When someone brings up the words "frontier" or "pioneer" the first thing that comes to mind is usually the westward expansion of America.
Typically, we think of the Louisiana Purchase, people settling in the plains, traveling along the Oregon Trail or the lawless Wild West mining towns.
Florida rarely come to mind. Just like the western United States, however, the Florida frontier was an untamed wilderness with its own survival challenges.
Armed Occupation Act
In the early settlement days, those who came here were not seeking the warm weather, sunny beaches and amusement parks that attract visitors and new residents today. Florida pioneers came for free land and the opportunity to start their own homestead -- but that came with a price.
To lure settlers to the Florida territory despite the constant threat of Seminole Indian attacks, and to alleviate pressure on the U.S. Army defending federal land, the Armed Occupation Act was passed in 1842. The act promised 160 acres of free land under the following conditions: It must lie between Gainesville and the Peace River, must be 2 or more miles from a fort and could not be near the coast.
Settlers were required to build a house on their land, clear and cultivate 5 acres of it for five years and serve in the militia acting as a barrier between federal land and Seminole territory. This was no easy task in a place with few supply outposts and no roads cutting through the thick terrain. However, despite these challenges, 1,184 land permits were filed under the Armed
When Josiah and Mary Gates, the first permanent white settlers in Manatee, staked their claim in 1842, their first piece of business was to build a log cabin for their family to live in and a tall stockade wall to protect them from Seminole attacks and wild animals. Although they were few and far between, the threat of attack was real. Legend says area Seminole chief Billy Bowlegs liked to sneak up on women while they were gardening and give them a good scare. He also liked to hang around for dinner.
Like many frontier settlements in Florida, when an attack did occur, many settlers would abandon their homes for the security of a nearby fort or larger plantation home, and some of the men would leave to fight. One notable attack occurred in 1856 and forced many settlers to take refuge in Braden Castle and Franklin Branch's houses. The settlers remained in the cramped quarters for nine months while the men tracked their attackers.
Another challenge unique to settling in Florida was the threat of hurricanes. These terrifying storms would blow in with little notice and leave a path of devastation behind them. One such storm blew enough water into the river it flooded many settler homes, even leaving the Gates' fresh water well temporarily unusable. On a positive note, the storm also left several barrels of whisky along the shorelines when the water receded.
Another storm pulled most of the water out of the river leaving portions of the riverbed exposed. Rumor has it Hector Braden tried to cross the river on horseback during a lull in the storm, but he did not make it and died during the storm. They say he was found the next day, still seated upon his horse and gripping the reins with his eyes wide open!
Other challenges included the sweltering heat most of the year, swarming mosquitoes, lack of roadways through the thick terrain and isolation, miles away from the nearest trading post, general store or shipping port. Florida pioneers had to learn to be self-sufficient in their unique landscape.
To learn more about the trials and tribulations of Florida pioneers, visit Manatee Village Historical Park on March 28 for special guest Rick Smith, son of Florida author Patrick Smith. Smith will discuss his father's book, "A Land Remembered," one of the most popular and well-known novels exploring pioneer life in Florida. For information on presentation times, visit manateevillage.org or call 941-741-4076.
Melissa Porter, education and volunteer coordinator for the Manatee Village Historical Park, enjoys sharing the past with students through hands-on activities and personal anecdotes from Manatee County's history. She can be reached at Melissa.firstname.lastname@example.org or 941-741-4076.