On February 15, 1864, as a small regiment of Florida’s 2nd Calvary made their way to Olustee Station near Lakeland, they happened upon the enemy at Gainesville’s rail yard. Civil War archives describe the incident which followed as minor, but what happened at Gainesville that day forever changed the tiny Orange County start-up village named Orlando.
Location in 1861 of WORTHINGTON House; Lots 2 & 3 of Village of Orlando, FL
About a hundred Union soldiers snuck into Gainesville that day in 1864, intent on capturing a Confederate train. As they were preparing to do just that however, the Calvary showed up, and Florida’s Home Guard boys became intent on denying the Union any success. When gunfire finally ceased, several Union soldiers had been taken prisoners, two of Florida’s Calvary had suffered minor injuries, and another, Captain John R. Worthington, lay seriously wounded.
Sketch by Surveyor J. O. Fries of 1871 Orlando and “Worthington’s Hotel”
Orlando’s first-ever Postmaster and proprietor of a boarding house located on Lots 2 & 3 of the village, John R. Worthington of Florida’s 2nd Calvary, died February 16, 1864 at Gainesville.
A half dozen or more versions of Orlando’s origin have surfaced over the past 160 years, and one such version was that the town was founded by “Postmaster Worthington.” Having his name on the list of potential “founders” is understandable, for the first documented evidence of the town’s name is found in U. S. Post Office archives. That record reflects the Orlando Post Office was established September 19, 1857, and that the first postmaster was John. R. Worthington.
Despite being of age in 1856, Worthington was not listed in the roster of Orange County Militia that year, suggesting he had not yet arrived when the Militia was organized. John and his family were living in Augusta, GA in 1850, so the South Carolina native appears to have moved to Orlando after 1850, and likely during the year 1857. He is found in 1860 Orlando as a Widower, residing with three children: Daughter Henrietta (age 14); Son William Milton (age 16), and Son B. McGee (age 12). A family of six at 1850 Augusta, the Worthington’s were a family of four by 1860. By the end of America’s Civil War, Henrietta Worthington, by then living at Mellonville, would be the sole survivor of one of Orlando’s early founding families.
“There was a frame house north of the court house,” said Robert Roper to historian William F. Blackman in 1927, telling the historian of his visit to Orlando in 1861, as an 8 year old boy. The frame house, said Roper, was “owned by J. R. Worthington and used as a boarding house; here the judge and lawyers boarded when holding court.”
Benjamin F. Caldwell of Talladega, AL gifted the entire four acres of Village of Orlando, except Lot 10 (Part One), to Orange County for a courthouse on the 5th of October 1857. Later recorded deeds establish John R. Worthington built his home on Lots 2 and 3 by 1861 – but the land was technically owned by Orange County.
Henry Roberson had opened a store on Lot 1 by 1861 – on land also owned by Orange County.
An 1858 James Yates deed (Part Two) mentions “J. R. Worthington’s land,” in a vaguely worded legal description. That same year, on August 13, 1858, another vaguely worded legal description was signed by “John & Linney Patrick”, conveying 113.94 acres to John R. Worthington. So, by 1858, James Yates, John R. Worthington and John Patrick all had ties to the exact same parcel.
But so too did Benjamin F. Caldwell of Talladega, AL. The individual most often cited as the founder of Orlando, (or connected somehow to the town founder), Ben Caldwell received a homestead deed in 1860 - for the same 113.94 acres Worthington bought from the Patrick in 1858. To qualify for a homestead deed however, one had to live on the land five consecutive years – suggesting Benjamin F. Caldwell lived on his homestead beginning in 1855. We know he did not!
Patrick to Worthington: 1858: “The south half and northeast quarter of the southeast quarter of Section 26, Township 22 South, Range 29 East, containing 113.94 acres.”
Land Office to Caldwell: 1860: “The south half and northeast quarter of the southeast quarter of Section 26, Township 22 South, Range 29 East, containing 119.95 acres.”
(Slightly different in wording, the deed descriptions are the same. The acreage difference likely had to do with a one acre “Free Church Site” of 1857; the four-acre Village of Orlando of 1857; and that odd one-acre Needham Yates parcel of 1858 mentioned in Part Two).
The overlap of ownership is verified by a mortgage dated November 7, 1859, in which John R. Worthington secured a $675 loan from Palatka merchants Teasdale & Reid. John R. Worthington used his Village of Orlando land as collateral. The mortgage, issued prior to the land office deed of 1860 to Benjamin F. Caldwell, was still unpaid in 1867 when Robert R. Reid submitted the low bid at a Sheriff’s auction to buy the entire 113 acres village of Orlando.
Confusing indeed, but there is no simple way of establishing the fact that numerous individuals believed they legitimately owned land at what is today the hub of downtown Orlando. (NOTE: NINE (9) decades later, in the year 1973, a judgment was issued against the families and heirs of Caldwell, Patrick and Worthington in favor of a downtown builder to finally resolve a century of confusion and give the builder a clear title.)
John R. Worthington (1820-1864) had married Frances McGee (1820-1859) on the 13th of April 1841. The couple’s first child, Henrietta, was born the next year. Frances (McGee) Worthington was dead however prior to the 1860 census.
Several months prior to John R. Worthington being killed at Gainesville, FL in 1864, his 18 years old son, William Milton Worthington, died of “disease” at Jacksonville’s Camp Finegan (Many a soldier who died during the Civil War died of just such a cause). The youngest boy, Burrell McGee Worthington, named for his Maternal grandfather, vanished by 1868.
John Worthington didn’t make it to Florida’s most famous Civil War battle. He died on the way, but the son of a prominent central Florida founder did participate in the Battle of Olustee. Arthur Alexander Speer, eldest son of Dr. Algernon & Christiania (Ginn) Speer of Mellonville, fought in and was injured during the battle. Arthur was discharged as a result, and he returned home.
Arthur A. Speer, in 1870, married the sole-surviving member of one of Village of Orlando’s first families, Henrietta (Worthington).
Henrietta & Arthur had four known children: Christiania, born 1871, named for Arthur’s mother; Arthur Ginn Speer, born 1872, named for Christiania’s father, Arthur Speer’s grandfather and planter of central Florida’s first commercial orange grove; Milton A. Speer, born 1877, named for Henrietta’s brother who had died of disease in the Civil War; and Ella Louise Speer, born 1881.
Arthur A. Speer died at Sanford in 1889 at age 50. Widow Henrietta (Worthington) Speer moved away from central Florida soon after, and she died at Birmingham, AL 1922, at the age of 80.
CARE TO SHARE HISTORY OF THIS FAMILY? Feel free to comment or add family history in the comment section. But please keep the subject matter of this blog. Thanks,
Next Friday, April 26, 2019: The PATRICK family of ORLANDO
“First Road to Orlando” is a history of the old Fort Mellon to Fort Gatlin Road and of how a tiny village in the middle of a remote wilderness became the Orange County seat of government.
This Orlando Founding Families delves deeper into the courageous pioneers who found their way along a lonely dusty forts trail – to become the first families to settle at Orlando.
Central Florida History by Richard Lee Cronin
FOR MORE ON WORTHINGTON
CitrusLAND: Curse of Florida’s Paradise, and
First Road to Orlando
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