Pensacola & Disease Outbreaks: the 1905 Yellow Fever Outbreak & the 1918 Influenza Pandemic

Children in Florida 1918

When we look at life in the past versus today, we can see advantages and disadvantages in comparing the early 20th century with the early 21st century. Hurricanes are in both periods but in the early 20th century they often didn’t know where or when they would strike or how strong they would be. Regardless of how well we use that information today, the information does give us an advantage. Economic downturns are a mixed bag. In the past there were no safety nets for individuals but today we have a much more complex society that is a part of a global system of trade so the impacts can be sudden and severe, as we saw in the 2008 Great Recession. But the one area where we have a significant advantage is in managing the challenge of communicable and infectious disease. By the early 20th century our ancestors at least understood how some diseases were transmitted but control was still a ways off. Let’s visit Pensacola during 1905 and 1918 and get a first hand view of two major outbreaks and their impact on the area.

Yellow fever has been on the North American continent since the first white traders arrived along the African coast to buy trade goods and slaves and transport them across the ocean to the New World. Early American history is riddled with large and devastating outbreaks of yellow fever. One of the best known was the outbreak in Philadelphia in 1793 that killed thousands of people between 1 August and 9 November 1793. This outbreak impacted our Founding Fathers since, at the time, Philadelphia was the capitol of the U.S. But in 1793 little was known or understood about the disease. The mosquito as culprit was unknown and the medical treatment was primitive to non-existent. Panic could set in when the outbreak continued to pile up dead bodies because it was truly an unseen, and terrifying, foe.

Aedes Aegypti mosquito

By 1905, the key to yellow fever had been found. The impetus was the Spanish-American War at the end of the 19th century in which 1,000 men died in battle and somewhere around 5,000 died of disease, much of which was caused by yellow fever. Major Walter Reed and the Yellow Fever Commission established by the federal government confirmed the disease was carried by the mosquito, Aedes Aegypti. A now common mosquito in North American, it carries such diseases as dengue fever, Zika fever and yellow fever. While we had determined how folks acquired the disease, time had not yet allowed good control of the mosquito when yellow fever struck again on the Gulf Coast.

New Orleans was a major port for merchandise coming in from Cuba, Mexico, South America and the rest of the Caribbean. And it was in these areas where the control of the mosquito was needed the most. Control efforts were underway but in 1905 yellow fever began appearing in New Orleans, once again terrifying the public. As in the past, cities in the surrounding area went on high alert. One case often meant many cases in a short period of time. On 20 September 1905, the Pensacola Journal had an interesting little snippet in the middle of page 4 that pointed out that if the outbreak being reported from New Orleans was accurate that it might prove beneficial in helping to isolate the germ causing the disease and thereby speed up the finding of a remedy for the disease. In the same issue was a lengthy report on the same page informing people on how the disease was transmitted and how to nurse it. The 1905 outbreak in New Orleans proved to be the last major outbreak of yellow fever in the U.S. Within a short period of time we had the information necessary to control and treat the disease.

At the end of the outbreak in 1905, Mayor Bliss’ report in the Pensacola Journal of 26 November 1905 (see below) that the city’s records indicated that a total of 63 deaths had occurred in the previous 157 days of the outbreak and that the State Board of Health’s records indicated 82 deaths from yellow fever. That would appear not to be a lot but it was approximately 2 deaths a day from a fearsome foe that people did not yet completely understand. Yellow fever had repeatedly occurred throughout the east coast and southern areas of the United States, devastating communities and causing families to try to adapt and survive. But finally, yellow fever was at least not a cause for anxiety as the temperatures rose and the rains came.

The 1918 influenza outbreak was the largest and deadliest pandemic in modern history. It is estimated that about 500 million people worldwide (about a third of the population at the time) was infected and about 5 to 10% of those infected, died. In the U.S., which is now believed to be where the initial case occurred in a young man drafted for WWI, about 25% of the population were infected and somewhere around 675,000 Americans died. Many of those that died were young, and generally healthy, adults who often died when they developed pneumonia after the flu virus had set in. It was first observed in Europe where young men off to war were housed in close quarters and still able to interact with non-military persons. It soon spread worldwide (the definition of a pandemic).

Walter Reed Flu Ward 1918

As a genealogist who loves to wander through cemeteries, I have often been struck by the number of headstones with death dates in 1918 and 1919. As a retired public health manager, my mind often looks at aggregate graves in a cemetery with the same death years and wander about epidemics.  Of course, people did died from other causes in these two years but if you pay close attention, you will find a spike during that period. Like most infectious diseases, it caused anxiety and drastic measures to try and halt the  spread of the disease. There was no vaccine and little useful treatment so communities turned to limiting the interactions between people. I was curious to see how Pensacola handled the pandemic.

The first entry I found was for 5 January 1918, 2nd section, page 10 where they provided an estimate of the cost of the influenza outbreak for the United States. According to the article a conservative estimate was $115,000,000 a day! The largest costs were to lost workers and loss of business activity. They go on to mention that influenza quarantines were very unpopular. In June 1918, they reported that influenza was “all along the German front”. By September 1918, the Spanish Influenza, as it was called at the time, had been reported at Fort Morgan. The article indicates that one tramp steamer arrived at Newport News (in VA) with nearly the entire crew sick and that “even New Orleans” had not escaped. Just like with earlier yellow fever outbreaks, once an infectious disease was in nearby communities, it was only a matter of time.

By 30 September 1918, The Pensacola Journal was reporting “Uncle Sam’s Advice to Flu Victims” and reported that school opening was being delayed because of the outbreak. (As an aside, in the same edition and page it was announced that the 30th would be the last day for liquor sales in Pensacola.  I wonder how much last minute buying contributed to the spread!) By this point influenza had developed in at least three Army camps in the U.S. and several cities were reporting major outbreaks. This prompted the federal government to start trying to get the rapid transmission under control, requiring states to report promptly by telegraph and to start educational campaigns. It was too late.


By 4 October 1918, The Pensacola Journal had a tiny piece at the bottom of the front page stating that the death toll so far was 930 in the U.S. with more than 12,000 cases reported. On page 5 of the same edition, we begin to see the names of folks who were ill and those who had died in Pensacola, and we see the second mention of an event being postponed due to the outbreak, a dance for the benefit of the French War Orphans. The next day, 5 October 1918 on the front page, we are told that the “Liberty Loan” campaign was at a standstill. “Every committee working in the interest of the loan is short of men, owing to the illness of workers themselves, their families or employees, and the situation is such as to make the soliciting of subscriptions practically useless.” In the adjacent column it is reported that ALL churches would be closed on the 6th of October due to the epidemic. Further down the page we see that the Headquarters of the Pensacola Emergency Relief Committee was to open to coordinate funds and volunteers. In the span of a month, reporting on the outbreak had gone from small sections of one column to nearly half the front page.

For the month of October, every issue had a page of names of those home sick, returning home after being sick elsewhere and those that had died. Schools remained closed through October and most large gatherings of people were discouraged or not allowed. But we also see that the Liberty Loan folks were getting back to some normalcy in their drives and the amount of space in the newspaper was decreasing. The outbreak would continue but it was running its course. I would recommend taking the time to visit these old newspapers at Chronicling America, if for no other reason than to read the ads. I noticed a low end Kodak camera was selling for $2.75 in 1918 and terms were available.

Outbreak and epidemics are an important part of the social history our ancestors experienced and understanding how these diseases were seen and responded to can be important to understanding our ancestors’ lives.  These folks had many challenges that we no longer face, and we have some they couldn’t have imagined, but infectious diseases are something that will likely be around as long as there are hosts to inhabit. Bacteria and viruses are extraordinarily adaptable, unlike some of their hosts, and can quickly adjust to a new environment and continue to thrive. Our ancestors would have loved to have the resources we have to combat disease but we do not always use these gifts wisely.  That’s how we’ve come to create superbugs from our often indiscriminate use of antibiotics (in raising animals and in the doctor’s office). Think about that the next time your doctor tells you that you have the flu, without doing a test to actually determine that, and then gives you a prescription for antibiotics. Viruses are not affected by antibiotics and influenza is caused by a virus.

Until next time.


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Reuben Hart: FL/AL Pioneer, Slaveholder & Enigma

It is believed that Reuben HART was born in NC around 1783, migrated to GA sometime before 1810, migrated first to south Alabama then to northwest Florida sometime around 1816-1817, then back to Alabama before 1840. In tow from Georgia to Alabama/Florida were his family  – wife Nancy Ann RIGDON HART and their children Reuben, Jr.; John; William Henry; Robert Joshua; Isaac; Daniel; Allen Haze; Mary Ann and Andrew Jackson. Richard Jefferson and Dennis Erwin were born in Conecuh Co, AL and Escambia Co, FL respectively. Like a number of the other early settlers in the upper Yellow River area, Reuben and family were in Conecuh Co, AL (likely just above the Florida line in what would become Covington Co, AL) for the 1820 census and moved into Florida after the census was completed.  He is listed on the 1824 Congressional Record of Claims to West Florida land between 22 Feb 1819 and 17 July 1821 indicating he was in Florida between 1820 and 1824.

