The Wars, Political Skirmishes, Big Wigs, Great Freezes, Booms and Busts that Made This County What it Is Today
Seminole County was officially formed in 1913, but it has a long and colorful history that goes back many decades prior.
A good place to start is with the county’s namesake, the Seminole Indian tribe, which consisted primarily of Creek Indians who migrated to Florida in the 1700s. Runaway slaves found refuge with the tribe, who hid them and integrated them into their communities. Conflicts arose between the Indians and white settlers, who coveted Seminole land. After some initial skirmishes, in 1818 General Andrew Jackson, with a force of 3,500 men, attacked the village of Chief Boleck.
Thus the beginning of three Seminole Wars, the latter two largely the result of treaties broken by the U.S. Government. In 1830, President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act requiring relocation of Seminoles to Oklahoma. Certain tribal factions, including a young warrior named Osceola, did not go easily. By 1855, most Seminoles, outnumbered and outgunned, had either succumbed to relocation or crept quietly into the Everglades.
In 1821, Spain sold Florida to the United States. The territory was split into two counties, St. John’s and Escambia. In 1824, a third was added — christened Mosquito County, it included what is now Seminole County. This was well before Florida became a tourist destination (and we can all agree that the “Mosquito County” wouldn’t have looked too good on a brochure).
Because of the Seminole Wars, several forts were built in the area and a town called Mellonville developed around Fort Mellon. Settlement got a major boost in 1842 with the Armed Occupation Act, which authorized 160 acres of free land to any adult male head of family who proved he had cultivated land and lived in a house “fit for habitation” for five consecutive years. Any takers were required to “bear arms” and join militias to fight the Seminoles if necessary.
In 1845, Florida achieved statehood, and organizing the area into governmental entities began in earnest. Mosquito County was renamed Orange County. Mellonville — due to its close proximity the St. Johns River, which runs to Jacksonville — became a port city and the hub of commerce for the inland part of central Florida. Fort Reed popped up as a sister town to Mellonville. Orlando did not exist yet, other than as an out-of-the-way trading post called Fort Gatlin.
In 1856 came the first of several bitter political battles between what is now Sanford and what is now Orlando. Two powerful cousins — Judge James Speer of Fort Gatlin and Judge Algernon Speer of Mellonville/Fort Reed — vied to have their communities become the Orange County seat. It made all the sense in the world to choose growing Mellonville over a backwater like Fort Gatlin. When the public vote came up, Judge Speer used a tactic that resulted in what could legitimately be called a rigged election.
By U.S. law, soldiers were permitted to vote anywhere they happened to be. Fort Gatlin had been decommissioned and there were few soldiers in the area. So, Judge Speer invited servicemen from far and wide to be his guest at a party. “He threw a big banquet and said, ‘while you’re here, why don’t you cast your ballot for Fort Gatlin,’” says Jason Byrne, a historian who lives in Winter Springs and writes a fun blog about Seminole County history. Fort Gatlin became the county seat, and had to scramble to build a town to fill the role. That town eventually became Orlando.
Meanwhile, a cultured and wealthy New Englander named Henry Shelton Sanford — who had been Minister to Belgium under Abraham Lincoln — purchased large tracts of land near Mellonville in 1870. He developed orange groves, hotels and businesses, and founded his own town, Sanford, incorporated in 1877. Mellonville was annexed six years later.
In 1873, E.W. Henck arrived by steamboat and established a homestead about 10 miles southwest of Mellonville. A small community began to develop and Henck coined the town Longwood, after the Boston suburb where he was from. Henck, a real estate promoter, constructed hotels, churches and businesses in the area, and was largely responsible for the creation of the South Florida Railroad, which linked Sanford and Orlando starting in 1885. Within the next five years, the area connected to other lines, and steamships and mule carts gave way to railroads. The following year, the first county fair was held. President Grover Cleveland and his new wife stopped in on their honeymoon.
Agriculture was the primary industry in the area, especially citrus farming. According to a government document from the 1930s, in the early 1890s Orange County was one of the richest counties in America with “an income of $55.00 per capita; men, women, and children, including negroes.”
Then came the Great Freeze — actually two: the first on Dec. 29, 1894 followed by one on Feb. 7, 1895. Orlando recorded a record low temperature of 18 degrees. The weather event devastated nearly all of Florida, killing orange trees and causing an estimated hundred million dollars in damage. Sanford farmers started growing celery rather than citrus. According to the Orlando Sentinel, more than 6,000 acres, from south of Sanford to Lake Jesup’s Black Hammock area, were called the “celery delta,” which also produced lettuce, eggplant, tomatoes, cabbage and strawberries — but not oranges. One of Sanford’s nicknames is Celery City, although you’d now be hard-pressed to find a celery farm in the area.
In the early 20th Century, Seminole County hosted northerners during cold winter months, the rumblings of a nascent tourism industry. The advent of the automobile changed everything, paving the way for efficient transportation, population and economic growth.
Sanford never got over losing the county seat to Orlando, and due to some political maneuvering finally managed to carve out a good-size chunk of Orange County and secede. Seminole County was born on April 25, 1913.
A strong economy set the stage for a land boom of the 1920s, which led to Florida’s first real estate bubble. The rush began as investment and quickly turned into rampant speculation. “There were stories of people buying land one day and selling it for four times as much the next day,” historian Byrne says. “The ads from that era were hilarious. They promised no mosquitos, weather that stayed 70 degrees year-round. The water from the springs was a supposed cure-all. Doctors prescribed for people to move to Florida.”
The bubble burst, of course, and while the Miami area was hardest hit, Seminole County was not spared a setback. Soon enough came the Great Depression. “Seminole County suffered, of course, but not like the Dust Bowl and other areas,” Byrne says. “There were bank failures, but people didn’t go hungry in an area with a good climate and where you could grow your own food. People came together and formed civic leagues to help each other out.”
During WWII, Seminole County did its part for the war effort. A large garment factory in Casselberry converted operations to make parachutes. The Sanford Naval Base was established, as was McCoy Air Force Base. They became the sites of Central Florida’s two major airports — Orlando International and Orlando Sanford International.
The post-war period was largely a time of burgeoning suburbia, and Seminole County cities near Orlando became bedroom communities. The eastern part of the county has resisted aggressive development and annexations. It remains mostly rural, Byrne says. The Little Big Econ State Forest, one of Seminole County’s treasured hiking areas, and the Charles H. Bronson State Forest act as buffers to development.
Central Florida began to cement itself as a major tourist destination with the opening of Walt Disney World in 1971, followed by SeaWorld two years later. Universal Orlando came along in 1990. Seminole County has carved out a niche as a place that is less expensive to stay and less crowded than the resorts to its south, but still provides convenient access to the theme parks. Orlando North, Seminole County’s wealth of natural outdoor activities — hiking, biking, paddling and the like — have made it a tourism draw in its own right.
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Lake Mary 1973
Altamonte Springs, 1920
Winter Springs 1959