The Legend of Acrefoot Johnson

The Legend Of "Acrefoot" Johnson

By Spessard Stone

James M. "Acrefoot" Johnson, a pioneer mail carrier and farmer, was renowned for his prowess for quickly delivering the mail long distances and the subsequent legendary folk tales.

James Mitchell Johnson, the third of eight children of Elias E. and Elizabeth (Keen) Johnson, was born on February 28, 1851 in Columbia ounty, Florida. With his parents, he moved to Manatee (now DeSoto) County about 1866. At Fort Ogden, Florida on January 22, 1877, he married Margaret Isabelle Chester, born August 1860. F. C. M. Boggess officiated.

The Savannah Morning News of August 2, 1877 related that Fort Ogden, a scattered village of about forty families, located within an area of four miles, with two churches, Baptist and Methodist, three stores, and a post office, received mail from Manatee by Pine Level overland and from Punta Rassa, embracing Fort Myers and Charlotte’s Harbor to Fort Ogden. It further reported, “A new route is to begin from Fort Meade, on the east side of Pease creek, a distance of seventy-five miles to Fort Ogden.”

With a new bride, James, affectionately known as “Acrefoot” for his size twelve boots, needed a job. Hearing that the Post Office was accepting applicants for the new route, he walked to Fort Meade where the postal agent was accepting applications.

The $26 per month position was sought by a number of others, but Big Ed Donaldson, a renowned Indian fighter of the Second Seminole War, and Acrefoot soon emerged as the favorites.

Big Ed confidently boasted: “I’ll take the mail down and bring it back once a week. I can guarantee the mail will go through, no matter what-hurricanes, rattlesnakes, Indians, or robbers!”

The postal agent replied, “That’s the spirit which built the postal service,” and invited Big Ed to put his “X” on the contract.

But Acrefoot advanced toward the pair and exclaimed: “Hold on there just a minute. I’d go as far as to wager I could make that trip with a load of mail at least twice a week and maybe three times, if old Ed can do it once!”

Looking up at Acrefoot, Big Ed countered, “You saying you’re a better man than me?”

Acrefoot, who was 6 feet 7 1/2 inches and weighed over 250 pounds, answered, “I ain’t saying I’m a better man. I’m just saying I’m a better walker and definitely the best man for the job.”

The agent then proposed, “The man who can walk the route the fastest will get the contract.”

Shaking hands, they agreed and set out the next morning. For the first ten miles or so they were as lock step as identical twins.

Then Acrefoot with his long strides began to pull away and at dusk entered Fort Ogden. After accepting delivery of the mail pouch, the postmaster jubilantly relayed the news to the village people.

A spontaneous party resulted with Acrefoot calling every square dance, except when he relieved the fiddler on several occasions.

Before day light, he passed the fiddle back to its master, picked up the Fort Ogden mail pouch, and strided off for Fort Meade.

Pausing to get a drink of water at Joshua Creek, he encountered Big Ed, who smugly drawled, “Looks like I caught up with you.”

To which Acrefoot responded, “Looks like you did. Except I’m going the opposite way!”

Acrefoot was awarded the contract. In one day he walked, first once a week, later twice a week, the Wire Road route, which proceeded from Fort Ogden to Joshua Creek, then to Long Point, Gum Heads, Dark Cow Pens, Crewsville, Bereah, and finally Fort Meade.

The Sunland Tribune of Tampa of April 1, 1880 reported of Acrefoot, “If you wear a number twelve boot, come along, we can match you, and the man at the end of which leg said foot is suspended, carries the United States mail from Fort Mead to Fort Ogden, a distance of sixty-five miles on foot, and is always reported on time.”

Many stories were related of Acrefoot’s exploits on his route, some of which I relate tongue-in-cheek:

For crossing streams and lakes Acrefoot used boats, which he left in place. This was a necessity as hungry alligators were eagerly awaiting; however, on occasions other sojourners would use his boats and he’d arrive only to spy the boat on the other side.

Once at Fort Ogden, he observed a gentleman gazing at a sail boat, which had just set sail. As Acrefoot approached, the man turned to him and implored: “I have got to catch that boat. If you’ll swim out and tell the captain to turn back for me, I’ll give you five dollars in gold.”

Acrefoot hesitated.

The other man then stammered, “Okay, ten dollars, but hurry!”

Acrefoot dove into the river and began swimming towards the outgoing vessel. Hearing a noise, he turned his head to see three bull gators slide into the water and advance rapidly towards him. Turning around, he saw the largest gator diving for the kill.

Doing a surface jacknife, Acrefoot observed the lead gator, jaws agape, break the murky water. Swiftly, he grabbed the reptile’s upper jaw, forced it back until it snapped, then with his knife killed the green monster with a stab in the neck.

With the other two alligators closing in on him, he swam like mad toward the schooner, and upon reaching it pulled himself aboard and directed the skipper back to the harbor.

As the craft embarked, the would-be passenger approached Acrefoot and remarked, “What some men won’t do for ten dollars!”

To which Acrefoot responded, “I’d have done it for five.”

