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148 years ago yesterday, first settlers arrived in Fort Myers

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Manuel A. Gonzalez captained a schooner that brought supplies and mail to Fort Myers from 1850 to 1858. He fell in love with the area, but inexplicably didn’t return to this area until several months after the Civil War ended. He arrived on February 21, 1866 with his 5-year old son, Manuel S. Gonzalez, brother-in-law John A. Weatherford and family friend Joseph D. Vivas to make the old fort his home. Imagine their shock when they sailed up the Caloosahatchee and first laid eyes on the picked-over ruins of the once proud fort.

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They pitched a tent on the old hospital grounds and made the decision to stay anyway. While Weatherford and Vivas returned to Key West for the family and supplies, father and son did a patch job on the commanding officer’s quarters, which had 8 rooms and a large stone fireplace and chimney.

The work was well along by the time that Vivas returned on March 13 with new bride, 16-year-old Christiana Stirrup, an orphan who’d been raised by the Gonzalez family. Joe and Christiana were Fort Myers’ first honeymooners. A gifted carpenter, Joe built a cabin next door not far from the officer’s quarters and he and Christiana became the Gonzalez’s next door neighbors.

Vivas and Gonzalez replanted the garden that the soldiers had once maintained with sweet potatoes, melons, pumpkins and vegetables and made a living as interpreters for the Spanish cattle buyers who came to Punta Rassa. He also opened a small general store behind his refurbished house.

Capt. Gonzalez eventually moved from town to Manuel’s Branch in March of 1872 to establish a 160-acre homestead under the Homestead Act of 1862. Where Cortez Boulevard crosses the stream, the roadway is today supported by the Manuel’s Branch Bridge, a memorial honoring Manuel A. Gonzalez. The memorial consists of bridgeworks cast by local sculptor D.J. Wilkins. Wilkins was hired for the project in 2000 by the Fort Myers Beautification Advisory Board, which had commissioned more than 20 other public artworks from the “official sculptor of Fort Myers.”

When he did, he sold the house and trading post to F.A. Hendry’s father-in-law, Louis Lanier. Joe Vivas remained in town and played an instrumental road in building one of the piers that served the fledgling cow town in the 1880s and in installing concrete sidewalks along First Street in 1906. Sadly, there exists no memorial or public artwork commemorating Vivas' contributions to the town's early development.

True Tours provides a public art walking tour that is designed to familiar the public with the many of the public artworks interspersed throughout the downtown Fort Myers River District. Each artwork tells important stories like the ones above about our early history. For days, times and reservations, please telephone 239-945-0405 or visit www.TrueTours.net.

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