First Families of Polk County, Florida
Edited by Spessard Stone from Earnest B. Simmons' articles, which appeared in two parts in the Fort Meade Leader of March 16 and 23, 1916
You have heard of the F. F. V.'s (First Families of Virginia) and of the celebrated "Four Hundred"-not the renowned "Six Hundred" of Balaklava fame, who Tennyson says "rode into the jaws of death," but those veterans of the dance halls and knights of the dinner table whom Ward McAllister considered the elect of New York society. You have doubtless heard of these nobles?
Well, then I want to tell you of a nobility nearer home. It is time someone started a record of the First Families of Polk County.
Through the kindness of John Tillis of Fort Meade, a painstaking surveyor and a diligent student of old records, I have the loan of two valuable old maps. These maps are before me as I write.
One is a United States land map of this township made by W. G. Moseley, United States Deputy Surveyor in 1855. At the time this survey was made, a number of valiant pioneers had already pushed their way into this territory disputed by the Seminole Indians, who had escaped deportation after the peace of 1842. These men, some of them surveyors of that war, settled here and there in the neighborhood of Fort Meade, Frazier, Chokonikla, and a few hardy ones farther west on the south prong of the Alafia.
Of those settling in Fort Meade township, the following were recorded on Surveyor Moseley's map in 1855.
Three families of Durances, one on the Camp Ground Branch, at what is now known as Scott's grove, and one east of Peas Creek, about one mile south of the Homeland and Lake Buffum road, probably what is now known as the Wm. Rivers old place, and the third one is about two miles southwest of Homeland. The names as I secured them from Uncle Ed. Hilliard are William, Jesse and Rufus Durrance. These estimable old pioneers and patriarchs multiplied until their esteemed descendants have thickly populated several counties.
Near the Camp Ground Branch ford on the Fort Meade and Fort Frazier road stood the cabin of Alderman Carlton, martyr of the fight with the Indians at the Tillis place in 1856.
South of Carlton's cabin on the next branch lived Capt. F. A. Hendry. The branch near his place still bears the name of the Berry Branch as distinguished from the Wash Hendry Branch, a little further down on the opposite side of the river.(1)
About a mile and a half north of Carlton's place, and, probably about the site of the Singletary old place, was the home of Mr. Parker, the ancestor of another esteemed Polk County family.
Down the river, on the west bank, just south of the present road to the steel bridge, was the home of Lewis Lanier, one of the first of the pioneers.
About three miles northeast of Fort Meade and east of Peas Creek were John Green and Wm. Underhill, on opposite sides of what is now known as Poole Branch.
Just south of the Green homestead is the Green burying ground, where John Green and other members of his family, as well as other old and some later residents of that neighborhood are buried.
Mr. Green and Levi Pierce and others were victims of an epidemic of smallpox at a later date. This Mr. Pierce was the father of Stephen, Howren, Thomas and John Pierce, the fathers of our present-day Pierces.(2)
West of Fort Meade, and about two and one-half miles on McCullough Creek, lived James Whidden, and south of him F.C.M. Bogus(3), the school teacher of the neighborhood. It was he who started Uncle Ed Hilliard and Uncle Bennett Whidden on the road to learning. This pioneer pedagogue hailed from Mobile, Ala. It is said that he later moved to Fort Ogden where in 1880 he engaged in publishing a newspaper. What enterprise, a newspaper in Fort Ogden in 1880, seven years before a railroad reached the place!
Just south of the township line on the road to Fort Chokonikla (pronounce it like "choke-a-nickel-a" and you will have it as it was given me) lived Wm. McCullough, from whom the creek was named and Dave Russell. Near these places, but unrecorded on the government map, was the home of Willoughby Tillis, the scene of the Indian raid of 1856. This raid will be treated in a separate story.
About half way between this "nickel-choking" fort and Fort Meade was the Brooker place where the troops are supposed to have forded the river in their chase after the Seminoles just before the vanquishment of the savages in the Battle of Peas Creek.
Other settlements on Paines(4) Creek, Alafia, Fort Frazier and Fort Carroll will be taken up in succeeding articles. These articles will treat the grandfathers of Polk County, or our first families. Other prominent family names will come to light in The Leader.
We are proud of these stalwart old pioneers. They were made of the right kind of stuff, and they show the blue blood in their children and grandchildren. No place of which I am conversant is more favored in good blood in its first pioneers than Polk County. Watch for next week's installment of early settlers' names.
I have been criticized for shattering the more poetic name "Peace River" and going back to the original which was "Peas Creek." If any of our folks still object, they might for short call it by the Seminole name of Talah-chopko-hatchee. This is the name given on the military map of the peninsula of Florida compiled April 1856 by Lt. J. C. Ives, top-engineer(5) under the general direction of Capt. A. A. Humphreys, top-engineers by order of Hon. Jefferson Davis, then Secretary of War.
From the above mentioned map kindly loaned me by John Tillis I expect with the help of Mr. Tillis and some of the other settlers to get materials for a number of sketches of this region.
Tis hard to confine oneself to a column when there is material at hand for a volume.
P. S.: My thanks to Messrs. E. J. Hilliard and Bennett Whidden for much valuable information concerning the pioneers of 1855 and 56.
(1) F. A. Hendry was nicknamed Berry, and his brother, George Washington Hendry, was nicknamed Wash. They were nephews of Alderman Carlton.
(2) Actually, John Green did die in the smallpox epidemic of 1862-63 but the Rev. Levi Pearce, a Methodist minister, lived to March 25, 1874.