1823 Tanner Henry S FL Map
1823 Map of Florida by Henry S. Tanner

In the 1830 census, Reuben HART and family are in E. Escambia County, along with several of his sons who had established their own households: Reuben Jr; John; and Isaac. In this census, the children that appear to be still at home were Allen Haze, Mary Ann, Andrew Jackson, Richard Jefferson and Dennis Erwin. In addition to the children and Reuben and Nancy, there were seven (7) enslaved persons: 1 male under 10, 2 males 10 < 24, 3 females 10 < 24 and 1 female 24 < 36.

In 1837, during the Second Seminole War, several of the Hart boys fought. Reuben Jr fought first in Capt Long’s Co and then in Barrow’s Mounted Co. John, Isaac, Daniel and Allen Haze served in Barrow’s Mounted Company.  Barrow’s Mounted Company was part of the 1st Regiment of Florida Militia and served in the War from May 1837 to January 1838. It was commanded by Reuben BARROW, son of John BARROW and brother of Richmond BARROW.

By 1840, Reuben Sr and Nancy were in Covington Co, AL (again). It would appear from the census tic marks that Dennis and Richard may still have been in the household and there are 4 girls: 1 under 5, 1 5-10, 1 10-15 and 1 15-20 that I do not have any information on at this point. The household also had 22 enslaved persons: 2 males < 10, 3 males 10 < 24, 5 females < 10 (one of these may be the Harriett HART mentioned below), 1 female 10 < 24, 2 females 24 < 36, and 1 female 36 < 55 years of age. At this point, Reuben Sr’s children were scattered over south Alabama and northwest Florida. Reuben Jr. was in Walton County and John, William Henry, Isaac, Daniel and Andrew Jackson were in Covington Co, AL. I am not sure where Robert Joshua (he may have died) and Allen Haze were. I have been told that Mary Ann married a Daniel JONES but I have not yet researched them.

It was in June 1840 that Yellow River Baptist Church was founded. There were no HARTS listed on the founding document but the first membership list that was completed between June and December 1840 included the following HARTS: Daniel, John, William, Reuben Sr, Catherine, Polly, Elizabeth, Margaret, and Sarah. The vast majority of the black members listed on this 1840 membership list were listed with the surname of HART in a later membership list from the 1850s. They were: Jerry, Sally, Charlotte, Darky, Jude, Mary, and Molly.

1840 Membership List
First Membership list taken between June 1840 and December 1840.

The decade of the 1840s was a busy time in northwest Florida and the Upper Yellow River area and the HART men left a number of records. Reuben Jr signed a petition concerning the Yellow River in 1842 and voted in the first statewide election in May 1845. Daniel, Allen Haze, and Dennis Erwin also signed the petition concerning the Yellow River. In 1846, Nancy Ann RIGDON HART is supposed to have died. Church records only indicate her death with no date.  This decade also saw John and William Henry move to Hardin Co, TX around the time their mother died.

Reuben HART Sr remained in Covington Co, AL for the rest of his life. In 1850, his household was comprised of himself, his son Dennis, his daughter-in-law Margaret and their son Isaac and 21 enslaved persons. Also in Covington County in 1850 were his sons Allen Haze, Isaac, and John. Allen had two black men enslaved; 1 was 34 and 1 was 45. The only other son who held enslaved persons in 1850 was Reuben’s son Daniel. Daniel was in Santa Rosa County and held 13 persons.

In 1860, Reuben is in his son Dennis’ household. He was listed as a farmer who owned $700 in real estate property and $5300 in personal property. On the slave schedules for 1860, Reuben had 6 slaves and Dennis had 2. In Walton County, Allen Haze had 2 black males in his household in Santa Rosa County, Daniel had 20 slaves in his household in Santa Rosa County. Reuben died in 1864, according to the Yellow River Baptist Church early membership records.

The recording of Stewart Cemetery from the 1980s did not show a headstone for Nancy Ann or Reuben Sr but their son Reuben and his wife were both there. Both Nancy and Reuben were members of the church when they died but, at the time, the church was in its original location (likely east of the current location) and Stewart Cemetery was not the church cemetery, it was a newly established community cemetery for Oak Grove/Barrow’s Ferry. I wrote about these cemeteries in a previous post. Reuben and Nancy Ann have been assumed to be buried in Stewart Cemetery but we can not be sure of that. It is also possible they are buried in Covington County near or on the property they owned or they could be buried at the Old Yellow River Cemetery, which is east of the current church location.

I’ve spent a fair amount of this blog introducing the black persons who were in the Reuben HART household. I have done that for a specific reason. A few years ago, I received an email through the DNA service where I had my mother and my DNA done. George and I (and my mother) shared a small amount of DNA and he wanted to know if I had ever run across a Harriett HART married to a Robert MOORE in my research and indicated he had found them in the 1880 Santa Rosa County census. I was curious that I had managed to miss them so I searched at Ancestry and had my answer. Robert was listed as black and Harriett was listed as mulatto.

George also shared a page from the Yellow River Baptist Church records he had gotten from Baker Block Museum that showed Harriett HART received by baptism into the church on 22 Sept 1859 (She was 40 in 1880 on the census, which puts her age at 21 when she joined the church.). We had a highly interesting phone conversation after that and talked about the HARTs as slaveholders and the forced, and violent, expulsion of blacks from the Oak Grove area that occurred in the 1920s (another story for another blog). I had to admit I had failed to really research my ancestors’ ownership of slaves but at that moment I made a decision to document all of my ancestors’ households because I would never know when that might lead to a distant cousin with information to share to put my ancestors in better social context.

I am hoping that I can spend some quality research time with the black members of Oak Grove as I research my book and complete the one-place study on Oak Grove. In looking in detail at the HART families who held enslaved persons between 1840 through 1860, it seems reasonable that the father of at least some of the children listed as mulatto was Reuben Sr (probable candidate), Daniel (likely candidate) or Dennis (possible candidate). The first two because they are the two that held a number of slaves, including children, listed as mulatto. Dennis is on the short list because he was a young man in his father’s household in 1840 and 1850 when many of these children were born. Some bad behaviors do extend down into subsequent generations so there may be more than one HART father of these children. This bad behavior was likely one that transcended  generations.

I have not clearly linked Reuben Sr to any earlier HART lines yet. If there is anyone out there with good documentation on who his parents were, I would love to share information. He just seems to appear in Washington Co, GA in 1810. This family calls me to sit down, review my work, re-think and draft a new plan of attack to solve the mysteries. Maybe in 2018 after I finish my book on Oak Grove.

Until Next Time


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Learn From the Past; Prepare for the Future

Picking Beans in Escambia Farms

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how our Florida panhandle ancestors produced their food, preserved it for the long winter and protected it from bad weather. While there is much about our current way of life that has its benefits, our fragility in the face of bad weather events is clearly laid out in front of us. These events should give us pause to ask ourselves if we should rebuild in the same way, live the same lifestyle and skate on the edge of the next disaster or maybe re-think what it means to be a 21st century resident in a country where fragility leaves us one step away from a life-threatening event. Hang with me here. This blog will be a combination of the past and the future and will hopefully give you some things to ponder.

While as a nation we seem to be more interested in dancing on the head of the pin when discussing climate change and how much humans are contributing to it, most of us can come through the current storms and acknowledge that they sure seem to be more intense, more frequent and more weird than when we were kids. If that is the case, what we have witnessed with Harvey, Irma, Marie (3 category 4/5 storms hitting U.S. land in one hurricane season) and now Nate is likely to repeat sometime in the future. Let’s ask ourselves what our ancestors, say 150-100 years ago would have done if this would have happened to them. How would they have been prepared and how would they have recovered? Would their vulnerabilities have been the same? What can that tell us about our own preparation for the next really nasty hurricane season.

This nation was built around family or yeoman farmers. Thomas Jefferson waxed eloquent on America becoming a nation of small farmers and the Florida panhandle was certainly that at the turn of the 20th century. These families owned, or had access to, acreage that they farmed with one or more cash crops and they had a “kitchen” garden and field crops that would feed the family through the year. In addition, they sometimes had a milk cow and in the south pigs were raised for meat. Chickens were also raised for meat and eggs. Fruit and nut trees were a long term investment in both food and a potential cash crop. If there was room, the family might have an acre or two in cane for molasses, again for both personal use and as a cash crop. In addition to cane syrup, having honey bees was a means of producing a sweetener that naturally had a long shelf life and added pleasure to a meal.  This production fed the family, provided some cash for things like taxes and the items needed that were not produced, and for exchange items with neighbors.

