About This Episode
The History of Orlando covers the years from 1857 through 1875 when the Town of Orlando was incorporated. Orlando evolved from a Seminole War army fort village named Jernigan, and survived the Civil War years of debilitating poverty, notorious family feuds that threatened to tear apart the fabric of the tiny town, to finally getting help from some wealthy and benevolent citizens. The story of the county courthouses built in Orlando parallels the changes in attitudes of the residents and the path the city would take to become the seat of Orange County.
The city of Orlando has had its share of adversity and triumphs. With the dawn of the Golden Age (1875 through 1895), Orlando was ready to move forward into a new century confident in its future.
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
Orlando Florida is known today as a place where, for many, magic happens daily. In the early years, the city’s reputation was closer to a wild west frontier – with all the roughness, villains and good guys one might see in an old western movie. Orlando’s transition in the late 1800s from a backwater village, to the center of industry, came through harsh adversity, legendary feuds mixed with a little bit of good fortune. We’ll continue with part two of the History of Orlando, coming up next.
In September of 1857, the United States Post Office officially recognized the name Orlando nearly a year after winning an election to become the seat of Orange County. The village name of Jernigan faded into obscurity. What the town of Orlando lacked was a proper courthouse for conducting government business. As it turns out, having a proper courthouse would become a major point of contention later in keeping the county seat in Orlando; and, the number of courthouses built and rebuilt in the early years, would come to symbolize the changing attitudes and the diversity of residents in the small town.
Initially, a deserted two-room log cabin with dirt floors on Church Street served as the areas first courthouse after the county seat was won in 1856. Judge James Speer, serving as power of attorney for B.F. Caldwell, an Alabama businessman who owned land in the area, deeded 4 acres in October 1857 for the purpose of building a new courthouse. With a sparse population to contribute, it would take six years to raise the money to replace the old log cabin with a two-story log building on a portion of the deeded land in 1863. This land is known today as Heritage Square in downtown Orlando – and it is from this square – you can visit today, that the original one and one-half square miles of the incorporated Town of Orlando would be platted the following decade.
Unfortunately, this two-story log cabin – Orange County’s first official courthouse would not last long. The American Civil war which had commenced in 1861, and the transformation of the town of Orlando from sleepy village to a semi-lawless Reconstruction Era Wild West would soon leave its mark.
Downtown Orlando in its entirety during the Civil War years boasted only the two-story log county courthouse, a few homes, a couple of stores and a saloon. Although the state saw little conflict during the Civil War – Florida at the time had the smallest population of the Southern states and only 16,000 Floridians who fought in the war: the state provided resources valuable to the Confederate cause. Florida’s coastline had important harbors and its products, such as beef, sugar, pork, and salt, helped to feed the Southern soldiers. Orange County delegate William Woodruff: however, cast one of only 7 votes against leaving the United States when Florida seceded on January 10th, 1861. What the war of the states wrought on Orlando the most, was poverty. Union blockades of rivers and ports cut supplies to the deep South.
By the end of the conflict, a restlessness seems to have pervaded the population of Orange County in the late 1800s. Weary soldiers returning from war tried to return to a life on the frontier largely consisting of cattle ranching. The man chosen to keep the peace was David W. Mizell. The Mizell family moved to Orange County in the mid-1850s and the Mizell’s of Central Florida were not in favor of the Confederacy’s actions, and subsequently, the Reconstruction Government chose David for Orange County sheriff and appointed his brother John Mizell as judge of Orange County even though they had reluctantly fought for the South.
After the Civil War, cattle were scarce and in great demand. All over the South, and especially in the Central Florida area, cattle rustling became big business. Range wars broke out between the cattlemen. In autumn 1868, a notorious cattle-rustling case on the circuit court docket had residents’ nerves on edge about possible retribution if they testified. Late one night before the trial, residents awoken to the courthouse – the two-story log cabin – engulfed in flames. Despite the efforts of the town to put out the fire, the courthouse burned to the ground. Investigators found turpentine bottles and other signs of arson in the ashes. While rumors abounded as to the identity of the arsonist, no witness to the crime came forward. Almost all the county’s early records were destroyed, and the case against the rustlers went up in smoke.
Sheriff David Mizell got the court going again with Capt. Bluford Sims building a new small frame courthouse, the 3rd for the county, to replace the one that had burned down. Despite David Mizell’s best efforts to bring law and order to Orlando, armed cattlemen would stand around the small frame courthouse and glare at public officials. No one would testify against another. It was truly the Wild West in Central Florida. Ironically, it was David Mizell himself who would be the victim of one the most notorious family feuds in American history.
Moses Barber was angry. Some of his cattle were missing and he knew who was responsible. Moses Barber first settled in North Florida in the 1830s and built his wealth by confiscating and branding the cattle left behind by Seminole Indians. By the time the Civil War began, Moses Barber was a successful cattleman. Remember, Florida was the primary supplier of beef to the Confederate Army, and Moses Barber had one of the prominent cattle businesses in the state. After the conflict was over, taxes were imposed on unreconstructed Floridians who resisted the Federal Government, such as the Barbers. Most were unable to pay the taxes and believed them to be unjust. If the taxes went unpaid, fines were levied in addition to the taxes. Most cattleman were forced to sell some of their cattle to resolve the suits against them. Judge John Mizell directed his brother Sheriff David Mizell to collect these debts in cattle.
