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Central Florida History


James M & Frances E (Hewlett) ALDEN
The Pine Castle Historical Society Appreciation Edition
Clarence E. Howard published ‘Early Settlers of Orange County’ in 1915. An Orlando photographer, Howard’s enlightening book of biographies included an ‘Early History of Orange County’ authored by Annie (Caldwell) Whitner, a resident of Sanford. (Sanford was part of Orange County until 1913). A long-time resident of the county, Annie wrote of the “bleached trunk and bare wide-spread branches of an immense dead live-oak, still standing.It is saidthatred men and white men met here to hold a council. The Council Oak stands, her white arms held aloft, a silent protest against the injustice of war, a ghostly presence lamenting her children, a memorial of them, which time, nor storm has expelled in all the years since then.”

Rollins College President William F. Blackman authored ‘History of Orange County’ a dozen years later. Blackman too wrote of a legendary tree. “There is a tradition,” he wrote in 1927, of a meeting between the Army and Indians near FORT GATLIN, a meeting said to have taken place “under a huge live-oak tree, and this oak, now no longer existing, was long-known as the Council Oak.”
The Council Oak vanished between 1915 and 1927, but fortunately, Annie Whitner included with her historical account a painting of the tree, along with this comment: “abeautiful picture has been painted of Council Oakby Mr. J. M.Alden, of Orlando, a talented member of our association.”
Upon reading her account, two queries immediately came to mind. Where is J. M. Alden’s painting now? And who was this “talented member” of Mrs. Whitner’s historical association?
James Madison Alden and Annie (Caldwell) Whitner made for a most unlikely pair, as their families had been staunch enemies only a few decades earlier. By 1915 though, both were working alongside one another in an attempt to preserve central Florida history. Born 1859 in North Carolina, Annie grew to adulthood at FortReid, a mile east of modern day Sanford. She arrived with her parents at a time Sanford was little more than a ‘concept’ of a port town on the St. Johns River.

Alden was a New Englander, born in Massachusetts in 1834. An Orange County farmer by the turn of the 20 Century, James M. Alden was by that time in his second career, having already completed nearly a half-century of outstanding military service to his country.

Alden was a Yankee. Annie (Caldwell) Whitner was a Confederate. By 1915, both were proud Floridians. Both were proud Americans!
Even before Annie Whitner was born, James M. Alden had already become a distinguished Navy artist. Traveling with the United States Exploring Squadron led by Captain Charles Wilkes, young Alden’s sketches of Northwest Territory earned him the title, “James Madison Alden, Yankee Artist of the Pacific Coast”. Google this title for even more information on the man and his famous works. During the Civil War, at a time when Annie was an infant, James M. Alden served as Navy Secretary to Rear Admiral David Dixon Porter. Assigned to Washington, DC, Alden remained in DC after the War, continuing to serve Admiral Porter.

Frances E. Hewlett was born in England and employed as a Clerk at the Treasury Department in Washington, DC by 1880. Single, and twenty-six years younger than James M. Alden, Frances became Mrs. Alden after the death of the first Mrs. Alden, and after resigning her Pensions Department position in June of 1890.

Frances however had already teamed up with fellow DC Pension Clerks to become an Orange County land speculator a full year prior to her marriage to James M. Alden.

In fact, I first introduced Frances E. Hewlett in Chapter Eight, ‘Pen Pals’, of my Historical Novel, The Rutland MuleMatter. Frances, and another true-life Pension Clerk Eugene P. Mallory, are approached by an Orange County lad named Othman Rutland. A nine year old boy in 1865, Othman recalls the time a Navy Officer delivered a mule to his family home at Apopka. Desperate to learn of what happened to father, Othman travels as an adult to DC in 1888, hoping to solicit assistance from two clerks with whom hehas something in common – Orange County landownership.

Othman’s father had gone missing during the closing days of the Civil War, and those still alive and living in Orange County who might know what happened to Isaac N. Rutland weren’t talking. Washington DC clerks, many of whom really did become Orange County land speculators in the 1880s, were Othman’s final hope if ever he was to learn the truth about his father.

Isaac, Othman, Frances E. HEWLETT, Eugene and a return of a mule are all historically accurate, as is the ultimate answer that Othman finds inside an 1865 U. S. Provost Marshal’s file, a file folder buried in DC, and labeled, The Rutland Mule Matter. Yes, even the Provost Marshals’ file is historically accurate!
It was while researching Frances E. Hewlett that I doubled back to James Madison Alden. I had researched Fort Gatlin and the ‘Council Oak’ years earlier, learning of the Navy Artist, and of how valuable his paintings had become. I asked about the Council Oak painting and discovered, with assistance from Christine Kinlaw-Best of Sanford Historical Society, that his painting was gifted to Orange County Historical Society in 1971. I passed that information along to the folks at the Society, informing them as well that the man’s other works are now quite valuable.

Lieutenant James Madison Alden retired a Widower in early 1890, and later that same year, he married Frances E.Hewlett in Washington, DC. On the 7 of February, 1895, Frances E. (Hewlett) Alden purchased 45 acres on the west side of Lake Pineloch. Buying the land from Albert G. Branham, deeds for this Alden parcel reference earlier deeds issued by R. F. Eppes. [Robert Francis Eppes, born 1851, was the son of Francis Wayles Eppes]

James & Frances (Hewlett) Alden owned an orange grove on a portion of 160 historic Orange County acres. First owned by Lady Isaphoenia C. Speer, this parcel was situated alongside the Fort Mellon to Fort Gatlin Road, THE first north-south road in the county. The Alden land sat north of the historic Fortress Gatlin.

The very land owned by the Alden’s was also the home, in 1871, of Frances W. Eppes, grandson of President Thomas Jefferson. And on this historic property also grew an “immense live-oak tree”, the legendary Council Oak.
Historian Kena Fries, in her 1938 book ‘Orlando in the Long, Long Ago,’ dedicated a chapter to CouncilOak: “On the west side of Pine Loch Lake, where the old trail worked its way thru the pine woods, there once stood an immense live oak, said in its glory to have been the largest live oak in all of central and south Florida. It was known as ‘council oak’, the gathering place of the Seminole warriors.” The daughter of Orange County surveyor John Otto Fries, Kena, in describing “the old trail,” a/k/a/ the Fort Mellon to Fort Gatlin Road, went on to say; “In September 1904, while spending the day with the late J. M. Alden, we rowed across the lake.”

An ancient Indian trail became a military route leading from Lake Monroe to Fort Gatlin. The Council Oak was located on the trail, on the west side of a lake named by the grandson of President Thomas Jefferson. A parcel chock full of central Florida history, including an historic old oak tree, was preserved for history by a retired Navy Officer turned Orange County Citrus Grower.

James M. Alden died at Orlando May 10, 1922. His Widow, Frances E. (Hewlett) Alden, passed away April 16, 1930. Both were buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, across the Potomac River from Washington, DC.  
The Alden property at Lake Pineloch became Pine Loch Heights in 1921. Blogger Syd Albright wrote of James M. Alden and his wife in an October 12, 2014. In his blog, Albright said the Alden’s: “retired to OAK KNOLL, Fla, near ORLANDO. He spent the rest of his life tending his fruit trees and painted until 1915 when his eyesight failed.” Council Oak may well have been the last painting of James M. Alden, and one most wonder, did the Council Oak have anything to do with his naming his acreage, Oak Knoll?

Research compiled by Richard Lee Cronin

References available upon request

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