Mary Ida Bass Barber Shearhart's classic historical novel about the infamous Bass-Barber feud in Central Florida is back in print. After a decade in which the limited copies available were carefully hoarded and passed from hand to hand, the Florida Historical Society Press was able to persuade Mary Ida to put the novel back into circulation. Long regarded as one of the tope three books on Florida's pioneering families in the mid-19th Century, The Way Hit Wuz has lost none of its appeal to native Floridians and newcomers alike. Mrs. Shearhart writes fro the perspective of being related to both sides in the dispute and uses family records to explain the connections and conflicts in this historic feud. Mary Ida Bass Barber Shearhart is available for presentations and author events. She can be contacted via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“That which has been is now, and that which is to be hath already been; and God requireth that which is past,” [Ecclesiastes 3.15] quotes Central Florida native, Mary Ida Bass Barber Shearhart, in her book The Way Hit Wuz. The poignancy of her choice of scripture strikes home for me, particularly, because like the author herself, I am a part of the sprawling family tree that Shearhart writes about in her account of Florida history. (In the epilogue, Barber states that “there are few ‘old timers’ that don’t have a drop or two of Barber blood, or are related to one by marriage.”) Though I may not relish or take pride in everything she has recorded about the connection I have to the formation of this state, I appreciate the statement she makes by beginning her book with an Ecclesiastical care; Shearhart seems to be both cautioning and comforting her readers that however unpleasant life’s circumstances may be, there is a special purpose and providence to the way things happen!
Though her chronological and slightly folk-tale style is engaging, and she sprinkles the main purpose of personal history with historical facts about the broader happenings in Florida, it is regretful that Shearhart’s literary work is significantly lacking in fluidity and coherence. This book’s creditability would surely improve by leaps and bounds if simple copy editing principles were applied; the basic concepts of punctuation and sentence structure are horribly ignored, to the greater confusion of the reader, and easy correction of these errors could have occurred without much effort.
Still, in spite of these unfortunate circumstances, reading Shearhart’s The Way Hit Wuz significantly enhanced my appreciation for the history of Florida.
Shearhart reveals the development of Florida by following the life of Moses Barber, who married Maria Leah Alvarez and had nine children by her, including his sons Andrew Jackson Barber and Isaiah Barber (named after Isaiah Hart, who changed the name of the Cow Ford settlement to “Jacksonville” and established the first hotel).
Leah, as she was called, was born in the house at 14 St. Francis Street in St. Augustine. Her mother, Ana Maria Dolores, lived and worked in the home of Don Geronimo Alvarez as his “housekeeper” after the death of his wife. Alvarez was a descendant of the Adelantado Pedro Menendez de Aviles, who “gave” the house to speculator Jessie Fish in 1763, to “hold in confidence until Spain could get back control.” Alvarez claimed the house in the name of his mother’s birthright upon his return to Spain, and though Ana Maria never specified who the father of her daughter was, she named the girl Maria Leah Alvarez.
Leah was ten years old when her mother died and Don Alvarez sent her to Cuba to be educated; it was there that the elderly and childless Davis couple adopted her and brought her back to Charleston, where Moses Barber married her six years later.
“Mose” Barber, as he came to be known, was a typical specimen of the rough and rowdy Florida Cracker, and a stark contrast to his gentile wife. When strangers asked where he found such a “beautiful and polished” wife, and “how he kept her,” Mose always replied, “Jest keep her pregnant and barefoot and don’t give her a *** thing.”
Mose spent most of his life punching cattle, starting out in the Jacksonville area and eventually spreading all the way down into the Lake Okeechobee area. During the War Between the States, hundreds of cattle belonging to Mose Barber joined the herds of Jacob Summerlin on their way to feed the Confederate Army; he was notorious for simultaneously making a fortune selling cattle to the Cuban markets. In February of 1863, Mose was forced to leave his small plantation on Big Creek to escape the approaching Federal Army. Union Colonel Barton set up head quarters there and used the house as a hospital during the Battle of Olustee.
Through my grandfather, Dr. John Zachariah Schmidt, I am a descendant of Mose Barber’s fifth son and seventh child, Isaac J. Barber, 8th Fla. Infantry, Co. I, who was wounded at Sharpsburg, captured at Gettysburg, a prisoner of war at Ft. Delaware, and after the war walked home to what is now Osceola County, and was murdered in the Barber-Mizell Feud.
Any amount of property large enough to be considered a “plantation” in Florida during that time was rare indeed, and the means by which Mose Barber became one of the few plantation owners was rarer still. He was contacted by wealthy planter and slave trader Zephaniah Kingsley, who had heard of Mose’s expert methods of accumulating cattle. Kingsley hired Mose to steal the cattle and slaves that belonged to the two thousand Indians being held at Ft. Brook. In return for “risking life and limb,” and for delivering the cattle to Kingsley’s plantation on Lake George, Mose kept a number of the slaves (including “six breed-able women and one prized Mandingo) and received Kingsley’s guidance and financial assistance to start a plantation of his own. Upon his death in 1842, Kingsley graciously absolved Mose of all debt.
The above mentioned are only a few of the events described by Shearhart in her book, the pages of which are supplemented with maps, etchings, government documents, and personal letters, and followed by seven pages of bibliography. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in Florida history, providing they are able to look past the lack of textual editing.
Rachel L. Schmidt
September 29, 2006
Not being a native Floridian, but have spent most of my life here in Florida, this book release was a long awaited joy to read. I had the pleasure to speak personnly with Mrs. Shearhart. I found her to be a most enjoyable person to talk with. The liberal use of "dialect" in her book was a little difficult to read through, BUT the dialect only enhanced the reading experiance I had with Mose. I enjoyed reading about the very time frame Mose Barber was so much a part of. Mose was truely a southern cracker. The idea of the "Republicans" telling him what to do and how, especally the high toned Mizel clan was just about more then Mose could handle. Very good read. Anyone interested in Florida history and "The way hit wuz" should read this book.
January 15, 2007