On another occasion at Joshua Creek a trio of outlaws, intent on robbing the mail, beset him. One dropped out of a tree onto Acrefoot’s back. Using his herculean strength, he grabbed the attacker and flung him into the creek.

Then from the palmettos the other two advanced. With all his strength Acrefoot flung his mail pouch into the face of the first, which knocked him down. The third then took a swipe with a club at the mail carrier, but Acrefoot, evading the blow, grabbed the man’s arm in such a crunching vise that the bone in the man’s arm cracked.

Yelling in pain, he joined his buddies in a strategic withdrawal. As he watched the three flee, Acrefoot yelled, “That’ll learn you to try to rob the U. S. mail!”

In 1880, near Fort Hartsuff, Acrefoot met George Williams, a drummer, who was traveling south in his buggy.

“How about a ride?,” Williams offered.

Acrefoot, feeling a little under the weather, thanked the salesman and got into the buggy, but, after a few miles, he commanded, “Whoa, stop. I want to get out.”

“Why?,” queried Williams.

“I’m in a hurry,” the mail man replied.

Upon reaching Fort Hartsuff, Williams asked a farmer, “ Have you seen Acrefoot?”

“Why, yes, I have,” the farmer answered: “I met him about thirty minutes ago. He was hoping to make Joshua Creek by noon ‘cause he wanted to stop for dinner.”

His fast-footed walking soon brought him acclaim, and area cattlemen, F. C. M. Boggess, Ziba King, and Newton and Lewis Parker, offered to send him to an international walking contest at Washington, D. C. where they anticipated recouping their investment with side bets.

He, however, declined, “You know boys the mail’s gotta go.”

Ziba King, mounted on a stallion, once met Acrefoot walking towards Fort Ogden. “Hop on back, and I’ll give you a lift,” King invited.

“Thanks, but I’m in a hurry,” Acrefoot replied.

Angered by the rejection of hospitality, Judge King urged his horse into a gallop, but when he got into the village, the long legged mail carrier, smoking his pipe, was sitting in front of the general store.

One summer a Florida panther attacked him a few miles north of Fort Ogden. Later as the doctor was patching him up, he remarked: “Doc, Twasn’t fair. He bushwhacked me as I was backing away from his two pals. He near ‘bout got the best of me before I busted his neck.”

Margaret, his wife, once said to him, “James, I want you to take me to the camp meeting at Joshua Creek.”

“I can’t,” he responded, “My shoes are worn out and the only store that carries my size twelve is at Fort Meade.”

“What a man won’t do to get out of church,” she complained. “We’re out of coffee so get some while you’re there,” she ordered.

He returned that evening with the shoes and coffee.

A neighbor, seeing him building an odd looking apparatus, inquired, “What’che doing?”

Acrefoot answered, “My family is growing, and I need more money. I’m going to start hauling a passenger on my route.”

“That’s impossible,” the Thomas countered.

He then showed his amazed friend an armchair with shoulder straps, slipped the straps over his shoulders, had the neighbor sit in it, then commenced to trot with his passenger for several miles at the conclusion of which he was still breathing normally.

The Post Office, however, soon learned of his passenger service and ordered him to stop. Unable to make do without the extra revenue, Acrefoot in 1884 resigned although some nay sayers claim it was because the mail contract was awarded to the railroad.

Acrefoot moved to Nocatee where he delivered cross ties for the railroad when it was extended from Bartow to Punta Gorda. Subsequently he furnished cord wood for the railroad.

In 1900 James, then a farmer, and Margaret lived at precinct 9, Arcadia. Living with them were their children: Lola, born Nov. 1880; Guy, born Aug. 1887; Fairman, born Oct. 1891; and Annie, born Aug. 1895. The oldest child was Elias, born 1878.

Neighbors included: James M. and Ida Keen, Eli and Augusta Brannon, George and Sarah Williams, Elizabeth Keen Johnson who was living with her grandson Thomas H. Johnson, Richard and Fannie Sparkman, and Owen and Annie Carlton.

James M. “Acrefoot” Johnson died in 1922. Buried in Kabrich Cemetery, Nocatee, his tombstone epitaph has, "Cross Country Walking Mail Man, Affectionately Known As Acrefoot Johnson, His Creed: The Mail Must Go Through.”

Richard Livingston in “Elias E. Johnson 1818-1884,” South Florida Pioneers 1 (July 1974), page 1, has 1851 for the birth of James Mitchell “Acrefoot” Johnson.

References: Richard Livingston, "Elias E. Johnson 1818-1884," South Florida Pioneers 1 (July 1974), pp. 1-2; Albert DeVane, “Acrefoot Johnson” and “Guy (Rattlesnake) Johnson” in DeVane’s Early Florida History, March 1978; Savannah Morning News, August 2, 1877; Weekly Floridian Tallahassee, November 11, 1879; James C. Buchanan, “Acrefoot Johnson: The Barefoot Mailman,” Argosy magazine, date unknown.

This was published in The Herald-Advocate (Wauchula, Fla.) of February 8, 2001 and the Polk County Historical Quarterly, September 2001.

February 8, 2001, September 18, 2001, September 6, 2010