Florida started out its territorial existence with only two counties–Escambia and St. Johns–established by provisional governor Andrew Jackson right after the Spanish relinquished control in 1821. The Suwannee River served as the boundary line separating these two massive divisions. As more people arrived and established communities in the territory, the legislature created more counties to make local government more accessible and responsive to their needs. As of 1925, when Florida’s most recent county (Gilchrist) was established, the total number of counties was up to 67, where it remains today. That number could easily have been different, thanks to a multitude of attempts over the years to divide or change existing counties. There’s only one case, however, in which an existing county was completely wiped off the map, never to return. That’s the quirky case of Fayette County in the Florida Panhandle.
Fayette County was established by an act of Florida’s territorial legislative council on February 9, 1832. It was carved entirely out of territory belonging to Jackson County, consisting of all the land between the Chipola and Apalachicola rivers, with the Florida-Alabama line as its northern boundary. The process began on January 23 when Thomas Baltzell, who represented Jackson County in the legislative council, submitted a petition from several citizens of the county asking that it be divided. The petition has not survived, so we don’t know exactly what reasons they gave, but the request had enough merit for the legislative council to refer it to a select committee appointed to decide whether the division should take place.
The select committee reported favorably on the petition and drafted a bill to divide Jackson County and create a new one called Fayette. It was controversial from the start, however. As the final vote approached, representative John P. Booth presented multiple petitions from other Jackson County citizens asking that the county not be divided. When the bill moved forward anyway, Booth attempted to mitigate its effect by proposing an amendment to change the boundaries. None of this stopped the act from passing the legislative council, but when it landed on the desk of Acting Governor James D. Westcott for a signature, it gave him pause. He wrote a message back to the legislative council rejecting the bill, saying he wasn’t satisfied that a “decided and sufficient majority” of the people of Jackson County actually wanted this division. “There is no tyranny so severe as the tyranny of a small majority,” Westcott wrote, and he explained that from the looks of things, it appeared that sectional interests of planters on the eastern side of the county might be driving this move. There was certainly evidence to back up Westcott’s observation–at the same time that the legislative council was voting on whether to establish Fayette County there were already bills lined up for incorporating a new town at Ochesee and granting a franchise for a ferry across the nearby Apalachicola River. The new law would have also given Fayette County its own representative on the legislative council instead of having it share two representatives with the voters of Jackson County. All three of these moves favored the citizens of the new county while conferring little or no benefit on the people left in Jackson.
After receiving Westcott’s message, the legislative council amended the bill to address his objections, particularly the part giving Fayette County its own legislator. Upon receiving the revised bill, Westcott wrote back that he still had objections to the law, but not enough to reject it a second time. With his signature on February 9, Fayette County became a reality.
The odd circumstances under which the new county had been established became even more obvious once its officers attempted to actually govern. Many of the planters drawn into the new county, especially in the northern part around present-day Greenwood and Bascom, protested that they never had any desire to be separated from Jackson County. Some even continued to pay taxes and vote as citizens of that county rather than Fayette. In July 1832, James W. Exum of Marianna wrote to Governor William Pope DuVal that there was even a justice of the peace appointed for Fayette County that counted himself a citizen of Jackson instead. To make matters worse, Exum explained, the new law didn’t properly specify an eastern boundary for the new county. It was clear enough that the northern boundary was the Alabama line and that the western boundary ran down the middle of Big Spring Creek to the Chipola River and then down to the Washington County line. The law said nothing, however, about how the boundary got back to the point of beginning on the eastern side. That being the case, was the county even legally a county, or was it just a line? Exum told the governor he had pointed out this discrepancy in a roomful of men from Jackson and Fayette counties, and that it had stirred a considerable amount of debate “and probably some warm words.”
Whether or not Exum was the catalyst, the legislative council took action at its next meeting in 1833. A new act was passed to clarify the boundaries of Fayette County, this time setting the northern boundary of Township 4 North between the Chipola and Chattahoochee rivers as the county’s northern extent. The land between that line and the Alabama line–the part that had been such a bone of contention with the planters before–was returned to Jackson County.
The northern planters must have been satisfied, but the remaining Fayette County voters were not. In 1834, they sent a petition to the legislative council, asking the members to either return their county to its former shape or dissolve it entirely. The boundary changes of the previous year had left them with fewer than a hundred voters, they claimed, leaving them unable to hold court or even build a courthouse and jail. Half the population, half the territory and two thirds of the wealth had gone back to Jackson County. “The evils complained of by your humble petitioners are not visionary,” they wrote. “To the contrary, they have been too seriously felt by many of them.”
The legislative council ended the entire sordid affair by terminating Fayette County’s existence in 1834 and returning the territory to Jackson County where it had been previously. Since then, a few Florida counties have changed names, such as when Hernando County became Benton briefly and then switched back, or when New River County was renamed Bradford. Not since the Fayette County debacle, however, has a county been completely legislated out of existence. Here’s a map from the State Library’s Florida Map Collection that shows the history of Florida’s county additions and changes: