James Edward "Ed" Hamilton saw nothing unusual about Oct. 10, 1887 It was just
another Monday, and the start of another week as Southeast Florida's barefoot mailman.
It had been a rainy autumn, but that wasn't unusual. A nor'easter the preceding week had
roughened the sea and soaked the land, but the wind had died down some by Monday.
Hamilton, a lean muscular 33, was one of three Kentuckians who had decided in 1885 to
try to make their fortune in South Florida. They traveled first from their native Cadiz.
south of Paducah, to Bartow Fl.
The winter there still was too cool, and they moved on to Hypoluxo, 10 miles south
of West Palm Beach. There Hamilton farmed 10 acres and lived with Andrew Garnett,
another of the Kentuckians.
Garnett became postmaster. When the $600 per year contract to carry mail on the beach
between Hypoluxo and Miami came open early in 1887 Hamilton took it.
This may seem to be a courageous act, on his part, particularly in the light of the legends
that have grown up around pioneer Southeast Florida since Theodore Pratt published his
novel.' The Barefoot Mailman,'' but it's doubtful if he felt that way.
It's true that fresh water was scarce and mosquitoes plentiful. But there were Houses of
Refuge for shipwrecked sailors at Orange Grove (now Delray Beach) and New River
(now Fort Lauderdale) where he spent his nights on the route.
There were few dangerous land animals and no Indians, hostile or otherwise.
Shortly after noon that fateful Monday, Hamilton rowed across from Hypoluxo Island to
the beach. Lillie Pierce Voss, sister of Assistant Postmaster C.W. Pierce, rode across with
him to bring back the skiff.
Lillie, then only 11, watched as Hamilton strode south, into history.
Hamilton was a handsome young man, just a shade under six feet with tanned skin and a
He walked along the surf line, where the sand is the hardest. He had rolled up his
trousers and tied his shoes around his neck so that the salt water wouldn't damage either.
On his head was a wide-brimmed hat, on his back a black oilcloth knapsack. Inside were
food, water and utensils, plus the locked mail sack.
Hamilton probably did not think of himself as a pioneer. There had been mail routes
along the beach off and on since 1869 when Miami's first settlers arrived. The first route
reportedly was from Jupiter lighthouse, 30 miles north of Hypoluxo. In August of 1885,
increased population along Lake Worth led the Post Office Department to set up two new
routes, with the first carrier bringing the mail overland from Jupiter to Juno. thence south
on the lake to Hypoluxo.
There were trees all along the beach in 1887 to shade Hamilton from the afternoon sun as
he walked south. Landmarks were few and most of them were shipwrecks, such as the
Spanish bark of which little remained except the figure of a woman on its bow.
For a man of Hamilton's strength and conditioning, It was an easy afternoon's walk to
Orange Grove. He arrived in time for a leisurely dinner with the keeper, Charles
Andrews, and his wife. The Andrews enjoyed these visits, their only contact with the
outside world between shipwrecks.
In the morning, after an ample breakfast, Hamilton walked on south toward New River.
This trip he was alone, although often he had "foot passengers", travelers who paid $5
each to have him guide them.
He still was half a day's walk away from the first of only two inlets he had to cross en
route, Hillsboro. The other was the original New River inlet, where Bahia Mar now
stands (Port Everglades inlet was not cut until 1928, after the original inlet had silted
This lack of inlets not only made his walk easier, it was a major factor in making it
necessary. The scarcity of refuge from storms, plus the small volume of mail, ruled out
the use of ships between Hypoluxo and Miami.
On land there were no roads, the military trail from Seminole War days having long
since returned to its native state. That left the beach, where the many mosquitoes and lack
of water ruled out horses.
So he walked. He reached Hillsboro at noon and looked for the small boat he had
concealed along the bank. It was gone. He scanned the opposite bank and saw it.
The inlet was fairly shallow in 1887. Sometimes it could be waded at low tide. But not
The river was a torrent, as the overflow of rain water from the Everglades surged
seaward. With it came snakes and alligators caught up in the current. They in turn drew
sharks to the inlet.