In 1885, the State of Florida agreed to conduct an agricultural census along with a state population census. The agricultural census on our ancestors is often overlooked because we tend to think of censuses as just population information. For the State of Florida, 1885 was a good year to do an agricultural census. There had been some recovery from the Civil War and Reconstruction but the severe price recession that occurred from 1882-1885 and the Panic of 1884 had impacted many family farmers. Whether we view the records for individuals, or for whole communities, it tells us how our ancestors conceived of their place in the economy and their responsibility in providing for their families both with food grown and with cash crops that generated money to purchase items.

I’ve been analyzing the 1885 agricultural census for the northeast corner in what is now Okaloosa County, for an upcoming book I’m writing on the community of Oak Grove. The total number of farmers was 122, with 102 of them owning their farms and the remainder being tenant farmers. There were 116 White and 6 Black farmers. Two of the white farmers were women. One page had all of the data but no names attached to each farm. The acreage owned ranged from a total of 8 acres owned by George HASKILL to 850 acres owned by Arch LINDSAY. The tilled acreage for nearly all of the farms, regardless of how much acreage was owned, was between 10 and 30 acres. Farms, including buildings, fences and land were valued from $50 to $1000 ($1260 to $25,200 today). Livestock valuation for the entire population of farmers was $32,228 in 1885 dollars while the total for the farm buildings and houses was only $20,910.

61% of the farmers had milk cows. Most of the farmers plowed with oxen but some used horses. About 60% raised pigs and 79% raised chickens. All but 11 raised Indian corn, which was ground into corn meal and grits. Oats and rice were also grown in the area but at a much smaller production. About half grew cow peas (most likely black-eyes).  About a third of the farmers raised cane for molasses and 17 had honey bees. 92 grew sweet potatoes (how many have had a meal of sweet potatoes, black-eyed peas with a bit of fatback and cornbread?) and peach trees were THE fruit of choice for this area of the Florida panhandle. Sixteen of these farmers raised cash crops for the local market.

The agricultural census didn’t ask about kitchen garden production because that was strictly for home consumption but I am told that the kitchen garden of the 1930s usually had tomatoes, onions, peppers, cabbage, turnips, collards, mustard, and beans. At harvest time items were individually canned or were combined as relishes and then preserved. Peas and beans would have been canned or dried in 1885 and frozen as electricity in the area became more abundant after WWII. Sweet potatoes, onions, cabbage, and turnip roots were wintered over as roots and corn would have been kept as a whole grain until needed and then taken to the grist mill for grinding.  Unfortunately, local grist mills for grinding grain quickly gave way to buying already milled grains at the local general store.  Food was at hand, little was needed from a store but most communities, even in rural areas had a small general store that carried basic goods and cloth.  And although the garden could be destroyed by the storm or fire or flood, chances would be that all wouldn’t be and your neighbor’s or family nearby might have less damage.  There was no FEMA and little to no help from outside your local community.  Neighbors helped neighbors.

My Great-Grandfather’s General Store in Oak Grove, Okaloosa Co, FL

Most of us these days think that sounds like way too much hard work just to eat, especially when ready meals can be bought at the grocery store or the fast food restaurant. But if you are facing an emergency, which would you rather do: 1) drive to the grocery store and battle everyone else trying to “stock up”, or 2) go out the back door, harvest what might be ready in the garden and get out some of your prepared foods. The advantage we have today is we do have forewarning about storms. Intensity, path and speed is all pretty accurate and well in advance and yet many don’t seem to know how to be prepared without making themselves crazy beforehand (what is this thing about bottled water lines before storms?!) or dependent on outside help for basics afterwards. I think sometimes the gift of readily available stuff actually makes us more prone to fragility in the face of nature’s impacts.  And coupled with two or three generations that aren’t sure what the kitchen is for other than warming up a meal in the microwave and we are seriously vulnerable!

Now please, don’t misunderstand me. Regardless of how much we work at trying to be less fragile, some of us will always be in the wrong place at the wrong time. That is the nature of living on planet earth. But I do think we could, as individuals, make an effort to decrease our susceptibility to disasters (including structurally but that’s another post at another time) and economic downturns and thereby be less of a drain on community and national resources in the aftermath. While we may not be impacted by a storm, our food supply might be.  California, where fires have ravaged the countryside, and Florida, where Irma cut a path, are both significant food production centers. We will see those impacts next year. Disruption in gasoline distribution from Harvey in Houston impacts the cost and the ability to move food products from coast to coast. Flooding in the Midwest in the Fall can impact the harvesting of grains, which impacts both bread and meat prices. Whether we like it or not, we are part of an intricate and fragile web that will be impacted by storms of stronger intensity and increased frequency.

Migrant fruit pickers - Winter Haven
Family of Migrant Fruit Pickers from Tennessee – Winter Haven, Florida – 1937

The Great Depression in the 1930s put millions of people out of work. Hunger was prevalent and people picked up and moved to try and find work (many into Florida from other Southern states), or a better piece of land to farm, so the family could keep body and soul together (see The Great Depression: The Experiences of Samuel and Nealie Bell Nichols Marsh). That was slightly less than a century ago and at the time farmers were 21% of the population. There was 6,295,000 farms in 1930 and approximately 2,200,000 in 2010. That means unless you have some means of growing a few vegetables and you have some extra of the items you don’t grow, you are susceptible to disruption in your food supply after any number of disasters that might strike, especially if they come in multiples. Our food system is more concentrated and in the path of potential natural disasters.  Think about how lucky Houston and Florida were. If Harvey had made land fall at Galveston or the Houston Ship Channel as a cat 5 and then crept up over Houston and sat, how much of the grid would be down along with the massive flood damage? What if Irma had not brushed Cuba’s mountain area for a little over a day and made land fall at Miami before ripping north maintaining its strength through much of the peninsular? And then add the cat 4/5 land fall in Puerto Rico. How much worse would be all of the responses to the storms’ impacts?  And these are immediate impacts, not the ones we will feel over the next few years in our grocery bills and our national debt.

Our challenge today is not to go back and live as our ancestors did but to learn how they lived and survived and how we might apply that with the increased knowledge and technology we have today to make ourselves less vulnerable; physically, mentally and emotionally. Because we are vulnerable and the systems that surround us are much more fragile than we want to admit. Recently, Brock Long, the new FEMA director did a talk about the need for all Americans to develop “a true culture of preparedness”. I couldn’t agree more. And I’m not talking about wearing camo, hauling your rifle around with you and eating nothing but MREs. This is not a reality TV show about survival where you obsess on one possible scenario; it is about creating a lifestyle that is balanced, thoughtful, prepared and acknowledging of the gifts we have all been given. A bit more like our ancestors lived.  It is a part of your daily routine of preparedness and then you get on with enjoying the beauty and grace we have all been given between the storms.

Until Next Time.


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Questions of Honor and Courage: Individual Decisions During the Civil War

Many of us with ancestors in the Florida panhandle know there was a Union regiment of Southern men that served during the Civil War at Ft. Barrancas. Many of us have ancestors who served with that regiment and we have family stories or reasons that they served that we hold to be true. But most of us don’t know for sure why they made the decision to serve the Union and not the Confederacy. I have one of those ancestors, James M. Gaskins, and in trying to understand how he, and many of his neighbors, made that decision, I came to write my book on the 1st Florida Union Cavalry. In this blog I want to explore the issue of desertion during the Civil War.

After more than a century, it has become difficult to sort out the Unionist versus deserter versus draft dodger categories of descent from the Confederacy. Unless you are lucky enough to have letters from your ancestor in which they explained in detail their reasoning, we have to go on family stories, organizing the data that is available or guesses. Sometimes grappling with an ancestor who appears to be a Confederate deserter, who then joined the Union, is difficult and I have heard some interesting stories to explain the ancestor who joined the Union at Pensacola. One of my favorites was that he was promised by the Federals that he wouldn’t have to fight. Having served in the Army, I’m pretty sure that didn’t happen! Let’s start by setting some definitions that fit with the situation at the time.

A Unionist would be a person who was supportive of the United States and did not agree with the southern states seceding from the Union. That might have been based on opposition to slavery but more likely in the panhandle it was based on other factors such as concern over the impact on personal finances or business interests or a belief that there was still room for negotiating and being in the U.S. would be better than being separate.  There are a number of areas throughout the South where it is known that Unionist sentiments were high: 1) western VA, which seceded from VA and became W VA, 2) the mountains of NC, 3) northwestern AL, and 4) the eastern half of TN. In addition, there were smaller pockets in other southern states. In the Alabama Secession Convention representatives from northwestern AL pushed hard to remain in the Union (they too fielded a Union regiment of local men who fought in the northern AL and MS area). The Florida Secession Convention did have both Unionist and Cooperationists in attendance but in the end had only seven representatives vote against secession. Two of those were from Walton County.

