Jernigan Hunt!

On Colton’s 1855 map of Florida, there is no Orlando. Instead, a couple of miles south of the present downtown, in the italics used for the smallest settlements, there is “Jernigan.” For a few short years–from the late 1840’s to about 1857–the tiny settlement started by Aaron Jernigan was a gathering place for Central Florida’s first white families. They exchanged gossip, bought supplies, and picked up their mail at the Jernigans’. Now, nobody knows exactly where it was, or what it looked like. Nobody knows what Aaron Jernigan looked like; no photo of him is known to exist. And, few people care.

One of those few is Roy Singer of Maitland, who calls himself a “backyard archeologist,” and spends his weekends researching historic sites. He found musket balls across U.S. Highway 17-92 from the historic marker for Fort Maitland, just before a condominium went up on the site.

In the shadow of the Winter Park Public Library, he has found a 12-foot-deep brick cistern that provided water for the Hotel Seminole before it burned down in 1902. The woman who owns the land wants him to cover it up again so she can sell the property to a developer.

Before the remains of Jernigan, too, become entombed in blacktop, Singer wants to unearth Orlando’s past. “Jernigan is really our roots,” he says, the trace of a Long Island accent still evident after his 10 years as a hardware inspector at the Orlando Naval Training Equipment Center. “This brings us back to Year One of Central Florida.”

Singer’s search started in the summer of 1976, when as president of the Florida Marine and Archaeological Society, he corresponded with Phillip A. Werndli, a state historic-site specialist, who told him, “What I’m trying to find first of all is Jernigan.”

There are actually two sites associated with Jernigan, as specified in the files Werndli sent to Singer: a residence and possibly a general store on the northwest shore of Lake Holden, and a hastily built stockade on the north shore of Little Lake Conway.

Unfortunately, the Conway shore had become too built-up with homes for any effective search. However, the Holden shore, though only a couple of blocks from Interstate 4, remains an island of serenity, with an orange grove more than 100 years old, and to the south, woods that probably look much the same as they did when Aaron Jernigan was appraising the wilderness for a homesite.

After knocking on his seventh Lake Holden front door, Singer met Patsy and Marvin Powell, who own the 11-acre grove. “They said, ‘Yeah, we know all about it,'” he remembers. “I didn’t know what else to ask. I was stunned.”

The Powells took the rubber band off a set of deeds and laid them out on the diningroom table. The deeds went back to when the U.S. government gave Jernigan 160 acres under the homesteading provisions of the Armed Occupation Act of 1842. They showed that the William Holden family had bought the land from Jernigan and the Gore family–from which Mrs. Powell is descended–from the Holdens. [update: the Powell property is currently owned by Lake Holden P.O.A Vice President; Brenda Worden!]

It was 1843 when Jernigan, 30, came to Florida from Fort Monaack, Georgia. He hacked out a clearing on the northwest shore of Lake Holden and built a cabin, then he moved his family here. A few other settlers, including his brother Isaac, followed. Gradually, by buying Isaac’s and other homesteads, Aaron came to own about 1,200 acres, extending from the east side of Little Lake Conway to where I-4 now slices across the South Orange Blossom Trail.

As his landholding grew, so did his importance in the new settlement. He was the first state representative from Orange County, and he was the captain of a local militia that patrolled against renegade Indians.

“By 1850,” say the state files, “the Jernigan home had become the nucleus of a settlement and designated a post office. Very little information is available on the village of Jernigan itself. It is not known whether it was a town, or just a post office and a store.”

Whatever it was, Singer and 15 or so club members show up at the grove every other Saturday to search for what’s left of it. They swing their metal detectors in slow arcs through the weeds between the orange trees and poke their long steel probes down every couple of feet, hoping for the clink of old glass. Singer has found a knife-sharpening wheel where the Holden house once was. He guesses it’s from the 1850’s.

On the north side of the grove, Singer and his diggers have made their most encouraging find to date–the remains of a small camp. In the loose dirt they found a button, some lead musket balls, a type of ammunition called “buck and ball,” and a broken ramrod. Because such musket balls were made in the 1840’s, Singer figures they mark the campsite of a small contingent of soldiers sent over from nearby Fort Gatlin.

That still leaves Singer without “any positive artifact of Jernigan,” and he is running out of places to look in the orange grove. Singer is now seeking permission to search in the tract of woods to the south.

If Jernigan had lasted longer, Singer might have an easier time finding it. But, powerful landholding interests to the north politically out-flanked the outpost. In 1857, Jernigan’s store was replaced as the area’s post office by a new store, near where downtown Orlando is now. And, when one B.F. Caldwell, who owned a lot of land in the same area, cannily arranged to donate four acres for a courthouse in 1857–making that the new county seat–it was the beginning of the end for Jernigan. Eight years later, William Holden, fresh from Virginia, bought Jernigan’s property.

Although some of Jernigan’s descendants still live in this area, they know little of their pioneer ancestor. Some sources state simply that Jernigan became a drifter; others say he remained in Orlando and threw lavish parties here. He died in 1891, and was buried at Lake Hill Cemetery in Orlo Vista. It wasn’t until 1971, that a memorial plaque was placed there, honoring him as “Orlando’s first settler.”

“I still have a feeling that there must be something there from the Jernigan period,” says Singer. But, “just saying that doesn’t mean anything. Finding it means more.”

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