John Wesley Whidden
John Wesley Whidden

By Spessard Stone

John W. Whidden, a pioneer settler of Arcadia, Florida, was a veteran of the Third Seminole War, Confederate officer, cattle king, and civic leader.

John Wesley Whidden was born June 5, 1839 in Thomas County, Georgia. He was the seventh of thirteen children of Willoughby and Eliza (Pennington) Whidden. The family later lived in Ware County, Georgia and in March 1843 moved to Hillsborough County, Florida. The Whidden family was listed in Simmons Hammock Settlement in the 1850 census of Hillsborough County. In 1854, the Whiddens settled northeast of what in 1856 would become Fort Hartsuff (Wauchula).

During the Third Seminole War, John enlisted as a private on February 18, 1856 at Fort Meade in Capt. Hooker's Independent Co., Florida Mounted Volunteers and was mustered out August 20, 1856. The Willoughby Tillis Battle of June 14, 1856 resulted in the deaths of Lt. Alderman Carlton, Lott Whidden (a nephew of Willoughby Whidden), and William Parker. After the initial battle just south of Fort Meade, the ensuing fight on June 16 in the swamplands of the Peace River had led to the deaths of Robert Prine and George Howell and the capture of three Indians. John and his brother Jesse volunteered to deliver the prisoners of war to the government troops at Rock Lake. The trip took three weeks during which time they lived almost entirely on pumpkin taken from deserted Indian fields. On August 20, 1856 at Fort Brooke, John enlisted as a private in Capt. Leroy G. Lesley's Independent Co., Florida Mounted Volunteers, which was stationed at Alafia. He was mustered out February 19, 1857 at Fort Brooke.

As a young man, John began a life long involvement in civic affairs. He was elected as Sheriff of Manatee County in the fall of 1859, but was denied the office as he was under 21. Joel J. Addison, sheriff and ex-officio tax assessor and collector in 1861 wrote on April 1, 1861, "...there was a sheriff Elected who was not of Age and when his Commision came he would not sweare in so by which means there was no Taxes Assessed last year." In October 1861, John was elected Clerk of the Circuit Court of Manatee County for a two-year term, but the war led to his early resignation.

John W. Whidden enlisted on April 10, 1862 as 1st Lieutenant of Company E, Seventh Florida Infantry, C. S. A. Soon after being mustered in, the Seventh was ordered to Tennessee to join the Army of Tennessee, then commanded by General Braxton Bragg. John was promoted to Captain of Co. E on June 2, 1863. The company muster roll of April 30 to July 13, 1863 did not cite Co. E's location, but a clothing requisition by Capt. Whidden was received July 8, 1863 at Knoxville, Tennessee. Captured on August 31, 1864 near Jonesboro, Georgia, John was exchanged by order of General W. T. Sherman at Rough and Ready, Ga. September 19 or 22, 1864. Capt. Whidden returned to duty. On December 15-16, 1864, Union General George H. Thomas at Nashville attacked, crushed, and drove south in retreat the Army of Tennessee, now commanded by General John Bell Hood. Capt. Whidden was captured December 16, 1864 at Nashville. Nearly 43 years later on October 8, 1907, James H. Murphy, a veteran of Co. E, put it simply in an affidavit for Capt. Whidden's Confederate pension application, "The Yankees flanked us on all sides and captured Capt. Whidden, but I escaped." After temporary confinement at the military prison at Louisville, Kentucky, Capt. Whidden was transferred on December 20, 1864 as prisoner of war to Johnson's Island, Ohio.