(3) Bogus should be Boggess.
(4) Paynes Creek.
This was reprinted in The Herald-Advocate (Wauchula, Fla.) of April 5, 1990.
First Families of Polk County, Florida, Part 2
Edited by Spessard Stone from Earnest B. Simmons' final article, published in the Fort Meade Leader of April 6, 1916
It was an awkward place where the Leader's make-up man divided my last article in the First Families of Polk County right in the middle of a sentence.
Using the military map of Lieut. Ives, of date of April 1856 as a basis, let us consider some of the old settlers outside of Fort Meade township.
North of the present Homeland and Lake Buffum road, and just east of Flatford on Peas Creek, was the house of John Skipper(1) the father of all the Skippers of Polk and DeSoto counties.
Mr. Skipper was noted for being of different political faith from most of his neighbors. A Republican among many Democrats, he was a sturdy character, a virile and positive man, and his many esteemed descendants seem to have inherited the characteristics of their sturdy old ancestor.
Some three miles south of Fort Fraser and on the outskirts of the present city of Bartow, lived Readding Blount(2), the father and grandfather of the Blounts of Bartow and vicinity. The family, from the first, has been God-fearing and, through several generations, the Blounts have been powers for church work and better government.
The fortunes of politics a few years ago put scions of two of these first families in opposition to each other for a certain county office. I am glad to state they conducted a clean campaign and each left a clean record behind him as an officer.
Fort Fraser was located about two miles north of Bartow, there was no Bartow then, near the southwest corner of Lake Hancock. East of Fort Fraser, at Gandy's Ford on Peas Creek, was Fort Carroll.
North of the fort, and near Lake Hancock, lived Rabe Raulerson (3), an esteemed gentleman who has many descendants in this county.
On the south prong of the Alafia , grouped closely together, were the homes of Widow Prine, Andrew Wiggins and James Whidden.
It was the husband of Mrs. Prine (4) who was killed in the battle of Peas Creek, following the Seminole raid on the Tillis place.
Andrew Wiggins is spoken of as a famous hunter of the period. He later migrated to Texas.
James Whidden, as it is well known, was the ancestor of one branch of this much esteemed family.
On Payne's Creek, on the Ft. Chokonikla and Ft. Brooke road, lived several families, Joe and Tom Underhill(5), Tom Summerall (6), and Dick Pellam (7).
Almost all the settlers of this period seem to have been grouped together around the head waters of the Alafia or along the upper end of Peas Creek. Many, if not most of them, lived along military roads.
Gen. Twiggs' route starts at Ft. Brooke and, running in a general direction south and east, connected Fort Meade, Clinch, Kissimmee, Drum, Vinton and Capron, the last fort being on the east coast, opposite Indian River and north of Fort Pierce.
Another, and more northerly route, starting at Fort Brooke, and made by Col. Taylor (8), ran almost due past Fort Fraser and Carroll to Fort Gardiner, thence it ran south looking around Lake Rosalie, passed down the west side of Kissimmee, and, crossing Kissimmee River at Fort Basinger, it loops around the northeast side of Lake Okeechobee, turns south and comes to an end in the Everglades, near the south end of the big lake.
No date is given on these roads on this map, but from the date of the Battle of Okeechobee on Taylor Creek, near the present Okeechobee City, Dec. 25, 1837, we would place the construction of these roads during the Indian War period, between 1835 and 1842.
The establishment of the above named forts was probably coincident with the building of the military roads and the settlement of the country and was subsequent to these two events. (9)
In closing, I would like to call attention to the excellent character of the first settlers of Polk County. These pioneers were sturdy, honest, God-fearing men and women who respected and trusted each other. There were no locks on the doors in those days and a man's word was considered as good as his bond.
Of all the settlers here prior to the Civil War, there were only three families who were at all roguish. To show how blood and early training will tell in such matters, I will say that one of these rogue families has furnished criminals in each generation for three generations, and the descendants are still giving society some concern.
On the other hand, I have only to call attention to such families as the Blounts, Whiddens, Durrances and Tillises to show the beneficent effect of good blood and correct and early training.
This County has been peculiarly fortunate in the character of its first settlers. All honor to the First Families of Polk County.
I will esteem it a favor if anyone who knows will correct any misstatements in these historical articles and will supply me with additional information. We want to make this history as exact and complete as possible, and, to do this, we must work quickly, for we still have only a few of the first settlers with us.
(1) John Levi Skipper (1826-1907) in the 1870s settled east of present-day Zolfo Springs.
(2) Readding Blount settled at now Bartow in 1851.
(3) Noel Rabun Raulerson(1820-1910).
(4) Olive Turner Prine was the widow of Robert Prine, who was killed at age 28.
(5) Joseph Underhill (1795-c1881) was the father of Thomas Underhill, who was killed in 1864 in the Union raid on Fort Meade.
(6) Thomas Summeralls (c1822-1862) prior to his death moved to Calvinia on Horse Creek.
(7) Richard Pelham (1825-1902) homesteaded just north of Fort Green in present-day Polk County.
(8) Zachary Taylor, a veteran of the Second Seminole War in Florida, was United States President from March 4, 1849-July 9, 1850.
(9) The construction of the forts named occurred in the Second Seminole War of 1835-42 and 1849, but Fort Brooke was founded in 1824.
This article was published in The Herald-Advocate (Wauchula, Fla.) of July 5, 1990.
January 31, 2001 & March 18, 2004