About This Episode
The History of Orlando Part One covers the years 1843 to 1857 and the building of the town of Jernigan that would later become Orlando.
This episode shows how Orange County grew based on the passing of the Armed Occupation Act of 1842 and the settlement of early American pioneers to the area. Aaron Jernigan is the long-forgotten first settler to the area which became Orlando. At first the area was named after him, but other powerful interests played a part in making the town into the city we know today as Orlando.
James Gamble Speer played a large role in helping to move the seat of Orange County seat to what was then the small town of Jernigan. He also has a role in why the city changed it’s name, although no clear records exist to prove the origin of the change.
If you would like to learn more about the fascinating history of Orlando, visit the Orange County Regional History Center in downtown Orlando.
Location: Orange County Regional History Center, 65 E Central Blvd, Orlando, FL 32801
Phone: (407) 836-8500
In the March 2007 issue of National Geographic Magazine, an article by T.D. Allman entitled “How Walt Disney Changed Everything” branded Orlando as, “the new American Metropolis.” The article began with the words, “Everything happening to America today is happening here…”
Over 145 years since first being incorporated as a town, Orlando has always been a place filled with adventure and mystery. Even the etymology of why the city is named Orlando is not clear.
One thing cannot be denied. The City of Orlando holds a special place in the hearts of Americans – for some it’s a Disney dream, for others like me there is nowhere else on earth we’d rather be.
We’ll look at the fascinating history of Orlando, Florida, coming up next.
The city of Orlando has its beginning in the mid-19th century, long before Florida became a State, during the Second Seminole War which lasted from December 28, 1835 to August 14, 1842. During the war the US Government built forts which were stockades used by militia for protection and supplies. Many cities in Florida still retain the names of these forts from the wars, like Fort Myers and Fort Pierce. Near present day Orlando Fort Gatlin was built. The post was located at a strategic position on a hill overlooking three lakes which today are Lake Jennie Jewel, Lake Gem Mary and Lake Gatlin just 3 miles Southwest of current downtown Orlando.
Fort Gatlin’s life as an Army post was limited as it was built toward the end of the Second Seminole War, but it was the protection the fort gave to early settlers that planted the seeds of a town to grow in Central Florida. Orlando might very well today be called Fort Gatlin, except, that for a short time the area became known as Jernigan, named after an early settler who was compelled to start a new life in Central Florida.
On August 4th, 1842, just ten days before the end of the Second Seminole War, the 27th Congress enacted the Armed Occupation Act which granted 160 acres of land to a head of household, who would, among other things, settle and cultivate five acres or more of land for a period of five years.
Along with Fort Gatlin, the name Jernigan appears on old maps of the area. Historians believe that Aaron Jernigan, a cattle rancher from South Georgia, was the first American to settle in what is now Orange County. In the summer of 1843, 29-year-old Aaron Jernigan filed a claim pursuant to the Armed Occupation Act, cleared out land and built a small cabin just 1.6 miles from Fort Gatlin on the northwest side of Lake Holden.
As other settlers arrived, a small community began to develop around the Jernigan homestead. Aaron Jernigan and his family no doubt had great influence on the nascent village. He had amassed one-thousand two-hundred acres of land. He was the head of the local militia responsible for protecting the town. In fact, in 1849 when hostilities began to resurface, it was Aaron Jernigan who built a stockade for the village residents to shelter in for a year until the trouble had passed. When Florida gained statehood in March 1845, Aaron was selected as Orange County’s first representative, and by 1850 this small settlement near Fort Gatlin was granted an official post office named Jernigan.
By the mid-1850’s the settlement of Jernigan near Fort Gatlin began to show signs of growth and many of the most prominent family names in Orlando were among the second wave of pioneers to migrate to the area. When Orange County was carved from Mosquito County just prior to Florida gaining statehood, the city of Mellonville, a town on the riverbanks of the St. Johns about 20 miles from Jernigan was the county seat. In 1856, several communities were vying to have the county seat moved from Mellonville.
The man who made the case for Jernigan, and part of that second wave of settlers, was James G. Speer. Unlike the primitive early pioneers like Aaron Jernigan, Speer was a lawyer who later became a state lawmaker and Judge. An election was held that October, but how was tiny Jernigan with sparse eligible voters going to win the election. What Judge Speer knew, was that in Florida any member of the militia 21 years of age or older, could vote in any district they happened to be in on Election day.
