Florida hasn’t had a new county in almost a century, but in the territorial and early statehood years they popped up all the time. Deciding to form a new county and coming up with a name for it must have been a very serious matter–after all, you can’t just go renaming a county once it’s been established. Or can you? As it turns out, Florida has established several counties that were later given new names, either because the old one proved unappealing or the citizens simply found something they liked better.
The best example of this is Mosquito County, created by Florida’s territorial legislative council on December 24, 1824. Clearly no one consulted the local chamber of commerce before coming up with this gem of a name. Mosquito covered a massive amount of territory 190 miles long and 60 miles wide, carved from what had been one of Florida’s two original counties, St. Johns. At the time of its creation, Mosquito County contained within its boundaries all of the land that now belongs to Volusia, Brevard, St. Lucie, Indian River, Martin, Seminole, Osceola, Orange, Lake, Polk and Palm Beach counties. Government operations for this behemoth of a county were eventually headquartered at New Smyrna and later Enterprise. We say “eventually” because it took 10 years for the legislature to make it official–and even after that the county records were still kept at St. Augustine for a while.
As for who was responsible for the name, there’s plenty of blame to go around. The Spanish called one of the region’s waterways Barra de Mosquitos as early as the 16th century, no doubt referring to the insects they encountered in the marshier parts of Florida’s Atlantic coast. The territorial legislature then added insult to injury by passing over all the other named features in the area and choosing to name their newest county for that same waterway, then called Mosquito Bar (or Inlet). Really, guys? Couldn’t the new county have been called Ocklawaha County for its northwestern boundary? Or maybe New Smyrna County for one of its oldest European settlements? Or Canaveral County? Anything but Mosquito!
As you might imagine, the name Mosquito didn’t sit well with many of the locals, and it wasn’t long before they began looking for an alternative. In 1842, the legislature passed an act changing the name of Mosquito to Leigh Read County. Read had been a longtime member of the territorial legislative council and a speaker of the Florida House of Representatives. He died April 27, 1841 when he was ambushed and shot by friends of a man he had previously killed in a duel. There was a bit of confusion, however, because even though the two houses of the territorial legislature voted favorably on the act, the clerk who was supposed to take it up to the governor’s office for a signature failed to do so before the legislative session officially closed. As a result, the name Mosquito stuck for the moment.
In 1844, a group of 70 citizens of Mosquito County took another stab at trying to change their name by petitioning the legislature. “The name of Mosquito is very unpleasant to many of the citizens,” they explained, asking that the name be changed to Harrison County. The name “Harrison” was almost certainly intended to honor the late President William Henry Harrison, who had died in 1841 after a short 31 days in office. Harrison had found the time to appoint Richard Keith Call to another term as territorial governor during his brief tenure, which may have endeared him to the citizens of Mosquito County.
The legislature did not grant the citizens’ wishes until the following session in 1845. When they did finally pass an act renaming Mosquito County, they passed over the opportunity to honor President Harrison in favor of something that would prove to be a very valuable asset to the people of Central and South Florida–the orange.
Today, Orange County is much smaller than it was back in its original Mosquito County days, but it certainly makes good use of its space. It’s home to a variety of attractions that draw tourists from all over the world each year, as well as the University of Central Florida, Rollins College and Valencia College. Although many of its signature orange groves have disappeared in recent years to make way for other developments, there’s still plenty of Florida citrus culture going on in the region. And that–most Floridians would likely agree–is a much more appropriate attribute to celebrate than the mosquito!