During the war, the official definition for a deserter was someone who left their unit without authority and did not plan to return. As can be seen in compiled service records, many men would leave or overstay an authorized leave and then return on their own. They were trying to juggle family and military service, or deal with the demons within themselves that made facing another battle difficult. We need to remember that until the Civil War, civilian men were not used to prolonged military service. Militia requirements were generally three months between planting and harvest, or after harvest and before winter. A dodger was someone who made every effort to avoid being drafted after April 1862. This could be motivated by Unionist sentiments or concern for family or disinterest in military life. They often took to the woods, and coupled with deserters, became an additional problem in some parts of the South, including the Florida panhandle.

The Florida panhandle and South Alabama were both predominately yeoman farmers. The industrial exceptions (higher percentage of industrial capacity) to that was Santa Rosa County, FL and Baldwin County, AL and the plantation exceptions  (higher percentage of large plantations) were Henry County, AL and the eastern panhandle counties of Jackson, Calhoun and Gadsden. Both the Florida panhandle and South Alabama had slightly less a percentage of enslaved persons than their respective states. And if you excluded the plantation system counties listed above, the percentage was even smaller. In other words, many in this area were not heavily entangled in the Southern slave economy from a financial standpoint and may have resented the advantage that large plantations had in marketing cash crops.

The war saw the beginning of a military draft for both sides. Initial enlistments were for 12 months but that proved insufficient.  By April of 1862, the Confederacy initiated an unpopular draft. It required all white men between 18 and 35 to be drafted for a period of 3 years. It also extended the terms of the 12 month enlistees to 3 years. By September of 1862, the draft was extended to white men between 18 and 45 and by February of 1864 the age range was extended again to men between 17 and 50. The law also exempted a number of occupations: railroad and river workers, civil officials, telegraph operators, miners, druggists and teachers. In October of 1862, the law was amended to exempt anyone who owned 20 or more slaves and if a wealthy man was drafted he could hire a substitute. These last amendments were rescinded in December 1863 but the damage was done.  What had begun as an unpopular act because it limited or decreased individual freedom gave the appearance of the war being fought on the backs of men who had the least to gain from it.

Unlike the more wealthy, many men in the Florida panhandle did not have enslaved persons to do the work on the farm. Taking away the only adult male left the farming to women and children. This during the days of oxen and plow meant that many would not be able to sustain their farms, which was not only their livelihoods but where the majority of their food came from. The Confederate states made promises that these women and children would not go hungry, and some did try, but the general disruption of farms (produce stolen by opposing sides, conflict and inability to plant and harvest) and the poor rail transportation in the South meant that these families quickly were writing letters to soldiers and government officials begging for help before they starved to death.

After the Confederacy withdrew from Florida in early 1862, there was also the ongoing presence of the Union at Ft. Barrancas. Coupled with the gangs of deserters and dodgers, the blockade, and the agents of the Confederate government that confiscated farm produce from families already struggling to get by, things went from difficult to life threatening. All of these problems, coupled with some plantation owners resisting growing food crops and continuing to plant cotton, resulted in severe hunger. In 1863, there was a series of “uprisings” by women across the South demanding food supplies be made more available. The closest one to the panhandle was in Mobile.

All of these are political or social problems in the Confederacy that might cause a man to desert but for many there was also the horror of the battlefield. Florida regiments were in both the Eastern theatre under General Lee and in the Western theatre under General Braxton Bragg. The Western theatre, unlike the Eastern, did not see many victories. Bragg was a difficult personalty and did not get along well with many of his subordinates. His decision and communication skills appear to have been lacking. And when he failed, it was everyone else’s fault but his. He did have one friend, Jefferson Davis, so he remained in command until after Missionary Ridge. But the Florida boys in the Eastern theatre certainly did not have a much better situation. In several engagements, they were in areas of a battle where they took major losses, stripping the regiments to the bare bones.

Antietam, Maryland. Bodies of dead, Louisiana Regiment
Antietam, Bodies of dead Louisiana men

And finally, in addition to battles that were terrifying and maiming, there was the hunger and lack of clothing and shelter in the army. The poor rail system in the South not only impacted moving food around for the home front, it made it difficult to move supplies of all kinds to the front. The South had raised the cotton, they didn’t have the industrial capacity to make it into thread and clothes other than in small volumes and in the home. When my ancestors who served in the 6th Florida Infantry were transferred from Florida to Tennessee their commanding officer indicated they went without sufficient warm clothes and shoes, no blankets and few tents. Many Florida boys died of illness in the bitter winters of 1862 and 1863.

So, let’s put ourselves in some of our ancestors’ shoes. Most of them were oriented toward their local community, some to their state and fewer to the nation. Most were yeoman farmers or small merchants. Most were not heavily entangled in the slavery-based economic system. When the war started, many figured it didn’t matter which “nation” they were in as long as they were left alone to take care of their families. Some did feel an allegiance to the U.S. and felt that either this was not the time to try independence and/or it wasn’t the right reason to secede. Many probably shared some of the concerns the fire-eaters hammered home about the impacts of freed slaves on the South. So those that could justify the secession in their heads based on their own beliefs signed up for 12 months, those that couldn’t, stayed home and planned to see what would happen. But that didn’t work once the draft was in place.  Many of these men had to make a decision based on what they thought was best for them and their families. Some took to the woods and swamps.  Some were drafted and when their regiment was called up to leave the state, they deserted. Some went through a few battles, then deserted. Some got letters from home and then deserted.

Northwest Florida &amp; South Alabama in 1860 with counties marked that contributed a significant number to the 1st Florida Union Cavalry
Stars are the nine counties contributing the most men to the 1st Florida Cavalry. The circled area is where a sizable proportion were in 1860.

In October 1863, when the Union decided to create the 1st Florida Cavalry Volunteers, many of the men who would ultimately join had already deserted, or had been laying low since early 1863. Word spread that the Union was recruiting Southerners and would pay a bounty for enlistment. It started as a trickle and became a steady stream. By the end of the war, 704 men had joined, or attempted to join, the 1st Florida. Nearly, all of the men who joined were from the panhandle of Florida and South Alabama and a large percentage of them were from just nine counties: Baldwin Co, AL; Santa Rosa Co, FL; Walton Co, FL; Holmes Co, FL; Covington County, AL; Coffee County, AL; Dale County, AL; Henry County, AL and Washington Co, FL. And a large percentage of the men from these nine counties that joined the 1st Florida were from just four of these counties: Santa Rosa, Walton, Covington and Coffee. They were not all deserters or dodgers but many were. Some were underage for the draft in 1863, but reached it by 1864, and decided to join the Union rather than the Confederacy. For some of these, their older brothers, who were in the Confederacy or already deserted, followed them to Ft. Barrancas.

This was not an easy decision. If captured by the Confederacy, they were immediately shot or hanged. The decision could threaten their families left behind though some came from communities that were sympathetic (see my post on Oak Grove, Okaloosa Co, FL). The bounty wasn’t immediate, most had to wait until they were mustered out in November 1865 before receiving it all. Weighting all of the above, some made the decision to join the Union and stay until the end and fight when required to.

Is it more honorable to fight for a nation you’ve only known for a short time and don’t have a dog in the hunt or to make a choice that keeps you closer to home and better able to help your family? Which is more courageous? Was it Unionism, battle fatigue, concern for family, concern for their own persons, anger over the draft or some other decision, or a combination. I would guess for many it was a combination because even today, most of us do not make life changing decisions lightly or by just looking at the polar opposite arguments. Why would we expect our ancestors to be any different?

I will be on a panel on October 6th (2:30-3:45 pm) talking about the Civil War in the panhandle at the Gulf South Historical Association’s History and Humanities Conference at the Pensacola Beach Hilton (GSHA 2017 Program). I hope to see some of you there.

Until next time.



