by Eric Barton | September 17, 2019

A Shoeless Folktale

In those days, delivering the mail across South Florida was a treacherous journey.

It’s unclear what happened to Hamilton as he attempted to cross the Hillsboro Inlet. Photography by Jamie Clifford

Even today, the churned-up water of Broward County’s Hillsboro Inlet hides an entire city of sea life. Fish in spots and stripes dart together in their own choreographed dance. Tarpon jump in feeding frenzies. Reef sharks divebomb the schools.

So imagine what might have been waiting for James “Ed” Hamilton on Oct. 11, 1887, when he dipped below the waves.

Hamilton delivered the mail, serving as a lifeline between the outside world and the outposts of civilization on the southern end of Florida. Every week or so, he’d set off with a bag of letters bound for new settlements between Palm Beach and what’s now Miami.

He was the second of about a dozen mailmen who walked and boated along the treacherous route, a six-day, 136-mile round trip, between 1885 and 1892, when a road suitable for mail coaches finally arrived. Along the way, the mailmen would tie their shoes by the laces and hang them around their necks as they hiked barefoot through the sand. They logged 7,000 miles yearly. They picked up a folklore-like name: the Barefoot Mailmen.

The Barefoot Mailman bronze statue overlooking the Hillsboro Inlet; the Legend of James Edward Hamilton, Barefoot Mailman, watercolor on paperboard, circa 1940, by Stevan Dohanos; Photography courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum

It’s unclear what happened to Hamilton as he attempted to cross the Hillsboro Inlet. Some reckon a shark or wayward gator pulled him under. The tide can turn coming-and-going waters into clapping whitecaps, so perhaps he slipped into that world below the waves.

The Barefoot Mailmen would be remembered in Theodore Pratt’s bestselling 1943 book and a campy movie in 1951. Today, three statues honoring the mailmen stand near the spot where Hamilton disappeared. A dive company installed one offshore on Angel’s Reef, about 45 feet down from the surface, an effigy that strolls eerily along the ocean bottom.