1st Homesteader Selected Site Next To Lake Holden

June 21, 1998|By Mark Andrews of The Sentinel Staff (org article)

When Aaron Jernigan filed the first homestead claim for an American settler in what is now Orange County in 1843, the state would only give away land that was at least two miles from a permanent military installation.

That’s because Florida’s territorial government was using the offer of 160 acres free to people who would stay five years and meet other requirements to encourage widespread settlement to try to displace Seminoles who had resisted relocation to Arkansas.

And the Seminoles couldn’t be crowded out if everyone lived in clusters close to forts for protection.

When Jernigan, then a 29-year-old cattleman and Indian fighter from south Georgia, made his claim at the state land office in St. Augustine on July 21, 1843, he could have chosen almost any piece of land he wanted. Almost no one lived in the interior of Florida south of Lake Monroe at that time. He eyed a piece of property as close to the Army’s Fort Gatlin as the law allowed.

Jernigan chose land just west of what would later be called Lake Holden. His homestead application, obtained by Jernigan descendants and researchers from the Florida State Archives, shows that his 160 acres was the northeast quadrant of Section 10 of Township 23 South, Range 29 East. The site was described as “about two miles a little north of west of Fort Gatlin.”

The same rectangular land surveying system used to map the state beginning in 1824 is still in use today. The Orange County Property Appraiser’s Office says that parcel is mostly outside Orlando city limits, bordered on the north by 33rd Street, on the west by south Rio Grande Avenue, on the east by south Westmoreland Drive and on the south by 41st Street. Jernigan’s land did not touch Lake Holden, but subsequent dredging has since brought a finger of the lake into that area.

Some historians and writers, including this one, have reported incorrectly in the past that Jernigan’s homestead was on the north side of Lake Conway. (That would have put it less than two miles from the fort.) But the homestead records make clear that the site was just west of Lake Holden.

Jernigan’s brother, Isaac, filed a claim just after him on the same day for an adjacent parcel – the southeast quadrant of the same section. The following January, Aaron Jernigan brought his wife and children, some slaves and 700 head of cattle back from Georgia to live here.

Jernigan later bought his brother’s land and that of others to eventually acquire 1,200 acres stretching from Lake Holden to Little Lake Conway.

His cattle herds, influence and position in the community grew as well. In 1846, Jernigan was elected as Orange County’s first representative in the Legislature. He also was a captain in the Florida Mounted Militia, leading several campaigns against renegade Seminoles, and had the area’s first post office established at his home in May 1850.

In fact, by the mid- to late 1850s, Jernigan was one of the wealthiest men in Orange County and perhaps the leading cattleman in the state.

Researcher Joe Mills of Tallahassee found Orange County tax records from 1858 showing that Jernigan paid taxes that year on 14 slaves, valued at $4,000; real estate valued at $3,535; and cattle worth $14,665. Mills estimates he had 1,800 head at the time. That was more than Jacob Summerlin, who would become renowned as “the cattle king of Florida” in the 1870s, had while living in Bartow then, Mills says.

A contemporary of Jernigan, a Seminole war veteran named W.B. Watson, had this to say about him in a Jacksonville newspaper account in 1891:

“At Fort Gatlin … there lived Capt. Aaron Jernigan, a man famous as the most extensive cattle owner in the state, who had fought Indians ever since he could shoot a gun, which was pretty early in those days. He was the leading man in the county, and his word was law. A dozen or more settlers in the county lived on his generosity and in return were ever ready to do his bidding, were it for good or evil.”

Jernigan sold considerable property before he left Florida for Texas in 1861. Indeed, he was under the gun to liquidate his assets – having been indicted for murder in April 1859 and escaping from jail twice thereafter, as reported in last week’s Flashback. William H. Holden, for whom the lake is named, acquired some of Jernigan’s property next to the lake in 1865.

When Jernigan returned to Florida in 1884, according to his own account, he had no home or property here and lived with his youngest son, Andrew Jackson Jernigan, a teacher. Apparently, the murder charge never caught up with him.

Beginning three years earlier, Jernigan and his eldest son, Aaron Jr., made a series of claims for disability pensions.

The Jernigans’ claims were related to their service with the state militia during the Third Seminole War. Aaron Sr. said he contracted the measles in June or July 1856, from which he never fully recovered, and had a leg injury and skin boils.

Aaron Jr.’s claim is a bit more colorful, claiming an eye and ear were injured in an attack by a horse thief the same year.

He was serving as a sergeant in Aaron Sr.’s militia company when his father put him in charge of a small squad to go to Tampa to bring back some Army wagons, according to a deposition he gave at the pension office in Orlando in February 1891 to support his claim.

Aaron Jr. said some horses got loose one night while they were camped about a mile from Tampa. When he and his men went to look for them, Jernigan said he found a man on the trail holding one of the horses by the bridle. The man struck him so hard on the side of the head that one of his eyeballs was pulled part of the way out of its socket, he told the pension examiner.

When his comrades found Jernigan, they took him into Tampa to a physician, who treated the eye injury with a raw beef compress and later a slippery elm poultice. The eye was sore and inflamed for a while thereafter, though Jernigan did regain his sight. Aaron Jr. also said he suffered permanent hearing loss in the attack.

The disposition of the father’s and son’s pension claims is unknown.

Aaron Jernigan Sr. died on Aug. 25, 1891, and is buried in Lake Hill Cemetery in Orlo Vista.

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