1st FL hdcvr

  • The 1st Florida Cavalry Union Volunteers in the Civil War: The Men and Regimental History and What That Tells US About the Area During the War by Sharon D. Marsh
  • No Soap, No Pay, Diarrhea, Dysentery & Desertion: A Composite Diary of the Last 16 months of the Confederacy from 1864 to 1865 edited by Jess Toalson
  • Desertion During the Civil War by Ella Lonn
  • A Higher Duty: Desertion Among Georgia Troops During the Civil War by Mark A. Weitz
  • Divided We Fall: The Confederacy’s Collapse From Within: A State-by-State Account by Calvin Goddard Zon
  • More Damning than Slaughter: Desertion in the Confederate Army by Mark A. Weitz
  • A Rich Man’s War, A Poor Man’s Fight: Desertion of Alabama Troops from the Confederate Army by Bessie Martin
  • Loyalty and Loss: Alabama’s Unionists in the Civil War and Reconstruction by Margaret M. Storey
  • Southern Unionist Pamphlets and the Civil War edited by Jon L. Wakelyn
  • Rich Man’s War: Class, Caste and Confederate Defeat in the Lower Chattahoochee Valley by David Williams
  • The Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader: The “Great Truth” about the “Lost Cause” edited by James W. Loewen and Edward H. Sebesta

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Randal Fulford of Holmes County and his Experience in the 4th Florida Infantry

Randal Fulford of Holmes County was a young man when the Civil War started.  I believe he had been orphaned as a young boy and raised by his mother and stepfather.  He could read and write and did well on his farm and in raising children that were active participants in Holmes County.  His life will be covered in greater detail in my upcoming book on some of my ancestors’ experiences of the War and their lives before and after. I hope some of my efforts to figure out how he came to be in Holmes County to be helpful as you solve your ancestral brick walls and integrate your ancestors into the history of the area.

Randal’s name came to me from my paternal grandmother. She was a wealth of information on both her family and her husband, my grandfather’s, family. As I mentioned in my post on my MARSH line in Holmes County, my grandfather died three years after they were married. Nana, which is what I called her, sat down with me and did her best to share everything she knew. She was my best interviewee; informative and entertaining. I only found about three small errors in her memory. She remembered her great-grandfather’s name as Randal and his mother’s name as Joann or Joanna. She thought he was from Georgia originally and either he or his father had served in some war (they both did, just different wars). She thought his father had died when he was very young and was named Randolph or Randal. She wasn’t sure if Randal had any siblings but she was sure he had lived most of his life in Holmes Co. With that I started my search.

This was before much was online, though I did have access to an excellent genealogy library (Clayton Library) in Houston. I found him after the War but couldn’t find anything before. I began to think he had been born under a rock and raised by wolves. Then I joined My search turned up a Randal FOREHAND in a household with James and Jane FOREHAND. There was a younger girl two years younger than him, then there were three more children where the gap between Rebecca and the next one was three years. I rechecked my notes – Nana seemed sure his last name was FULFORD. I saved it just in case. The 1860 census turned up nothing in Holmes County so I widened my search and found him in Coffee Co, AL as a mail carrier and listing his name as Randal FULFORD. Right age to be the Randal FOREHAND in the 1850 census.  Not long afterwards I found information that James FOREHAND had been a postmaster in Holmes Co. I went back and tried to find James and his wife in the 1860 census. This time his wife was listed as Joanna. In time, I discovered that one of Joanna and James’ son was a witness to Randal and his wife’s marriage, that Joanna lived next door to Randal and his family after the War until she died, and that a descendant of another of Joanna and James’ sons remembered that Randal was related to the Forehands somehow, though he wasn’t sure how. I am still trying to confirm Randal is the son of Randolph FULFORD from Lowndes Co, GA and that his mother was Joanna, who married James FOREHAND. All good things in time.

I turned to try and find any records in the War because it was likely he served. He was just 20 years old in 1861. He joined the 4th Florida Infantry, CSA, Co H on 18 Sept 1861 for a period of 12 months. That means he joined before the draft and he did re-enlist for the duration of the war in 1862. What I don’t know clearly is whether this was because he had strong beliefs in the cause of the Confederacy, he felt more allegiance to the Confederacy versus the U.S. government, he was a young man in need of some adventure, or he thought it was the right thing to do or some mix of all of them. Regardless of what we have been told as Southerners, these decisions were not always cut and dry. Just like today, people can and will come to different decisions with the same basic information. There could be a lot of reasons to support the secession of Southern states, or not to support it, or change your mind during the war; and all occurred during the war on both sides.

The 4th Florida Infantry’s first assignment was in Fernandina (Amelia Island), Florida guarding one of the two railroad terminus of the Florida Railroad, the largest rail system in Florida in 1861. In March 1862, he was detailed to pull up track because the troops were withdrawing to Jacksonville. Three companies of the 4th were left behind to protect citizens as the evacuations proceeded. This withdrawal, like the one from Pensacola, was very difficult on the local residents. Much of Jacksonville was burned by the Confederates as they withdrew to move across the panhandle.

The following month the troops of the 4th Florida were transferred to Mobile, AL where Randal served a short time as part of the Provost Guard while troops were being transferred north. The 4th Florida was soon after transferred to Tennessee under the command of General Braxton Bragg. Randall would not return home until months after the war was over.

Once in Murfreesboro and Nashville, TN, the 4th FL Infantry occupied the area between Lebanon and the Nashville turnpike. In October 1862, Randal was admitted to the hospital in Tullahoma. While his diagnosis isn’t listed, the most likely causes of illness during the war was infectious disease and dietary deficiencies/diarrhea. A few days after being admitted he was assigned on extra duty as a cook. Let’s hope he didn’t have Hepatitis A! He did miss the Battle of Stone’s River while in the hospital, possibly a blessing since the 4th Florida Infantry suffered large losses in the battle.

Between May and August of 1863 the 4th Florida Infantry was in Mississippi in Stovall’s Brigade. Here they engaged the Union forces under Grant a number of times trying to hold the Federals back from cutting the Confederacy in two at the Mississippi River. Food and water for the Confederate troops in Mississippi was scarce and poor quality and again Randal found himself in the hospital, again with no diagnosis listed in his records.

The 4th Florida Infantry and their division returned to Tennessee in August/September 1863. Soon afterwards, Chattanooga was abandoned by the Confederacy, moving south to Rome and Atlanta, GA. General Bragg lost a couple of opportunities to engage with the Federals in this movement south either through poor leadership and communication or in-fighting among his subordinates. On the night of 17 Sept 1863, the temperatures dropped to freezing as the army under Bragg was finalizing his plan to attack the Union at Chickamauga. Fighting started two days later on the 19th. The 4th Florida Infantry was heavily engaged in the battle and it was a Western Theatre victory for the South, something that was somewhat elusive during the war in this area. The Federals withdrew to Chattanooga where the siege that would lead to Lincoln promoting General Grant to head all the Union forces occurred. Grant arrived in Chattanooga and took charge of getting the Federals out of the predicament they were in. It took them two months but they did come out and the Battle of Missionary Ridge ensued. It would be Randal’s last battle.

The 4th Florida was stationed near the top of the ridge but this battle is where the Union forces started climbing the ridge and just kept pushing until they overran the Confederate forces at the top. Their success was a combination of persistence and poor placement of the Confederates on the ridge so that firing down the ridge was extremely difficult.  Randal was wounded in the right hand and taken prisoner on 25 Nov 1863, along with many young men serving in the 4th FL. He was transferred to Rock Island, IL and arrived there in December 1863. He would remain there until 22 Jun 1865 when he finally took the Oath of Allegiance and headed home.  Rock Island became notorious for its reported abuses of prisoners and offers of easier conditions if they would take the Oath of Allegiance. I am positive it wasn’t a vacation resort and many abuses did occur but he thankfully survived because if he hadn’t, I wouldn’t be here.

Five Generations of Descendants
My Dad, his mother, grandmother, great-grandmother and great2-grandmother in Bonifay (Mary Susan on the far right)

He married Mary Susan (or sometimes Susian) Webb, daughter of Williford N. WEBB and Susan MERCER WEBB on 3 Apr 1866 in Bonifay, Holmes Co, Florida. Randal and Mary Susan had ten children: Vicie Leavina, an unknown child, Susan Melinda (my 2nd great-grandmother), Martha, Rilla A., Columbus Alexander (first county agent in Holmes Co and school superintendent in 1912), Randolph Marion, Joseph Thomas, another unknown child, and Ada M. There was a young man in Mary Susan’s household in 1920 by the name of George Ellis that is listed as her “adopted son”. I don’t know if his last name is ELLIS or FULFORD. He hasn’t appeared in any other records and presents a mystery to yet solve.

Randal and Mary Susan homesteaded 60 acres in Holmes County, completing the requirements to obtain ownership in 1890.  According to the 1885 agricultural census for Holmes Co, his farm was diversified with animals, grains, fruit trees and honey bees.  Randal died 12 Jan 1899 in Bonifay, Holmes Co, FL and is buried at East Mt Zion Methodist Church. Mary Susan lived another 35 years as a widow. Mary Susan filed for a Confederate pension from the State of Florida in 1923.  Randall never filed for a pension while he was alive, possibly because he wasn’t poor enough.  Their son, Columbus Alexander, married later in life to a younger woman and had six children, the youngest of which I came to know through the Internet in the 1980s. A wonderful woman who shared pictures and stories and her excitement in life and pride for her family. While no one seems to have a picture of Randal, the pictures of his sons tells me he was likely tall and thin, and handsome. The Confederates didn’t provide any description of him. The Federal records on his time at Rock Island are still being waded through since there is no index, though the online records are here along with prisoner of war records from several other prisons.

