The problem is, there seems to be practically no evidence supporting this besides the memories of those who were there. Below are two souvenir slides from 1971 showing the Florida burning cabin; followed by another shot from 1969 showing the Disneyland version for comparison.
As you can see, the structures are practically identical; as a result, there probably are photos of the Florida burning cabin circulating through the Disneyana circuit being misidentified as the California version. The Florida version has a different split-rail fence closer to the cabin and has a different grassy slope in front of it. And, as is easily seen in those 1971 photos, there is no dead settler.
So, mystery solved; right?
Hold on; there's an extra twist.
Left is a portion of a 1971 Walt Disney World slide showing the Alligator Bayou shed show scene still in place alongside the river today being passed by a keelboat. The important thing is that there isn't the "Beacon Joe" animated figure that's currently in place to the left of the shed, and probably not the Marc Davis dog/jumping fish gag (although we can't tell since the keelboat is in the way). So if Beacon Joe's shed but not Beacon Joe was there in 1971, why wouldn't this follow suit with other Rivers of America elements, like the plastic animals or.. the dead settler?
It's easy to forget that Tom Sawyer Island was not an original attraction at Walt Disney World; it opened in late 1973 in the shadow of Pirates of the Caribbean just a little south. Therefore, we can theorize (and I've since gotten some verification of this but regardless) that in 1973, while WED was building the rest of the wonderful Orlando TSI complex, that existing show scenes along the river were plussed and propped and improved. So Beacon Joe and some more indians and plastic animals and perhaps a dead settler were added in 1973. Even earlier than that, in fact: look at these two photos, one from early 1972, the other from late 1972:
That evidence is a bit more persuasive, but as we know from just a little east at the Magic Kingdom in the Haunted Mansion and it's mythic "spiderwebbed body" (more myth than fact), just because it's in a maintainence manual or a blueprint, doesn't mean it was ever there. Remember, 1973 was not only the year of Pirates of the Caribbean and Tom Sawyer Island, but Wounded Knee, and it's possible that WED decided better of the tableau and modified it before or after installation. Here's Werner Weiss on the California version:
The Settler’s Cabin burned for more than four decades on the north end of Disneyland’s Tom Sawyer Island. However, the story changed several times.
In the 1970s, the entertainment industry became increasingly aware that their often simplistic portrayal of American Indians could be offensive. At Disneyland, the settler lost the arrow and became the victim of evil river pirates.
In the mid-1980s, the settler became a moonshiner whose still had exploded, igniting the cabin. The moonshiner was sprawled out in front of the cabin, but we were assured he wasn’t dead; he had just consumed too much of his product.
I've spoken to some long time Orlando visitors who have never been to and know nothing about Disneyland and who remember the drunken moonshiner; also, let's not forget that the River Pirate plot was already existent in Florida what with its' Pirate's Cave scene around the other side of the island; so at some point either or both of these stories were in place in Florida. Until the burning cabin's flames were extinguished in Orlando in 2005 with an extended refurbishment to the Riverboat (the lines are still there; it could burn tomorrow if park management didn't think that propane was too extensive), the Riverboat recorded narration still spoke of river pirates having set the cabin aflame. I've posted a transcription of the Keel Boat narration from 1994 which mentions the moonshiner story in a way, so it's possible that depending on the attraction you rode, you got a different story!
If anybody has a picture of our MIA settler from Orlando (check the split rail fence for confirmation!), I'd appreciate confirmation of this long-standing Park Mystery. I know of a lot of other people who would appreciate it, too!
Thanks to the always lovely Daveland for allowing me to post some of his collected photos!