John W. Whidden, Capt. Co. E, 7 Regt. Fla. Inf., appears on a Roll of Prisoners of War at Johnson's Island, Ohio, applicants for the oath of allegiance, Roll dated Office Supt. Pris. Rolls and Corresp., Johnson's Island, O., April 24, 1865. "Where applied Nashville, Tenn. Where captured Nashville, Tenn. When captured Dec. 16, 1864. Remarks: Is a native of Florida and by occupation a Starch dealer. Says he entered the Confed. Service as a 1"Lieut. in the 7" Regt. Fla. Infy in April 1862 and served as such until June 1863 when he was promoted to his present rank: that he was not a secessionist, but voted the Union ticket (Bell & Everett) at the Presidential election in 1860; that he entered the Rebel service under the force of circumstances; that he regrets that he ever did so as he has no sympathy with the Rebel cause and desires the restoration of the Union of which he desires to live in future a loyal citizen; that he desires to return to his home in Florida as soon as he can be permitted to do so." After giving an oath of allegiance Capt. Whidden was released on June 17, 1865. The oath described him: "Place of residence, Bartow, Fla.; age 26; complexion, fair; eyes, blue; height, 5 ft. 10 ins.; hair, light.”

At Fort Green, Manatee (now Hardee) County on September 7, 1865, John married Ellen Catherine Hendry, born October 9, 1842, Thomasville, Georgia, daughter of Robert Hendry and Zilla Ann (Moody) Hendry. Rev. J. M. Hayman officiated. The family was recorded in household # 2/2, township 34 in the 1870 census of Manatee County. In the early 1870s, they moved to Joshua Creek (east of now Arcadia).

John W. Whidden was a cattle baron of South Florida. In Manatee County on October 16, 1866, he registered the mark and brand, under square and bit in one ear, under square in the other, brand C. On April 26, 1868, he registered brand JB. On April 1, 1873, he registered two brands C and five other marks and brands. After moving to Joshua Creek he rapidly increased his herds. He was one of the first to fence cattle. With a number of others, he bought up and fenced what is now called Fisheating Creek pasture. 1884 Manatee County records show that John paid taxes on 3,500 head of cattle, 5 horses, 40 hogs, and 536 acres of land. The Weekly Floridian of Tallahassee of Nov. 24, 1887, p. 4, col. 1, noted: “Arcadia - Capt. J. W. Whidden left for Jacksonville and Savannah to perfect arrangements for shipping large numbers of beef cattle…” At one time he owned approximately 10,000 head of cattle. About 1900, after giving each of his children 300 to 500 head, John sold his remaining stock to W. W. Langford.

John and Ellen were of the Baptist faith. Maple Branch Baptist Church was organized September 29, 1866, and John was chosen as church clerk. Ellen was baptized by Rev. J. M. Hayman on September 30, 1866 at Maple Branch. After moving to Joshua Creek, they became members of Mt. Moriah Baptist Church. John was a delegate from Mt. Moriah to the South Florida Baptist Association meeting at Oak Grove Baptist Church in Hernando County in 1875. At the Fifth Annual Session of the Manatee Missionary Baptist Association, convened at Mt. Moriah in November 1880, J. W. Whidden, R. C. Hendry, I. A. Redd, Maxwell Whidden and Henry Langford were appointed an executive committee.

John W. Whidden, a member of the Democratic Party, served in influential positions. He represented Manatee County in the Assembly (House of Representatives) in 1866 and in the sessions of 1881 and 1883. He was a member of the Senate from the 27th district 1885, 1887, 1893, 1895, 1901, 1903. In 1887, he was President pro tempore. On June 15, 1878, Governor Drew appointed him Lieutenant Colonel of the 5th Brigade of the State Militia. Senator Whidden sponsored the bill creating DeSoto County from Manatee County on May 19, 1887. On December 12, 1888, he was appointed by Governor Perry as a delegate to represent Florida at the Southern Interstate Immigration Convention held at Montgomery County, Alabama.