I’ve written this on Randal for a number of reasons:

  1. We are coming up on the 154th anniversary of his capture at Missionary Ridge.  Many of our ancestors from the panhandle saw Missionary Ridge as the end of their service and the beginning of being a prisoner.
  2. To encourage others to put a complete history together on their ancestors’ service. I find so many who find someone with the right name in an index and just take that and are happy with it.  Try to get to know them and their experiences.  It makes history so much more interesting.
  3. To share a story of the meanderings that can occur in genealogy before you get to some meaningful historical details.
  4. And most importantly, to honor a man I did not know, and may not have agreed with on his outlook on life, but that I can still respect and love.  He lived in a another era and people really did see many things differently than today.  We can’t change that and should not try to force our views on dead ancestors.  It tortures history and makes it harder to really learn anything about the time, or who we are now and how we got here.  Who we are as people, or as a nation, is the sum total of all experiences; good and bad, past and present; and must be accepted, resolved and learned from or they just cause wounds that fester.  Something we might need to learn/practice as a Nation because shouting invectives, threatening and destroying doesn’t heal anyone’s wounds.  And only seeing one side won’t get you to healing either.

Until next time.


  • The Florida Memory Blog; “Battle of Missionary Ridge: Florida and the Civil War”, posted 25 Nov 2013
  • Library of Congress Photographic Collection
  • By the Noble Daring of Her Sons: The Florida Brigade of the Army of Tennessee, by Jonathan C. Sheppard
  • Civil War Journal and Letters of Washington Ives, 4th Fla C.S.A., by Jim R. Cabaniss
  • The Battles for Chattanooga: The Shipwreck of Their Hopes, by Peter Cozzens
  • Chattanooga: A Death Grip on the Confederacy, by James Lee McDonough
  • Rebels at Rock Island: The Story of a Civil War Prison, by Benton McAdams

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The Little Red (or White or Log) Schoolhouse in Northwest Florida: The Student Experience

Bay County One Room Schoolhouse

This week we will skip forward a bit and leave the system and enter the schools of our ancestors. Many of our grandparents and great-grandparents in Florida attended those famous one-room schoolhouses. Generally, this meant all of the students were in the same room, studying materials for their own level; and the older students helped the teacher with the younger students. Many of us, because we grew up with school for nine months in each of twelve years, think these early schools were similar to what we experienced. They weren’t in many ways.

In the early years, school was voluntary and if you read the previous post you may have noticed that the student was counted if they attended at least 4 months. That generally allowed these little household workers to assist on the farm and still attend school. If you meander through the censuses after 1870, you will notice that the number of months a student attended was recorded. I would suggest picking an ancestor who was a child during the late 19th and early 20th century, finding the censuses they are in and see if they attended in the previous year and how many months they attended. You might notice some or all of the following: 1) Students could generally read before they could write, 2) One or more sons might not attend because they were needed on the farm, 3) Girls did attend relatively early in the development of Florida schools on a par with the boys.

Early in Florida’s schools, textbooks were bought by the student’s parents and often what they could find, so students came with a variety of textbooks.  That had to have been a challenge for the teacher and the students.  Subjects in the late 19th century, at least for the larger schools, included: reading, writing, elementary arithmetic, spelling, geography, U. S. and Florida history, and physiology and hygiene.  In some of the more established and better funded schools there would sometimes be physical and political geography, bookkeeping, English grammar and composition.  By the end of the 19th century there was a push for all schools to include agriculture and manual crafts for boys and cooking and food preservation for girls.  These morphed into Shop and Home Ec by the time I came along.

Textbooks did become standardized and eventually provided by the school system.  See here for a textbook from 1904. The McGuffey series of Readers and Primer were often used as textbooks. These placed a heavy emphasis on articulation and accenting and emphasizing words in reading or reciting out loud (see McGuffey Readers here). I now understand why Mabel Peaden, schoolteacher at Blackman and classmate of my grandmother, was so fond of standing up and reciting poetry and LONG dissertations at church homecomings.

The other big difference between then and now for the students was that public education, available to all, only went through the 8th grade. High school was a late addition to public education in Florida.  In the late 19th and early 20th century, high school was separate and not everyone could attend.  The main ones in the panhandle that I could find references to were: Westville High School, Westville (1891) and Escambia High School, Pensacola (1886).

Early on in Florida’s history, school could take place in a house in the community or another public/private building such as a Masonic building. It appears that school buildings began consistently appearing in the panhandle after 1885. Because traveling great distances would have likely discouraged attendance for 4 months, schools began springing up (and was encouraged) in every township. If there wasn’t enough support for that, children could go live with family or friends that were closer to a school. If you spend time with census records you will occasionally find children who aren’t part of the family but a little research may show them related. There were a number of reasons for farming out children for periods of time, school was likely one of them.

By the end of the 19th century, schools were better attended and would-be teachers had Normal Colleges available for teaching certificates. Schools for black and white students were separate, but I’ve found in my reviews of census records for the panhandle that the black children seem to have been more likely to have attended school in the previous year, than white children, especially in rural areas. Funding for school buildings and maintenance had improved significantly by the 1890s, textbooks were specified and available and teachers received some standard education before certification. Two of these teacher schools available to would-be white teachers from the panhandle were the State Normal College in DeFuniak Springs (1887-1905) and the Florida Normal Institute in Madison in the early 20th century.

At the same time that the State Normal College in DeFuniak Springs was started for white teachers, Florida also began a teachers college in Tallahassee, known as the State Normal College for Colored Students, to train black teachers.  This was a significant step forward, since prior to this, black teachers had little availability of standarized education for the teaching profession.

Schools began to be consolidated in the 1920s and 30s.  Populations had grown and the cost of maintaining schools was becoming more expensive.  The small, community schools gave way to bigger facilities, separation of grades and the addition of 4 more years of compulsory education, though you could still “drop out”.  Subjects became more varied, even while the basics were emphasized.

My great-grandfather was a teacher, William Franklin King attended the State Normal College and graduated in 1892 with his Licentiate of Instruction.  He came back to Oak Grove in what would become Okaloosa County, Florida and taught school at the Oak Grove school until it burned down in 1923.  For a few more years he taught school in the second-floor of the Yellow River Baptist Church until the children from Oak Grove were sent to Blackman to school and a few years later to Escambia Farms.  Grandpa King taught all of his children and a couple of his grandchildren before he “retired”.  The Florida Department of Education tried to send him a small pension check for all of his years of teaching.  He returned it with a note that he hadn’t done anything for the money so he was returning it.  My how things have changed.

These two sets of photos are dear to me.  The first one is the class of 1914 in Oak Grove and includes my grandmother, Alma King, and a number of her younger siblings.  This would have been taken just a few months before she agreed to marry my grandfather and they eloped.  It is the only photo I’ve been able to locate for the school as I’ve been researching the history of Oak Grove.  It is an old newspaper photo so the quality is poor.  Since, according to the Memories of a Schoolhouse article, Mabel Peaden had an original photo, I have to wonder what her family did with the piles of stuff she accumulated before her passing.  The second photo is a few years after the Oak Grove students were sent to Blackman.  It includes several of my grandmother’s youngest siblings and several of my mother’s older sisters (One is missing.  Aunt Marie was so shy I’m betting she found some reason to stay home on this day.) and most of the rest are related in some way.  I am not sure who put the names to the last one (the list of names was in the piles of miscellaneous papers with the Yellow River Baptist Church records and the original photo is in the possession of the granddaughter of my great-aunt, Ovella King, who is in the photo) but all that I know from other photos appears correct.  If you can name any of those where there is a blank, please contact me.

So, we come to the end of our schoolhouse journey.  I hope it was worth the trip.

Until next time!


  • History of the Public School Education in Florida by Thomas Everette Cochran, 1921.
  • From Cabin to Campus: A History of the Okaloosa School System by Nancy M. Kenaston.
  • Pillars of the Republic: Common Schools and American Society, 1780-1860 by Carl F. Kaestle.
  • Florida Memory some of the above photographs are on their site.
  • Fort Walton Beach Playground Daily News, “Memories of a Schoolhouse Still Shine After 2 Generations”, by Bruce Koehler, 24 Feb 1985, page 2B

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The Little Red (or White or Log) Schoolhouse in Northwest Florida: Creating the System

I am a student of history and genealogy but before that I was a lover of education, of pretty much every subject.  And importantly for this blog, a product of the educational system in Florida.  This post will be the first of a two-part series on the effort to establish that educational system in Florida. In this post, I am going to try to outline the process of trying to get a “common school” system in place, first in the territory of Florida and then in the state; hopefully, without putting the reader to sleep or tying my brain into knots.

