BREVARD COUNTY, Fla. – Overlook Park in Melbourne isn’t much more than a small parking lot and an even smaller plot of grass but as the saying goes, location is everything. The park sits on a bluff above the Indian River.
It offers a picture-perfect view of the Melbourne Causeway to the south and the Barrier Island across the Indian River.
If you were to go back in time to the 1870s, it would also provide a bird’s-eye view of the legendary “sailing mailman.”
Capt. Peter Wright was the area’s first mail carrier traveling up and down the river from Titusville to Ft. Pierce in his small sailboat named Nellie.
A monument in the park honors him and provides a small piece of what we know about this Black Florida pioneer. The rest we can only piece together from short references in newspaper articles and books on local history.
Charles Jackson grew up just blocks from the river and visits the park a couple of times a year.
“In the old days, everybody called this section the bluff section,” Jackson said, looking out at the water with a soft breeze pushing against his face.
Locals know Jackson as the community’s amateur historian, collecting newspaper clippings, books on local history and stories passed down through the African American community.
“Every little piece I see I pick it up and read it. I keep it,” Jackson said of his part-time hobby. “You’d be surprised how many people know stuff they didn’t think you’re interested in. Once they know you’re interested, they’ll tell you. I guess everybody knows I’m interested in the history of this area.”
Jackson stands a few feet from the bronze plaque set in a waist-high coquina rock. It was dedicated to Wright, The Sailing Mailman in 1991 by the South Brevard Historical Society.
“His significance to the area is he was one of the first people to come here,” Jackson said. “He came here right after the Civil War.”
It’s been well documented that Wright was one of three freedmen who settled along Crane Creek after the Civil War in 1867 or 1868.
Wright along with two others, Balaam Allen and Wright Brothers, came to the area after Congress passed the Homestead Act of 1866.
It would have been a beautiful yet unforgiving landscape of scrub, pine and oak forests with little escape from the mosquitos.
“It had to be very rough,” Jackson said. “I don’t know how they had the nerve to begin to do it, but they did it. But remember now, they had been enslaved for years so any freedom is better than where he came from.”
As the story goes, the three were given a day to walk off and stake as much land as they could. That would be their homestead. Brothers and Allen settled on the south side of the creek, Wright on the north side, claiming 65 acres. It’s the area we now consider downtown Melbourne.
A survey map from 1879 confirms Wright’s property extended to both sides of Crane Creek. Wright eventually sold some of his property along the creek to C.J. Hector, an English-born Australian from Melbourne, which is how the town got its name.
In an archived video interview conducted by the Brevard Historical Commission, Ulysses Wright, Peter Wright’s great-grandson talks about his great grandfather’s log cabin on Front Street.
Michael Boonstra, archivist for the Brevard County Historical Commission said there were probably less than 500 people in the area when the men arrived.
“This is a whole file we have on Peter Wright,” Boonstra said, opening a folder filled with newspaper clippings and copies of legal documents. “The first Census that he shows up in in this area, it’s the 1880 Census,” Boonstra continues. “It’s interesting, it refers to him as a mail carrier.”
Wright delivered mail twice a week. He traveled up and down the waterway in his “cat” boat. The boat would have been small with a sail. When the wind was calm he would have had to paddle.
Wright’s brother, Dick Wright, also delivered mail by boat. He traveled from Titusville to New Smyrna Beach. Very little is written about him. Boonstra said an obituary from 1885 states that people lamented the loss of their beloved mail carrier.
“This was a government position and an important position,” Boonstra said. “The mail was the main source of communication for people in those days. He would have had to be very trusted to get that appointment and then do a great job at it to have kept it.”
“He was evidently literate because you can’t deliver mail if you’re illiterate. They’re probably better than the mailmen now because I’ve got mailmen now that put the wrong mail in my box,” Jackson said, smiling. “So these guys, to be freed slaves, they were literate people.”
Boonstra said Wright appears to have been a bridge between the Black and white communities.
“He must have had a very engaging personality is why we remember him now because he was also talked about in his day. It was very unusual for African Americans to be mentioned in a newspaper. He appears in numerous newspaper articles over his lifetime. Stories about him delivering mail, if somebody was looking to buy land and they needed to go somewhere by boat, they were told to contact Capt. Peter Wright.”
From her book, “Mosquito Soup,” author and historian Weona Cleveland describes Wright using newspaper comments and stories of the day.
“Often around sunset, Wright’s boat could be seen half drifting, half sailing as he passed Eau Gallie, with the prow headed for Melbourne,” Cleveland writes. “The arrival of the Nellie in Crane Creek was an important event. When she was sighted the fact was made known by ringing a bell. It was said that Wright had a large conch shell horn.”
Wright stopped delivering mail when the Jacksonville, Tampa and Key West railroad reached Titusville in 1885.
Wright sold his land interest in Melbourne and went on to become a respected businessman in the Rockledge area, starting several businesses including a fruit farm, a stable and a drayage business that unloaded cargo from the steamboat landing and delivered it to hotels and businesses.
It is reported that Wright died unexpectedly on a southbound Florida East Coast railroad train in 1925. He was 80 years old.
As Jackson wraps up his visit to Overlook Park, he leans in to get one last look at the plaque.
“It’s a very fitting place for it. It’s overlooking the same river that he sailed on, the same river he made a living on,” Jackson said. “They could have stopped anywhere but I’m glad they stopped here, to start our history.”