah or Charleston. A local alternative, with its own infrastructure and defenses to prevent rustling, seemed to be called for.
Jacob Summerlin (now of Summerlin Road fame) helped establish the Fort Myers area and the port at Punta Rassa as a focal point of the cattle trade when he and his brother Clarence began shipping cattle to Cuba in the 1850s. After the war, their business expanded. The Summerlins, along with other cattle barons, including the Hendry family, owned large pens to keep cattle once they arrived from the south central part of the state. By the 1870s, the majority of cattle shipped to Cuba came from Punta Rassa.
But not too long after, the waters off Punta Rassa became popular for sport fishing—and the Summerlins and other local power players in the area instead started to cater to the wealthy sportsmen who came to the area by building luxury resorts.
Cattle ranches still dot the rural Southwest Florida landscape—about 11,000 head of cattle still reside in Lee County—but the heyday of the Florida cowboy has ridden off into the sunset.