Fort Gatlin had long since been deserted after the wars, and the population of Jernigan was too small to rival the river town of Mellonville. Judge Speers plan was as ingenious as it was simple. He visited nearby Sumter County where there were still soldiers present and invited them to Jernigan – for an old-fashioned picnic. On election day the population of Jernigan swelled and with the votes from the grateful soldiers, Mellonville (which would later become the city of Sanford) was out maneuvered.
Judge Speer did more than win the county seat for Jernigan, he also seems to be responsible for the changing of the town’s name from Jernigan to Orlando. History does not accurately record exactly why the name changed and there have been many myths and theories offered to explain the mystery.
One story goes, that during the Seminole Wars, a soldier named Orlando Reeves was felled by an arrow near Lake Eola trying to warn his garrison of a pending attack. Later in 1939, the students from Cherokee Junior High School presented a marker to the city of Orlando dedicated to this fallen hero. The marker still exists on the Southeast shore of Lake Eola in downtown Orlando to this day. The problem is, there is no record of Orlando Reeves ever existing.
Another story mentions an Orlando Rees from South Carolina – who owned estates and sugar plantations in Central Florida. Mr Rees lost property and cattle during the Seminole War and some speculate that he led an armed expedition to recover his losses, and put up pine bough markers along the trail as he moved through the area, leading some to mistake the markers as a grave site and remark, “there lies Orlando.”
The most plausible story; however, involves Judge Speer. The Judge was a fan of Shakespeare and considered the area a Forest of Arden, the location in Shakespeare’s play “As You Like It”, and who’s hero is named Orlando. Giving more credence to the theory is that a major North-South thoroughfare in downtown Orlando is named Rosalind, the heroine in the same play. In any case, in September of 1857 the post office officially changed its name and the town of Orlando was born.
Travelling through Orlando today, you won’t find anything named in honor of the man who first accepted the government’s offer to plant roots in the area. You won’t find an Aaron Jernigan High School, a Jernigan park or a Jernigan square. Aaron Jernigan has nearly been erased from memory.
Jernigan unquestionably was a community leader. On the other hand, Jernigan did have a dark side. Jernigan was investigated by the governor for alleged mistreatment of Seminoles while leading the militia, charges for which he was later exonerated. But undoubtedly the most serious trouble Jernigan faced was a murder charge in 1859. Jernigan, three of his sons and three other men were indicted by an Orange County grand jury in the slaying of William H. Wright outside the Orlando post office.
The seven men might have considered the slaying to have been in self-defense or otherwise justifiable because they turned themselves in. Aaron was sent to jail in Ocala to await trial, but he escaped and was captured. He escaped a second time, this time for good and hid in Texas as a fugitive for 25 years before returning to Orlando. What’s curious, is that after returning, he was never apprehended or charged again. Only one of the seven involved in the incident was tried in Orlando on the murder charge and found guilty of involuntary manslaughter. He was sentenced to only 30 days in jail and fined $200.
Aaron Jernigan was a self-made man if not a perfect man. One had to be, to move your family into the middle of a war-weary swamp land where your nearest neighbor was 20 miles away. Tragically, he spent his final years trying to petition the government for his pension as a member of the militia during the Second and Third Seminole Wars. At 77 years old and in what would be his final plea dated December 29, 1890, Aaron wrote, “I am extremely anxious to know whether my claim has been accepted or not. Although I served in the different Florida Indian Wars from 1830 to 1856, yet I would never have applied for a pension if I had the means of living otherwise. I am not able to work, and I have no property. Am living on the charity of others. If the government is going to give me a pension, I would be glad to get it as soon as possible. If not, I would like to know it at once. Please attend to this and let me hear from you as early as possible. Yours truly, Captain A. Jernigan.”
There is no record of Aaron Jernigan receiving his rightful pension. Seven months after sending his desperate plea, Aaron Jernigan died on August 25th, 1891. He was buried at Lake Hill Cemetery in Orlo Vista, Florida.
In 1971, the only symbolic gesture the City of Orlando has ever given to Aaron Jernigan is a memorial stone placed in Lake Hill Cemetery which honors him simply as, “Orlando’s first settler.” The memorial sits in front of a dilapidated storehouse. Off to one side, forgotten in a quiet area of the cemetery lies the first man who would make Orlando his home.