Thursday, June 6, 2019

ORLANDO Founding Families: Aaron vs the ABBEVILLE Consortium

Part 10: Aaron vs the ABBEVILLE Consort:

Pin the Tail on the Donkey comes to mind when I think about how a location for the town of Orlando appears to have been made by the 1850s “planners” of Orange County.

The long donkey’s “tail” in this case was the 28 mile long Fort Mellon to Fort Gatlin Road. Note I used the word “planners” rather than “settlers,” an important distinction. The 19th century organizers of central Florida – perhaps while blindfolded – pinned their 1857 county seat at an unremarkable location on a sand rutted military trail 28 miles in length. There was  NO lake for drinking water, NO waterway or railway for transportation to and from the county seat, and yet for some unknown reason the site selected for Orlando seemed acceptable to all involved.

Settlers versus planners of a place called Orlando were indeed two entirely distinct families. “Settlers” at the time were mainly the Jernigan’s, the bravest of brave pioneers who in the early 1840s had followed Aaron Jernigan to Mosquito County. The Jernigan-Patrick families arrived in central Florida when there was nothing in the form of civilization. Nothing! 

Those representing the region when Jernigan arrived were residents of areas far to the north of Fort Gatlin, areas that are today Seminole and Volusia Counties.

Aaron Jernigan (1813-1891) Photo courtesy of Ross Adam Wood, Sr.

Aaron Jernigan represented a dozen or so homesteaders spread across ten square miles surrounding present day Orlando. Not a one however, not even Aaron, homesteaded ON the trail itself.

The “planners” were folks I call the “Abbeville Consortium”, natives of historic Abbeville, South Carolina. Many of the planners working to establish the town of Orlando never even settled in the area. But of those who did come to central Florida, the first, James & Isaphoenia Speer, arrived in 1854, a decade after the Jernigan clan had built homes and cleared palmettos for their ‘home garden.’ Aaron Jernigan even established a Jernigan post office - four years before the Speer family arrived.

Although the original settlers were mainly cattlemen, Aaron Jernigan had not only homesteaded 160 acres prior to the “planners” arriving, he had established himself as a land speculator on the old forts trail as well. He had opened a store at Henry A. Crane’s lakeside town of Mellonville on Lake Monroe, and he acquired 160 lakefront acres on Lake Lucerne, near Orlando, but before there was an Orlando. Aaron bought 80 acres on Lake Conway at Fort Gatlin, and lakefront land far south of the old fort, on Lake Tohopekaliga. Aaron Jernigan even owned his own island - Jernigan Island in Lake Toho.

Aaron Jernigan had a plan in the mid-1850s for central Florida, a wilderness of fewer than 200 residents – a quarter of whom were his relatives. But in 1854, as the Speer’s first followed the old forts trail south to Jernigan’s neighborhood, one wonders what his plan was, and how that first meeting between the Jernigan’s and Speer’s worked out. Did James Speer inform Jernigan that they too had plans for central Florida’s remote wilderness?

Judge James G. Speer (1820-1893) Early Settlers of Orange County

Within two years of the Speer’s arrival an election was called to determine a location for a new Orange County Courthouse. Attorney James G. Speer (Part 6 of this series) and wife Isaphoenia C. (Ellington) Speer (Part 7) represented the Abbeville Consortium; as did Abbeville, South Carolina families John R. Worthington (Part 3); Thomas Harris, Jr. (Part 8); and William & Emily (Watson) Hull (Part 9).

Then too, from far off Talladega, Alabama, the Caldwell family (Part 5), originally of Abbeville, fulfilled their part of the town building plan hatched by the family’s patriarch, William Harris Caldwell.

The Abbeville Consortium’s plan worked – Orlando, Florida was established as the Orange County seat of government and made official October 5, 1857 with Benjamin F. Caldwell donating land for the site of a courthouse. But then, most all those involved in Orlando’s origin had vanished from the town within a decade. And by 1867, even Aaron Jernigan had departed the State of Florida. Most all of Aaron’s family who stayed in Orange County chose to relocate further south in the county.

Legacy requires history to remember that which occurred, but a horrific Civil War, four short years after Orlando’s founding, threatened to erase all memory of the hopes and dreams of one proud Abbeville consortium. A family’s who heritage dated to America’s unprecedented Revolution and beyond, had set out to establish a family memorial to one of their own. But by 1867, Orange County residents struggled to survive while still enduring a demeaning post-Civil War Military Reconstruction Period.

A nearly abandoned 1867 town of Orlando was literally on the verge of going the way of ghost towns. A court decree had been issued in late 1866, an order Sheriff John Ivey had no choice but to carry out. The Sheriff was ordered to sell at auction the landholdings of Orlando’s Postmaster, John R. Worthington, a casualty of the Civil War.

Sheriff John Ivey held an auction January 7, 1867, selling all 113 acres surrounding four acres where the village of Orlando had been founded in 1857, in one package. A merchant from Palatka, Robert R. Reid III, the son of Florida Territorial Governor Robert R. Reid II (1789-1841) submitted the low bid of $900.

A story about a family founding a town in memory of an ancestor came so near its conclusion until Reid came to town that day in January 1867. And although he returned home to Palatka, the history of this place called Orlando survived because that “family” was more determined than ever to make it so.

Next Friday, June 14, 2019: Robert Raymond Reid III     

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 Series delves deeper into the courageous people who found their way down a lonely dusty forts trail – and became the first families to settle Orlando.

Central Florida History by Richard Lee Cronin

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  2. My name is Veleta Stephens Groll of Texas. I am a descendant of Aaron Jernigan on my maternal side. Interesting article.