Florida’s Lost County

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.

Map showing Florida's two original counties as they appeared in 1822. Click or tap the image to view a complete, zoomable version of the map.

Map showing Florida’s two original counties as they appeared in 1822. Click or tap the image to view a complete, zoomable version of the map.

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.

Portrait of Thomas Baltzell after he became Chief Justice of the Florida Supreme Court (ca. 1846).

Portrait of Thomas Baltzell after he became Chief Justice of the Florida Supreme Court (ca. 1846).

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.

Excerpt of a map from the 1830s showing the newly created Fayette County. Click or tap the image to view a complete, zoomable version of the map. Image courtesy of the University of South Florida Libraries.

Excerpt of a map from the 1830s showing the newly created Fayette County. Click or tap the image to view a complete, zoomable version of the map. Image courtesy of the University of South Florida Libraries.

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.

Excerpt of a map showing the new shape of Fayette County after the legislative council reunited the northern half with Jackson County in 1833. Click or tap the image to view a complete, zoomable version of the map.

Excerpt of a map showing the new shape of Fayette County after the legislative council reunited the northern half with Jackson County in 1833. Click or tap the image to view a complete, zoomable version of the map.

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.”

Petition from citizens of Fayette County asking for the county to either be dissolved or its boundaries modified, January 8, 1834, in Box 4, Folder 7, Records of the Territorial Legislative Council (Series S876), State Archives of Florida.

Petition from citizens of Fayette County asking for the county to either be dissolved or its boundaries modified, January 8, 1834, in Box 4, Folder 7, Records of the Territorial Legislative Council (Series S876), State Archives of Florida. Click or tap the image to view the entire document along with a transcript.

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:

Map explaining the creation and reshaping of Florida's 67 counties between 1821 and 1936. Click or tap the image to view a complete zoomable version of the map.

Map explaining the creation and reshaping of Florida’s 67 counties between 1821 and 1936. Click or tap the image to view a complete zoomable version of the map.

A County Called Mosquito

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.

Excerpt from H.S. Tanner's 1833 map of Florida, with Mosquito County shaded in pink along Florida's east coast. Click or tap the image to see a zoomable version of the entire map.

Excerpt from H.S. Tanner’s 1833 map of Florida, with Mosquito County shaded in pink along Florida’s east coast. Click or tap the image to see a zoomable version of the entire map.

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!

Excerpt of a 1644 map drawn by Willem Janszoon Blaeu, with particular focus on the named waterways along Florida's Atlantic coast. Barra de Mosquitos is indicated with a red arrow. Click or tap the image to view a zoomable version of the complete map.

Excerpt of a 1644 map drawn by Willem Janszoon Blaeu, with particular focus on the named waterways along Florida’s Atlantic coast. Barra de Mosquitos is indicated with a red arrow. Click or tap the image to view a zoomable version of the complete map.

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.

Map of Florida drawn in 1842 by Sidney Morse and Samuel Breese. Anticipating that Mosquito County would be renamed Leigh Read as a result of the legislative council's action, the mapmakers labeled the territory of Mosquito accordingly. Tap or click the image to view a larger version of the map.

Map of Florida drawn in 1842 by Sidney Morse and Samuel Breese. Anticipating that Mosquito County would be renamed Leigh Read as a result of the legislative council’s action, the mapmakers labeled the territory of Mosquito accordingly. Tap or click the image to view a larger version of the map.

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.

Petition signed by 73 citizens of Mosquito County, asking for the county to be renamed Harrison, and for the boundaries to be redefined (1844). Box 4, Folder 3, Records of the Territorial Legislative Council (Series S 877), State Archives of Florida. Click on the image to view a larger version of the complete petition and a transcript.

Petition signed by 73 citizens of Mosquito County, asking for the county to be renamed Harrison, and for the boundaries to be redefined (1844). Box 4, Folder 3, Records of the Territorial Legislative Council (Series S 877), State Archives of Florida. Click or tap the image to view a larger version of the complete petition and a transcript.

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.

Tanner's 1849 map of Florida. Orange County (formerly Mosquito county) is shown in green. Click or tap the image for a zoomable version of the map.

Tanner’s 1849 map of Florida. Orange County (formerly Mosquito county) is shown in green. Click or tap the image for a zoomable version of the map.

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!