To start this process of looking at how Florida came to have a common or public school system, it is best to go all the way back to 1822. This was the year Florida became a territory of the United States and the year that every 16th section of each Township was set aside to aid in the maintenance of primary schools. For any of you not clear on what Townships were, I will do a Cliff Notes version. Describing land by the geographic features and trees on property, as was the method in the original thirteen colonies and what would become Texas, Tennessee and West Virginia, quickly became a bit troublesome. If you’ve ever read a deed from one of these states, you know what I mean.  A grid system was set up and used for much of the federal land that came under government control as the nation expanded. This grid system was called the Public Land Survey System. Each Township grid was divided into 36 sections, each one square mile. A more detailed explanation is located here.  Because these lands were for the use of the schools, they are often the location of early school buildings.

The first organized effort to establish an educational system occurred on 22 January 1831 when the Florida Education Society was formed in Tallahassee. They were established to collect and distribute educational information and to attempt to establish a general system of instruction that would be suited to the needs of the territory of Florida. During its existence, this group doesn’t appear to have accomplished a lot, especially in the panhandle. They were recognized in later reports on the schools for increasing the awareness of the importance of an educational system. However, it appears to have been an uphill battle. In a report from 1832, the “apathy and prejudices of the people of Florida” toward education was cited as an ongoing issue.

In January of 1827, the Federal government passed an act giving the governor and the Territorial Legislative Council the power to take possession of the 16th section of each Township mentioned above and lease them by the year and to appropriate the money received from the rental of the property for use by the schools. They were also charged with preserving the lands from intrusion and trespass. The following year the Territorial Legislative Council passed a law allowing those leases.

Beginning in 1828, and going until Florida became a State, there were a series of laws passed tinkering with the school system they hoped to create. While we need to give them an “A” for effort, it appears that these laws were never really executed with any consistency. Governor W. D. Moseley’s speech to the assembly in 1846 indicated poor enforcement against trespassers and the neglected and squandered funds that were received. Just before Florida became a state the educational system could be summarized as follows:

  1. The administration of the schools was in the hands of a Board of Trustees for each Township, the Judges of the County Courts, and the Secretary of the Territory.
  2. The trustees were elected by popular vote.
  3. The trustees cared for and rented out the 16th section lands, appropriated the revenue, established and maintained the schools and did whatever else was needed in relationship to the welfare of the schools. They were also to report annually to the judges of the county on the number of teachers, the numbers of students, and the subjects taught.
  4. The judges of the county served as school superintendents. They were to see that the 16th section lands were cared for, ensure the funds derived from the lands was appropriately used and had general oversight. Their report to the Secretary of the Territory was to address the condition of common school education in their respective counties.
  5. The Secretary of the Territory compiled all of these reports and presented the information to the Legislative Council.
  6. There was no provision for the building or maintenance of schools, the length of the school term, the subjects to be taught, textbooks to be used, or the certification of teachers.
  7. In 1838, a law had been passed to require each county to send one young man to the Dade Institute of Florida to be educated as a schoolmaster.
  8. Income to sustain the schools came from four sources: a) The 16th section lands, b) The net proceeds of escheated (transfer of property title to the state when a person dies without will or legal heirs) property, c) The funds obtained from the national treasury under the surplus revenue act, and d) 10% of all territorial tax and auction duties received to be used for the education of poor, orphaned children.

The children of the wealthier class of territorial residents often went to private academies or institutes. These were mainly primary and secondary combined, but the limited records available would indicate mostly primary. Those that I’m reasonably sure were in the panhandle were: 1) Pensacola Academy, 1831; 2) Marianna Academy, 1833; 3) St. Andrews College, Washington Co, 1838; 4) West Florida Collegiate Institute 1844.

Florida had arrived at statehood, with its first Constitution adopted in March 1845. The state was limited in what it could do with the 16th section lands so in 1847 they asked Congress for permission to sell these lands and invest the proceeds in a permanent fund to support common schools. This was approved in December 1848. In 1849, the first law establishing a school system in the new state was passed. The state would establish common schools that would serve all white children of the State between the ages of 5 and 18. Overhead costs were managed by the Register of the land office, who also was to act as State Superintendent of Schools. The Judges of Probate were still to act as superintendents of schools within their counties, and a local Board of Trustees was to be elected by taxpayers annually within each school district. At the same time, a new act was passed to increase funds for the common schools. Sources of funding included: a) 5% received from the United States for sale of public lands within the State, b) Proceeds of all escheated estates, c) Net proceeds from property found on the coasts or shores, or brought into the State’s ports, that were from wrecks, d) And all other property thereafter granted for the support of common education.

Between 1845 and 1869, the state again went through a series of adjustments to the system, trying to improve it and encourage people to support and send their children for education. The War for Southern Independence (a.k.a. War Between the States or Civil War) put a temporary hold on any progress since the State found itself the location of some consistent conflict between sides, especially in the panhandle. As had occurred during the territorial period, the majority of interest for common school establishment appears to have been outside the panhandle, around St. Augustine and Jacksonville, and also Tallahassee. It is hard to tell from the limited records available whether that is because people were not interested, the men in charge at the local and county levels weren’t doing their jobs adequately, the population who were interested preferred private academies or the records have just been lost to time.

Regardless of the challenges of war time, Florida did make some progress toward public, common schools during the early years of statehood. According to a table in Everette’s book (see below), from 1840 to 1850 the number of academies and other private schools increased from 18 to 138 and the number of public, common schools increased from 51 to 97.

After the war, efforts began to provide education to the children of persons who had been freed from slavery during the war. These efforts were initially conducted primarily by northern benevolent associations such as the African Civilization Society and the Missionary Society of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. They had established around 30 schools by the end of 1865. In January 1865, a law was passed establishing a public education system for these children. The governor was to appoint a superintendent to organize schools and to employ competent teachers. The schools would be supported first by a tuition fee of 50 cents per month from each pupil and a tax of $1 dollar on “all male persons of color between the ages of 21 and 45”.

The State Constitution of 1868 contained an entire article on the structure and provision of education in Florida. It established a Superintendent of Public Instruction; the requirement that the legislature provide a uniform system of common schools and a university, as well as the maintenance of these facilities; specified means of financing; required that the education be free for all children; distribution to the counties of the interest from the education fund based on the number of children in each county between the ages of 4 and 21 years; a requirement that each county raise a sum not less than 1/2 of the amount received from the State for the support of education within the county; and created a Board of Education composed of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, the Attorney General and the Secretary of State.

Starting in the 1870 census, we see the question on whether a children had attended school within the year. We can see a variation of this question for all subsequent censuses. If you spend time studying census records on either side of your ancestor’s entry, you can begin to see literacy increasing over time for those born in Florida.

I know this blog was a bit dry, but I thought it would be helpful to understand the early years before we have some fun with the later 19th and early 20th century schools.  Next time we will look inside some of the schools of the late 19th and early 20th century in the panhandle.  There will be lots of photos and some analysis of education levels over time and subjects taught.

Until next time!


  • History of the Public School Education in Florida by Thomas Everette Cochran, 1921.
  • From Cabin to Campus: A History of the Okaloosa School System by Nancy M. Kenaston.
  • Pillars of the Republic: Common Schools and American Society, 1780-1860 by Carl F. Kaestle.
  • Florida’s 1838 Constitution
  • Florida’s 1868 Constitution

My Books for Sell


Early Northwest Florida Churches

I have to admit that one of the many things I find interesting in history is the efforts to organize churches early in human settlements. Churches served a number of purposes other than the education and nurturing of the soul; they were ways for people that were often scattered, isolated and busy trying to survive to get together, share a meal and exchange information and a way to encourage good behavior when law enforcement was nearly non-existent. And to be honest, I do love visiting old church cemeteries and just being at peace in the quiet of the cemetery. My Mom claims that I’ve trained my car to automatically stop at old cemeteries. Frankly, it is a joint effort of the car and my foot!

Recently, I was meandering through some old, local newspaper articles and stumbled across an article on Yellow River Baptist Church in Okaloosa Co, Florida that cited a book published by the Daughters of the American Revolution on The Pioneer Churches of Florida. Published in 1976, in coordination with the DAR’s local chapters and some local historical groups, it was a short narrative on each county’s oldest known church. I found the book through Abe Books and ordered it. When it arrived, I spent about an hour reading it and particularly dissecting the section on Yellow River Baptist Church.