Florida Times-Union, April 29, 1886, p. 3, col. 1, reported that the RR has been in operation to Arcadia as of March 4 and “at Arcadia, J. W. Bailey has a general merchandise store. T. J. Herndon is Postmaster and D. S. Williams keeps the village school of thirty-five pupils. Religious services are held in the school house. Within a radius of a mile are sixteen families. There are also thirty-two families in the Joshua creek country, from three to eight miles to the east, who have a postoffice, church and school house, but will come to Arcadia for their supplies…”

John was a founding father of Arcadia, Florida. The DeSoto County Times Centennial issue of May 14, 1987 stated:

"The accepted origin of the name Arcadia is attributed to the Reverend James 'Boss' Hendry, a Baptist lay minister who built a store and began a sawmill near the Peace River ferry in 1883....In addition to his sawmill Hendry operated an open air store near the ferry crossing at Peace River. In late 1884, he sold the stock in his store to Captain John W. Whidden, who had moved to Arcadia in 1883 and purchased a 120-acre tract of state land that extended north from what today is Gibson Street to Oak Ridge Avenue and west from North Manatee Avenue to the city limits. Prior to purchasing Hendry's stock, Whidden contracted with John S. G. Kabrich for the construction of a wooden store at the Peace River ferry crossing. Upon completion the store was reportedly the largest on the Peace River between Ft. Meade and Ft. Ogden."

The Whidden store was sold after two years to J. W. Bailey.

On December 6, 1886, at the time Arcadia was incorporated, J. W. Whidden, James D. Haywood, and T. J. Herndon were chosen by the 31 qualified voters present as the managers of the election. Previously at a meeting at the Whidden store, it had been decided at the suggestion of Col. C. D. Douglas to officially rename Tater Hill as Arcadia. (Rev. James M. Hendry had unofficially named the area in honor of Arcadia Albritton Coker in the summer of 1883.) It was necessary to legalize the name as it had been promised a post office, and the postal officials had requested the name of town.

The Fort Myers Press of February 5, 1887 in "Dots from Arcadia, January 21, reported: "One of the finest dwellings we noticed is being erected for Capt. J. W. Whidden, it is a large two-story house and will be a great improvement to the town."

After the formation of DeSoto County, most of the people felt that a new county seat should be chosen in place of Pine Level, the old county seat of Manatee County. J. W. Whidden, L. Parker, J. N. Parker, and W. E. Daniels on July 7, 1888 gave bond to the county commissioners for $3,000, which provided for the completion of a courthouse if Arcadia was elected as a permanent county seat. Arcadia was selected in the October 1888 election, and the county appropriated an additional $3,000 and awarded a contract to construct a courthouse to Peyton Read. J. W. Whidden was a member of the committee that accepted the completed courthouse June 5, 1889.

After his retirement from cattle ranching, John spent most of his time in his bay head garden (now Lake Katherine) near the river. Florida Times-Union of January 12, 1888, p. 2, col. 3, noted: "Captain Whidden has some fine Cuba tobacco growing in his hammock near Arcadia. It is between five and six feet high and was grown from seed furnished by the Arcadian." He walked to town to get his mail, and there he would take a seat under the "Tree of Knowledge" and discuss the topics of the day. He remained involved in politics and actively encouraged the development of churches, schools, good roads, and all other improvements for the county. Capt. Whidden was a member of DeSoto Camp 1403, United Confederate Veterans.

On July 17, 1902, John Whidden applied for a pension based on his service in the Seminole Indian War. He gave his address as Arcadia. Maxfield McClelland of Zolfo, James M. Manley of Fort Meade, and Ephraim W. Thompson of Hull gave affidavits that they served with him. The pension was granted and when he died he was receiving $8 per month. In October 1907, he applied for a pension from his service as Capt., Co. E, Seventh Florida. He gave his address as Arcadia. Supporting affidavits were given by William H. Johnson of Bartow, Wright Carlton of Nocatee, and James H. Murphy of Lily, all soldiers of Company E. Capt. Whidden was approved for $100 per year.

In January 1909, the officers of the DeSoto National Bank were: W. G. Welles, president; John W. Whidden, vice president; B. F. Welles, cashier; L. A. Stroud, assistant cashier.