If the mail were to go through, Hamilton had no choice. He hung his knapsack on a bush,
piled his clothes on the sand and swam toward the opposite shore.
Hamilton was due back at Orange Grove Friday night on his northward leg. When he
hadn't arrived by Saturday morning, Andrews headed north to report him missing and to
deliver his regular House of Refuge report to Palm Beach.
At Hypoluxo, he met Garnett, who took the report on north while Andrews returned
south to search for Hamilton. When he reached the inlet, probably not until Sunday,
Andrews found the knapsack still on the bush with the mail sack intact inside. Hamilton's
clothes were scattered along the beach, probably carried by the wind. The boat still was
tethered on the opposite shore.
No trace of Hamilton ever was found. He may have drowned in the swift current, (he was
a poor swimmer) or may have been attacked by 'gator or shark.
About the time Hamilton died, a southbound traveler had shown up at the New River
House of Refuge. When asked by its keeper, Charles Coman, how he had crossed
Hillsboro Inlet, he told the improbable story of using a portable boat provided by a group
of men traveling through the forest with a team of horses.
The man later was charged with tampering with government property and tried in Federal
Court in Jacksonville. He was acquitted and his name never got into any records.
Hamilton 's death was the only tragedy ever to befall one of the beach-walking mailmen.
(The term "Barefoot Mailman" was unknown to them. It did not come into use until Pratt
published his novel 50 years later). But they soon were to be wiped out by that most
relentless of forces, changing times.
Late in 1892, a rock road ( To become Dixie Highway) was completed from Jupiter to
Miami and the Bay Biscayne Stage Line took over the mail contract.
Today, the Hillsboro Inlet is spanned by a four lane concrete bridge, carrying more
passengers per hour than used to pass in a year.
On the Hillsboro lighthouse grounds, (erected in 1906) just north of the bridge on the
east side of the road, on the Atlantic ocean is a plaque, preserving the memory of a
Kentuckian who gave his life assuring that the mail would go through.
This October, 116 years ago marks that day in time that “Ed Hamilton” disappeared into
the history books of South Florida leaving no trace, other than his mail pouch, shoes and
his clothes of his disappearance.
I have my own personnel explanation that I think happened to “Ed’ Hamilton.
I grew-up around the Hillsboro Inlet and there were the times I walked across, I swam
across I waded across and dug clams and fished and speered fish using a “Hawaiian sling”
which was a hollow pipe with a piece of rubber inner-tube attached and used like a
slingshot to propel a round steel rod with a sharpened tip into or at fish as I was drifted
along with the current on an incoming tide from the rocks SE of the lighthouse and to the
Bridge over the Inlet at A1A.
I know how swift the currents were here, ( 6-8 knots) there was no swimming against it,
one just had to “go with the flow”. My theory of the disappearance of “Ed” Hamilton is
that with the NE winds and squally weather prevalent at this time of year and he with a
complaint before he left the Hypoluxo station of stomach cramps, on entering the water to
swim to the other side, he either suffered severe cramps, which could have disabled him,
or he could have encountered an alligator, a, crocodile or even a shark roaming the inlet.
If whatever happened to him, I feel sure it had to be on an incoming tide, he would have
been swiftly carried on into the Intercoastel waterway where he would have become
entangled in the spidery roots of the mangroves that grew in abundance on both sides of
the inlet. There his body would have remained hidden until it was devoured by the fish,
crabs and any other wild animals that happened along.
If there had been an outgoing tide, his body would have washed out into the ocean and
South and the current slows down considerable once getting outside of the Inlet and his
remains would have washed up on the beach where it surely would have been discovered
by search parties that went out looking for him. If his body were entangled in the
mangroves it would have been virtually impossible to locate him.
My theory of what happened to “Ed” Hamilton is strictly conjecture based on my
personnel experiences I had in the Hillsboro Inlet on the many occasions that I had Swam
and fished there.