Bone Mizell – Florida Cow Man & Figure in Folklore
Around 1862 a cow hunter by the name of Morgan Mizell and his wife, Mary Fletcher Tucker, moved from Hernando County to a little-populated area in Manatee County called Horse Creek. A year later in 1863, Morgan Bonaparte Mizell – affectionately known as Bone to his eleven brothers and sisters – was born. In 1885-86 Horse Creek became the site of Pine Level, Manatee County’s town seat. Later still, this land became part of Desoto County.
In 1895, cowboy artist Frederic Remington, traveled from New York city to Florida
to paint scruffy-looking Bone on his Florida Cracker horse. Remington called
the painting “A Cracker Cowboy” and it was published in Harper’s Magazine in 1895.
By this point in time, Bone Mizell was a full-grown man who had worked cattle with his father for many years. As a young man, Bone was never much of a student, preferring to spend his time on the back of a horse rather than at a school desk. Bone was over six feet tall with a protruding chin and a hawk-like nose. His weather-beaten tanned skin made him appear much older than his years. He was known across the Florida prairie as a man who only slept outside, loved his whiskey and drank it often, had a wheezing, lisping way of speaking, and enjoyed his leisure time in bordellos. He was a great storyteller and lover of wisecracking jokes.
Despite his rough ways, Bone had a special talent for recognizing and remembering cattle and brands. During a round-up, if a cow man wasn’t sure which brand belonged to which ranch, Bone was the one who was called. He was especially skilled at “mammying-up,” the ability to match cows with their calves. Intelligence was needed to identify and remember all the brands and earmarks used on cattle in Florida. Up until 1949 when The Fence Law was passed, Florida cattle freely roamed the scrubby landscape. Bone’s skills made him a sought after cow man. At one time Bone was ranch foreman for Judge Ziba King, one of the largest cattle owners in the state of Florida. He was said to own at least 50,000 head of cattle and had nine men employed part time under Bone. Bone was fit for that big job. Bone also tried his hand at retail business by opening a grocery store, but his lack of schooling interfered with his ability to keep books and stay on top of who owed him money for goods. When the grocery began to fail, Bone went back to cow hunting where he could use his God-given talents.
Judge Ziba King, Courtesy of Florida Memory
Bone was a cow man who did not always pay attention to the law when it didn’t suit him. In the 1890s he was arrested several times for cattle rustling and altering brands. While there are many stories about Bone, one needs to take them all with a smidge of salt as he has become a beloved character in Florida folklore and stories may be true or they may be false. One favorite tale occurred in Desoto County when the local sheriff caught wind that a poker game was taking place at a nearby ranch. When he went to investigate, he found some well-known cattle owners and Bone, sitting around the table with cards and poker chips. The sheriff halted the game, explaining that “chips are the same as money.” The next day, each of the players was fined eighty-five dollars for gambling. Bone waited until the others had paid their fines, then he approached the sheriff and counted out eighty-five dollars in poker chips. When the sheriff stopped him, saying “This ain’t money,” Bone replied “Sheriff, only yesterday, in front of several witnesses, you said, ‘chips are the same as money.’” Bone turned and walked out. True story or a bit of Florida folklore? The reader needs to make up his own mind!
You can read more about Bone Mizell and other historic Florida cattlemen in Annette Bruce’s Tellable Cracker Tales and in Florida Cow Hunter – the Life and Times of Bone Mizell by Jim Bob Tinsley.