On Wednesday, February 17, 2016, ‘Writers of Central Florida or Thereabouts’, extended me an invitation to read a passage from my book, ‘First Road to Orlando.’ If I can help it, I never pass up an opportunity to discuss the fascinating story of 19th Century Central Florida, especially of how an old forts trail, twinning its way south from Lake Monroe in 1836, from Fort Mellon in the north to Fort Gatlin in the south, then evolved into Mellonville Road.
Along the 28 mile old forts trail, settlers in 1842 began building towns of Mellonville, Fort Reid, and Fort Gatlin. Towns of Rutledge, Maitland and Orlando came on the scene thereafter, with all but Rutledge pre-dating the first train to run south from Lake Monroe, which departed Sanford, November 11, 1880.
I selected for my reading Chapter 11, Who to Believe? I chose this chapter because to me, it provides as well a window into the intriguing mystery that surrounds nearly all of Central Florida early history.
How Orlando got its name has long been a topic of debate.
FIRST ROAD TO ORLANDO
CHAPTER 11: WHO TO BELIEVE?
Samuel S. Griffin, in 1923 a resident of Orlando for more than 40 years, spoke to the Orlando’s Sorosis Club on the subject of their town’s history, and of how Orlando had been named. Griffin used 14 pages of typed notes for his speech, a document now safely stored in Central Florida archives.
He told the members that Mr. Fries had told him, “the story of the Indian killing on the banks of one of their beautiful lakes.” A soldier standing guard while others slept, Sam had said, was attacked and killed by Indians.
John O. Fries, a Swedish immigrant who became County Surveyor, arrived in Orlando on Christmas Day, 1871. The City of Orlando was at that time 14 years old.
Orange County Surveyor, John O. Fries
Griffin then told the membership that S. A. Robinson had given him a different version, stating Robinson claimed his version came from Arthur Speer, the son of Judge James G. Speer. “A man named Orlando became very ill here and was taken into Judge Speer’s home, and cared for.” Having become friends, as this particular naming of Orlando goes, Judge James Speer named the town for that fellow.
Samuel A. Robinson was also a County Surveyor, and drew the first sketch of what 1857 Village of Orlando looked like. He drew that town plat in 1880.
Orange County Surveyor, Samuel A. Robinson
Samuel S. Griffin then said he was told a third version by B. M. Robinson, stating that Robinson, “Most emphatically declared Judge Speer was a great lover of Shakespeare”, so Speer named the town for a character in the play, “AS YOU LIKE IT.” Benjamin M. Robinson had been a three-term Orlando Mayor. He arrived in Central Florida around 1872.
Three term Orlando Mayor, Benjamin M. Robinson
Concluding his story of the three versions as to how the town of Orlando got its name, Samuel S. Griffin then declared, “I dared not ask another how Orlando got its name!”
The many versions as to how Orlando had been named have progressed over the years:
1915: Clarence E. Howard published his book, ‘Early Settlers of Orange County Florida,” in which was included a biography on Judge J. G. Speer, stating: “At once the question of a name came up and was named ‘Orlando’ by Judge Speer for one of Shakespeare’s characters.”
Orlando Photographer, Clarence E. Howard
1923: Samuel S. Griffin addressed the Orlando Sorosis Club and reported on three versions told to him.
1927: William Fremont Blackman, Rollins College President, wrote his, ‘History of Orange County, Florida,’ in which he also tells of three versions, similar to Griffin’s, although adding a few details. Blackman said: (1) Orlando Reeves was the soldier’s name, and the ambush took place at ‘Hughey Bay’; (2) The ‘sick’ fellow taken in by Judge Speer was actually an employee of Speer’s who, after his death, the village was named for; and (3) Speer was said to be a lover of, and student of, William Shakespeare.
Rollins College President, William Fremont Blackman
1938: Kena Fries published her book, ‘Orlando in the Long, Long Ago’, in which she stated, “Many versions have been given and many tales told.” Kena, daughter of John O. Fries, was convinced the legend of Orlando Reeves was the legitimate version. She said her father had been told this story by ‘gray haired, widely scattered pioneers.” Kena’s version included details of the incident never before told.
Kena Fries reported that the incident occurred on a full moon night in September, 1835. Fellow soldiers had fallen off asleep while Orlando Reeves kept a ‘vigilant watch’. After several hours, himself fighting off sleep, Orlando Reeves noticed what he thought at first to be a log, floating in Lake Eola. “Realizing they were Indians stealthily creeping on the camp, he gave the alarm, knowing full well it meant death to him and he fell, pierced by more than a dozen poisoned arrows.”
The body of Orlando Reeves, Kena said, was buried in a grave beside Lake Lawson, “beneath a tall pine tree, a landmark on the trail.”
1951: E. H. Gore wrote his, ‘From Florida Sand to the City Beautiful, A Historical Record of Orlando, Florida’, in which he too offers various versions of how the town was named.
Gore said some early settlers believed John R. Worthington, the city’s first Postmaster, named their town, while others believed Judge James G. Speer, “astudent of Shakespeare,” named the city “for one of the characters in Shakespeare’s, AS YOU LIKE IT.”
Gore then wrote: “the story that finally won out and was adopted as authentic in regard to the name was told by early settlers about Orlando Reeves.” Gore’s reference in saying won out suggests this version was selected through a popularity contest.
Gore’s version also changes the location, stating the Indian attack occurred “on the east side of Lake Minnie (Now Cherokee).” The body of Orlando in Gore’s version was said to be buried under an oak tree at Lake Eola, but he also stated that another version says Orlando Reeves was buried under a pine tree at Lake Lawson, and that that tree has since been cut down.
Gore stated a pioneer who had lived in Orlando since 1883 told him the Orlando Reeves’ grave was under the oak tree at Lake Eola when that pioneer first arrived. Settlers and soldiers, Gore was told, visited this grave and had handed down the story.
There is another version never told by local historians, but most certainly worthy of inclusion here. Volusia County has long suggested Orlando was named for a plantation owner, ORLANDO SAVAGE REES.
South Carolina grave site of ORLANDO SAVAGE REES
Similarities in the names REES and REEVES, and the two stories, is interesting.
Kena Fries began her Chapter 2, ORLANDO - THE NAME, by stating “many versions have been given and many tales told. All are true, more or less, yet no two agree.” If no two agree, as they do not, then in my mind, it is not reasonable to suggest all are true.
What is the truth? Who should we believe? We will examine each and every known version as to how Orlando got its name, and do so having an advantage over earlier historical attempts. We now have access to the vast World Wide Web, data earlier historians did not have at their fingertips. Our goal is to solve a timeless mystery, who named Orlando?
First road to Orlando includes a 21 page Bibliography
FIRST ROAD TO ORLANDO is available at:
Winter Garden Heritage Foundation, in Winter Garden, Florida Bookmark it Orlando, 3201 Corrine Drive, Orlando, FL