Cuban fishermen set up ranchos in Manatee

Starting in the early to mid-1700s, Cuban fishermen began sailing north to the Gulf Coast of Florida.

They would set up seasonal camps and fish with nets for four to six months. They would dry their catch in the sun, pack the fish with salt in barrels and bring it back to Cuba.

The rancho fishing season ended in January or early February so they could return to Cuba by Lent, when demand for fish would be at its highest.

In the summer they would use their boats to transport salt from Cayo Sal, an island between Florida, Cuba and the Bahamas. They would use the same salt to preserve their fish later in the year.

When we talk about Cuban fishing ranchos at the Florida Maritime Museum, people often ask why they journeyed all the way to Florida? Weren't there fish in Cuba?

The reason is twofold.

First, when the fishing ranchos began, there were no major settlements on the Gulf Coast aside from Pensacola and Key West.

This meant the fisheries were still untouched, unlike coastal Cuban fisheries fished heavily for more than a century at that point.

Second, the expansive bays created the perfect environment for inshore net fishing, the technique favored by Rancho fishermen.

At least two fishing ranchos in Manatee County left a mark still represented on maps today.

Palmetto thatch huts, courtesy of State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory
Palmetto thatch huts, courtesy of State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory

The story of the first rancho fisherman starts far to the south in Charlotte Harbor on a little island now known as Cayo Pelau. Perico Pompon was a fisherman and had been in Florida since 1815. It is unclear whether he directed or just worked the rancho.

When Florida became a U.S. territory in 1821, Pompon was documented as receiving his property through a Spanish land grant. He lived there until about 1828. He connects with Manatee County much later in 1841.

The Seminole Wars likely drove him north. During the Second Seminole War (1835-1842), life in an isolated village in Southwest Florida became dangerous.

Many ranchos disbanded and moved north or grouped together for safety during this period. In 1841, Pompon was living on an island at the mouth of the Manatee River.

Two other Spanish fishermen were on the island, including Phillipi Bermudez, the namesake for Phillipi Creek. Perico may have helped the first real homesteader in the Bradenton area, Josiah Gates, site his first home.

Perico and the other fishermen often visited the Gates homestead with mullet and sea grapes. It isn't certain today's Perico Island is the same island Perico settled on, but it could be.

The man who ran the second rancho started even farther away than Charlotte Harbor. He was born in 1810 on the island of Minorca off of Barcelona, Spain, in the Mediterranean. Miguel Guerrero arrived in Tampa Bay when he was 38.

Perico and his friends helped him set up his own fishing rancho on Boots Point on Terra Ceia Island on what would become Miguel Bay. He would eventually marry Frederica Kramer, niece of the Atzeroths, the family who permanently settled Terra Ceia.

Miguel's rancho operated differently than most. Rather than drying and salting fish to carry back to Cuba every few months, Miguel worked with a fleet of smaller boats known as smacks, which had wet wells. A wet well is a watertight compartment in the hull where sea water can circulate keeping the fish alive and fresh. These smacks would sail back and forth to Cuba every week or two to sell fresh fish.

When you take Manatee Avenue out to the beach and cross Perico Island, think about the fishermen who made their living here centuries ago and those who still do today.

Author: John Beale, former Education Coordinator at FMM


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