Hernando County

War Led to Area's Settling in 1842

written and submitted by: Roger Landers

this article appeared in the Hernando Times Edition of the St. Petersburg Times Monday, March 24, 2008.

Our settlers arrived 166 years ago in the territory that would become Hernando County. Not a long time by some standards, but so begins our recent history.

The Second Seminole War raged from 1835, and many in government, tired of a never-ending conflict, believed that the only way to end hostilities was armed occupation.

The conflict began because of the Seminoles' refusal to relocate from west-central Florida to "lands west of the Mississippi," as agreed in the Agreement of Payne's Landing (1832). The treaty ending the First Seminole War had been signed by only seven chiefs, but the Seminoles had agreed to reside in the 4-million acres of Central Florida south of the Withlacoochee River and north of Peace River.

After five years of war, the issue of Indian removal remained unsettled. Many in Congress considered the war a "Negro war" - a war intended to reclaim the former slaves of the South who had escaped and integrated into the Seminole culture. Add to this a national depression in 1837, and the cost of this war made it almost impossible to continue.

In January 1839, Sen. Thomas Hart Benton of South Carolina proposed a bill for the armed occupation and settlement of the part of the Florida Territory inhabited by the Seminoles. The bill passed the Senate but failed in the House of Representatives. Benton gave notice that he intended to reintroduce the bill in the next session of Congress, only to see it fail again. The bill finally passed both houses in August 1842. President John Tyler signed into law the Armed Occupation Act.

Meanwhile, Col. William Jenkins Worth, commander of military affairs in Florida, began to push for the resettlement of those "unfortunate settlers" who lost their plantations to the Seminoles during the early years of the war. Worth, through liberal interpretation of his authority to resettle lands lost, offered military protection, free land and subsistence for one year to new settlements.

Settlements near Fanning Springs, Fort White and Natural Bridge, in the vicinity of Suwannee River, were re-established. Soon, new groups of settlers offered to move onto the land previously controlled by the Seminoles south of the Withlacoochee.

The St. Augustine News reported the Feb. 21, 1842, settlement, saying, "They come with a plow in one hand and a rifle in the other" and were the first settlers south of the Withlacoochee River since the outbreak of hostilities with the Seminoles in 1835.

The party of 159 settlers, led by John Curey, consisted of 101 men, women and children and 58 slaves. There were 31 families, including two headed by women, Delia B. Gibbons and Elisabeth Stanley.

Curey, in his first report to the Office of the U.S. Adjutant General, stated that the party selected the old fields of Seminole leader Tiger Tail at Chocochattee Town, on the southeast side of what is now Brooksville. The fields were selected for the ease of "cultivation this season." The U.S. troops who accompanied the settlers built a blockhouse nearby for protection.

Most of the women and children did not come with the men to Chocochattee immediately, but remained near the river while houses could be "thrown up." Food and supplies came from Fort Cross, 6 miles to the west, but would later come from Fort Brooke at Tampa.

Seven years earlier, in 1835, Seminole Chief Sinaha, leader of the band at Chocochattee, had agreed to relocate and move to Fort Brooke. That ended the Seminole occupation of the hammock and savannah lands at Chocochattee.

According to Horatio S. Dexter, who visited the area in 1823, Chocochattee was the seat of the Seminole Nation for more than 70 years. At the time of his report, Chocochattee Town consisted of about 20 homes. The chief owned three slaves, 160 head of cattle, 90 horses and a "gang of hogs."

Dexter described the Chocochattee area as a 180-acre savannah with a surrounding hammock of about 380 acres containing two cleared fields. The width of the hammock varied from a half-mile to 5 miles. The rich soil that year had produced a surplus of corn, "unusual for Indians."

He further noted that 3 miles west of Chocochattee was the beginning of the "big hammock" - Annuttaliga - which was about 30 miles in circumference and 7 miles deep. This hammock was of such rich soil that it could support a population of 50,000 settlers.

After Sinaha's band departed, the old fields of Chocochattee became the farm plots of Tiger Tail. Tiger Tail's band used the area until the military made it of little use to the Seminoles. The bands of Tiger Tail, Wild Cat and other Seminoles who chose to remain in the hammock lands did not accept the move to "west of the Mississippi."

The only Seminole associated with Chocochattee when the settlers arrived was Tiger Tail, hence the name "Tiger Tail's old fields." Four such fields were identified on surveys from 1843 to 1847.

The white settlers found these fields of great help as they established their settlement. Within a year, the number of families increased to 69. John Curey reported that the settlers established their principal settlement near Chocochattee and another settlement at Annuttaliga.

The settlement named DeSoto was located on high ground northeast of what is now the intersection of U.S. 41 and Croom Road. Later, the grassy savannah surrounding the area was known as the DeSoto Prairie.

In a March 1, 1842, letter to the military district commander at Tampa Bay, Lt. Col. Garland stated that he was comfortable with the two block houses and about 40 men able to carry arms, and did not favor placing two companies of U.S. troops at Fort Cross, 6 miles west of the Chocochattee settlement.

Although, arms, ammunition and some supplies were provided to the settlers, life was not easy in the new settlements. Indian attacks continued.

In December 1842, the settlers in Chocochattee, Annuttaliga and Homosassa, not knowing of the passage of the Armed Occupation Act, sent a petition to the president and Congress asking for the assistance promised by Worth. The matter was soon resolved, and formal permits to settle the lands were issued.

The act required the settler to occupy a portion of land, build a house and cultivate 5 acres for five years in exchange for the title of one-quarter section of land - 160 acres.

The settlers found the Chocochattee lands to their liking with the high ground; great stands of oak, hickory and magnolia trees; and good water sources. Some of the settlers, including Robert Bradley and J.S. Taylor, claimed land a few miles southwest of Chocochattee.

In 1843, one year and three days after the first settlers arrived at Tiger Tail's old fields, the Territorial Legislature created the new county of Hernando.

Roger Landers is retired from the Hernando County School District, where for nearly 33 years he was a teacher, principal and district administrator. He is the historian for the county's Heritage Museum, historical adviser to the new Hernando County Historical Advisory Commission and a member of the Florida Historical Society. He can be reached at [email protected]