Capt. John Wesley Whidden died December 13, 1910 at his home in Arcadia and was buried in Joshua Creek Cemetery. The Tampa Tribune carried the news of his demise:

"Arcadia, Dec. 13, 1910 - Capt. John W. Whidden, one of the oldest and most prominent citizens in the State, died at his home here this morning at 9:30 o'clock, after a short illness. The funeral services will be conducted at the house Wednesday morning and one of the largest funerals in the history of the city is expected.
"Capt. Whidden was known to more South Florida people, perhaps than any other man in the State. He was universally loved and respected. Starting out as a boy over fifty years ago, he devoted the younger years of his life to the strenuous pursuits in cattle raising. He retained this hardihood up to the time of his last illness and was unusually vigorous, although over seventy years of age.
"His arduous labors and honest conduct of his business affairs were not without their reward, for he accumulated a large estate and was one of the wealthiest men in this country at the time of his death. He was a man of unusually generous impulses, and many a widow can testify to the goodness of his heart, and the liberality of his hand.
"Capt. Whidden was one of the first to respond to the call of his beloved Southland in the dark days of the sixties, and soon won a Captain's commission for his bravery. He was prominent in the affairs of the Democratic party in South Florida, and for several terms represented DeSoto County in the state hall of legislation with credit to himself and benefit to his constituency."

Ellen Whidden on March 2, 1911 applied for a widow's pension from John's service in the Seminole Indian War. Wright Carlton, Andrew Green of Arcadia, John H. Treadwell, J. G. King, and Harley Watson gave affidavits that they were present at the marriage or were personally knowledgeable of it. The pension was approved and when she died Ellen was receiving $30 per month.

Ellen in August 1917 applied for a Confederate pension as the widow of Capt. John Whidden. Wright Carlton and Andrew Green gave supporting affidavits. She was granted a $180 per year pension.

Ellen Catherine Hendry Whidden died December 4, 1929. She is buried in Joshua Creek Cemetery.

The Whidden residence, built in 1887, was located at 516 West Oak Street, Arcadia. Although alterations have been made over the years, the house has remained in the family, and in 1989 was the home of Mrs. Marshall T. Whidden.

Issue of John W. and Ellen (Hendry) Whidden:

1. Robert Early Whidden, born July 15, 1866; died March 26, 1951; married on January 21, 1888 Mamie Maria Haygood.
2. Adella Adelaide Whidden, born November 14, 1867; died May 11, 1952; married (1) Benjamin Franklin Wood, Jan. 19, 1888; (2) William E. Robertson, Oct. 16, 1904.
3. Francis Solon Whidden, born January 11, 1870; died November 24, 1873.
4. Eliza Edmonia "Chink" Whidden, born January 8, 1872; died January 17, 1930; married on January 9, 1890 Charles Yancey Crawford.
5. Ellen Eugenia "Nellie" Whidden, born October 25, 1873; died June 9, 1898; married on April 1, 1895 Joseph Henry Peeples.
6. Carl Tilden Whidden, born August 22, 1876; died February 19, 1942; married on December 12, 1899 Irene Hays.
7. Daisy Lee Whidden, born December 25, 1879; died October 7, 1955; married on March 30, 1901 Claude Leonard Carlton, son of Henry Eli Carlton.
8. John Edward Perry Whidden, born December 10, 1881; died October 30, 1886.
9. Smoot Louise Whidden, born October 8, 1882; died January 1970; married on December 12, 1900 Clarence Leon Steele.
10. Unnamed infant.

References: Robert E. Whidden, "Life of J. W. Whidden," military and pensions records of John W. & Ellen Whidden, Florida and National Archives; Milton D. Wilson, The Hendry Family; Soldiers of Florida; "Arcadia's First Courthouse," South Florida Pioneers 6; The Tampa Morning Tribune, January 10, 1909, December 13, 1910; Jean B. Burton.

This is adapted from South Florida Pioneers 31/32 (Jan./ Apr. 1982) and John and William Sons of Robert Hendry, 1989.

Tombstone in of Jesse Pennington in Wauchula Cemetery; Jesse was the maternal grandfather of John Wesley Whidden

Tombstone of Willoughby Whidden in Wauchula Cemetery

January 23, 2001, October 16, 2001, April 16, 2007, April 17, 2009