The Barber-Mizell feud erupted when Moses Barber warned Reconstructionist Sheriff David Mizell not to enter his property to collect cattle to settle debts. The Barber empire at one time stretched from the Carolinas down to South Florida, but Moses Barber was overwhelmed with debt and court cases that threatened to topple his empire. Moses Barber refused to pay what he believed were unfair taxes to the U.S. government and especially to the appointed Orange County sheriff. David Mizell ignored Moses Barber’s warning to stay off his land. On February 21st, 1870 Mizell, his son Will, and his brother Morgan ventured onto Barber property south of Holopaw Florida to investigate cattle owed on a bill of sale to an Orlando farmer. As they did, shots were fired from behind some bushes, and David Mizell was killed. As he lay dying, reportedly David Mizell asked that his death not be avenged. David’s brother Judge John Mizell; however, had other plans.
What followed, left a bloody trail through Central Florida history as Judge John Mizell set out to settle the family score. He immediately organized a posse of twenty local men, ordered them to bring the Barbers to justice, and instructed them to take no prisoners. He appointed David B. Stewart to replace his brother as Sheriff and lead the posse south to fulfill its mission. The posse encountered Moses Barber’s son Isaac. Judge Mizell ordered his men to tie Isaac to the nearest tree. Then, all twenty men simultaneously emptied their guns into the bound man so that no one individual could be accused of his murder. For many years Isaac’s widow Harriet Barber would keep the bullet-torn coat that her husband had worn when murdered – and her hatred for the Mizells would last the rest of her life.
A few of the posse chose to pursue Moses, Jack Barber his nephew, and Moses Jr. They almost succeeded in capturing the trio. Ultimately, they only succeeded in capturing Moses, Jr. The men placed a ploughshare around Moses Jr’s neck, stuffed him in a croaker sack, and threw him into Lake Conway. Moses Jr. was able to free himself from the sack and ploughshare and tried to swim to safety. But the posse opened fire and he never made it to the shore alive.
An unverified total of thirteen Barber men were killed during the Barber-Mizell Feud. But peace in the region afterward would prove elusive and the post-Civil War restlessness would continue. In 1871, 41 murder indictments and 10 cases were tried. No guilty verdicts were rendered. As Central Florida historian Eve Bacon writes, “The actual number of people killed will never be known, as swamps, sink holes and lakes tell no tales.”
Jacob Summerlin – the Cattle King of Florida
By the late 1800s, Orlando’s landscape was changing as more settlers, those with more education, culture and means, moved to the area. In 1873, one of Orlando’s most influential citizens became a resident. His name was Jacob Summerlin. Legend has it that Jacob was the first recorded child to be born in what was then territorial Florida in 1820 after it was acquired from Spain.
Jacob began building what would become a vast empire of land and cattle spread across Polk, Osceola and Orange counties. He began buying land, often at 25 cents an acre, and soon was the largest private landowner in the state, at one time owning half of Polk County. He traded with the Spanish for cattle bound for Cuba who in turn paid him in saddlebags of gold coins. Despite looking the part of a rough-hewn cattleman, Jacob was, at heart, a genteel Southern gentleman, often leaving gifts of Spanish gold coins to those who befriended him. In fact, legend has it that he always kept a portion of his herd and branded them with W for widows and O for orphans and gave them away.
Wanting to be near the center of commerce, Jacob Summerlin moved to Orlando in 1873 and purchased 200 acres of land east of downtown, including a marsh filled sinkhole, that would later be donated to the city, named Lake Eola after Eola J Allen, the daughter of John Howard Allen, the second mayor of Orlando and with whom both of Jacob’s sons were enamored. The park serves as the centerpiece of downtown Orlando to this day.
Jacob enjoyed living in Orlando and built an extravagant home on the east side of Lake Eola which was later remodeled into an opulent hotel. He also liked having the county seat in Orlando to help transact business for his immense cattle empire. It is because of Jacob’s love for his home, that when talk began of moving the county seat away from Orlando, it was Jacob Summerlin who went to bat for the small town, just as Judge James Speer had, nearly 20 years before.
Henry Shelton Sanford was a wealthy American diplomat and businessman from Connecticut who was appointed by President Abraham Lincoln as United States Minister to Belgium and served from 1861 to 1869. In 1868 Sanford began to invest his money in Florida, purchasing land in central Florida and founding the town which bears his name. In 1875, Sanford thought his town should serve as the seat of Orange County and at a commission meeting that year, held at the small frame county courthouse that had been built in 1863 on the land B.F. Caldwell had deeded, Sanford made his pitch.
In a persuasive speech that was sure to seal the deal, Sanford offered to give free land for a new courthouse to replace the small aging one in Orlando and build it alongside the St. Johns river in his town. Fortunately for Orlando, Jacob Summerlin was at the same meeting, and when Henry Sanford finished speaking, Jacob stood up and addressed the gathering.
“The County seat,” he said, “has been located here by the free will of the majority of the settlers; the land has been deeded to that purpose. I stand here, ready to build a $10,000 courthouse, and if the county is ever able to pay me back, all right. If it can’t, that’s all right, too.”
With the land already set aside, and a blank check ready to be cashed. Sanford was humiliated, and Orlando has been the Orange County seat to this day. A three-story frame courthouse was eventually built with Summerlin’s loan at a final cost of $7,800. Jacob did get paid back, but it took the county ten years to do it.
1875 was a pivotal year for Orlando. From its humble beginnings over 3 decades before as an army fort settlement named Jernigan, through the Seminole Indian and Civil Wars, Orlando had won the battle for the county seat, and now it was time to grow up. On July 31, 1875 with only 85 initial residents and 22 qualified voters, the town of Orlando was officially incorporated.
1875 through 1895 has become known as Orlando’s Golden Era – a time remembered as the transition into a new age that came gift wrapped in an orange peel, and carried by an engine of growth that would forever change the fortunes and future of the small town in Central Florida.