Before I get to the details on Yellow River Baptist and how that fits with my other efforts to put the history and chronology together for the church and the Oak Grove community, let’s look at the other panhandle counties and their first known churches, at least known by those who were asked in 1976. Also, this would not be a list of the oldest churches in the panhandle. The oldest churches tend to be concentrated where the population settled first. For instance, there are a number of older Baptist churches than some of the later ones listed but they are in counties where there was an even older church, of any denomination, in that county.

Bay Countyformed in 1913 from Calhoun and Washington Counties
St. Andrews Presbyterian Church – organized on 13 September 1886 at the home of Hiram Mapes by the Commission of the Presbytery according to the DAR book. The church’s website confirms that date.

Calhounformed in 1838 from Franklin, Jackson and Washington Counties
According to the Malachee Baptist Association Minutes of 1972 and the DAR book, a Baptist church was organized in Calhoun County in 1873. The church was called Magnolia and the Rev. Otis Walden was pastor. The Florida Memory site has a document online that also indicates the church was organized in 1873.

Escambiaformed in 1821, one of the two original counties
St. Michael’s Roman Catholic Church dates to 1559 when the Spanish arrived at Pensacola Bay on August 14th. The chapel was originally on Santa Rosa Island according to the DAR book. The church’s website confirms that date. The website indicates that the parish was canonically established on 10 May 1781.

Franklinformed in 1832 from Gadsden and Washington Counties
Apalachicola Trinity Episcopal Church was chartered in 1838. The Rev. Fitch W. Taylor from the Diocese of Maryland conducted services there as early as 1835 according to the DAR book. Their website indicates that it was charted in 1836.

Gulfformed in 1925 from Calhoun County
St. John’s Episcopal Church was organized around 1875. In the 1940s an agreement was reached for the Presbyterians (the First Presbyterian Church of Wewahitchka) and Episcopal congregations to share the church according to the DAR book. I was able to find a website that appears to be the right Episcopal Church but it does not provide any historical information.

Holmesformed in 1848 from Jackson and Walton Counties
Sandy Creek Baptist Church was organized around 1844 according to the DAR book. I could not find anything online as to its continued service though the church and cemetery are on Find-A-Grave and the marquis in front of the church appears to be current.

Jacksonformed in 1822 from Escambia County
Campbellton Baptist Church was founded in 1825 according to the DAR book as Bethlehem Missionary Baptist Church. Campbellton Baptist Church is the second oldest Baptist Church in Florida according to my research on Baptist Churches. It is the oldest Baptist church in the panhandle but Pigeon Creek Baptist Church in Callahan, Nassau County is the oldest having been founded in 1821. Jackson County’s oldest church is now known as First Baptist Church of Campbellton.

Libertyformed in 1855 from Gadsden County
Corinth Baptist Church was founded in 1871 according to the DAR book. Florida Memory has documentation of the church’s history online. The church’s website confirms their history.

Okaloosaformed in 1915 from Santa Rosa and Walton Counties
Yellow River Baptist Church was found in June 1840 according to the DAR book. They don’t currently have a website but I’ve seen the founding document in the church’s records so I know this is a fact (See more detail below).

Santa Rosaformed in 1842 from Escambia County
First Methodist Church in Milton was established soon after Protestantism was permitted sometime between 1821 and 1824 according to the DAR book. The DAR book indicates that the church they are referencing actually started in Escambia County because Santa Rosa did not come to be a county until 1842. It appears to indicate that many of the congregation moved to Milton/Bagdad and by 1837 the first buildings were going up in Milton/Bagdad. The website for the First United Methodist Church of Milton doesn’t match this history, indicating establishment around the time of the Civil War. After a bit of searching, I found that the church described in the DAR is actually the Bagdad United Methodist Church, and this history is confirmed by their website.  They indicate their founding in 1830 which fits in the somewhat convoluted history in the DAR book.

Waltonformed in 1824 from Escambia and Jackson Counties
Euchee Valley Presbyterian Church was established on 26 May 1828 according to the DAR book.  However, the historical marker at the church indicates 27 May 1827.  Their Facebook page has some good photos of the church and the cemetery.  This is a beautiful country church with a peaceful cemetery next to it that is worth the meandering walk among the headstones.  According to their historical marker, the cemetery is the resting place of two signers of Florida’s first constitution.

Washingtonformed in 1825 from Jackson and Walton Counties
Only church recorded as early was in Bay County by 1977 according to the DAR book. I found this hard to believe that there were no early churches in Washington County, even though they did lose territory to other counties over the years parts of the remaining county were certainly settled early. So, I did a little online research. According to Dale Cox’s website Explore Southern History, Moss Hill Methodist Church traces its history back to the 1820s.

Northwest Florida’s early churches covers the gamut of denominations; 5 Baptist churches, 2 Methodist churches, 2 Presbyterian churches, 2 Episcopal churches and 1 Catholic church. I would say from reading the book that some of the counties interpreted the defining of the earliest church in the county in a variety of ways but most of these would seem to be accurate based on the settlements in the various areas of the panhandle.

Now to my favorite church subject: Yellow River Baptist Church. (previous posts on the church: here, here, and here)  The book has some good information on the early church location and buildings. The information was submitted by the Historical Society of Okaloosa and Walton Counties but reading the info sure makes me think of Mabel Peaden. Mabel had a wealth of historical detail that she loved to share and she was the Church Clerk for a time and attended the school that was in the area of the original church. Let me just quote the book, “The first services were held in a log building, one mile northwest of the Oak Grove Bridge on the Yellow River. The second building, on the same location, was erected in 1884 and was used until a rectangular two-story, unpainted frame building was erected and dedicated in 1905. We have no record of the fourth building. The fifth and present building (in 1976) was constructed of cement block in 1961.” A little further on they state, “ The first settled pastor was the Reverend George Miller, 1840-1844.”

The fourth building was actually the third building with the top floor removed (see photo at top). That “remodel” is mentioned in the records. There is now a sixth church building (left above). The fifth building (top right) was burned by arsonists in August 1981.

It is difficult to know if the “Oak Grove Bridge” is the bridge that existed in 1976 and built around World War II or the older bridge that was a little south of the existing bridge, but regardless if you use Google Earth and draw a line northwest of the bridge, a mile is located behind the existing church at or near the Old Yellow River Cemetery. This cemetery has not been well cared for and is on property not now owned by the church. The persons owning the property over the years have not always chosen to regard the cemetery as sacred ground. It is sometimes referred to by locals as the “Old Black Cemetery” but my early research indicates not all those with headstones remaining are black, though they may be mixed blood. This may actually be the original church cemetery. The early church had both black and white members. It was common in the early days of America to bury people of color, criminals, those of less than honorable behavior, etc. on the north side of the cemetery property.  That may mean there is more of this cemetery south of these gravestones and among the trees being logged by the current owner.  The cemetery continued to be used for a couple of decades after the church moved.  It is a shame that when the church moved west of its original location, they were not able to protect the cemetery from thoughtless land owners.

Unearthing the Yellow River Baptist Church’s history, one book at a time, one newspaper clipping at a time and one land deed at a time is something I enjoy immensely.  Especially when I can couple that with preserving, transcribing and digitizing the old church records. I suspect my grandfather, John Jesse Barrow, Jr and my great-grandfather William Franklin King, both of whom helped to get the church back to full strength in 1938, are watching over my efforts.

Identifying the churches that were available to your ancestors (where they attended, what denomination it was and what the church believed) provides a deeper understanding of your ancestors, their neighbors and community and how they may have conducted their lives.  It takes genealogy beyond the collection of names to understanding your ancestors in the context of their lives (not what you want them to think or do or be) and the events they lived through. Don’t overlook these records if they are available for your ancestors’ lives. As I move from research to writing a history of the community of Oak Grove, I plan to have a chapter on the church and possibly a booklet on just the church. If all goes well, that will happen near the end of next year.

Until Next Time!


  • The Pioneer Churches of Florida, published for The Daughters of the American Revolution, September 1976
  • Yellow River Baptist Church Membership Records by Sharon D. Marsh, 2016 (all proceeds from the sell of the book goes back to the church).
  • The Twelve Baptist Tribes in the USA: A Historical and Statistical Analysis by Albert W. Wardin, Jr., 2007.
  • A History of Florida Baptists by Edward Earl Joiner, 1972.

My Books for Sell


Hurricanes: Occurrence and Survival for Our Northwest Florida Ancestors

Pensacola after 1906 hurricane

I will assume most of you already know we are into hurricane season. Every year, most of us check our batteries, flashlights and canned goods just in case we have the big red “X” on our backs this year. But have you ever given any thought to how our ancestors anticipated beforehand and coped during and after a hurricane? My ancestors were in the panhandle from about 1821 on, so I figure they got some pretty good experience with preparing for, living through, and recovering from a hurricane. Let’s take a look at the hurricane experiences of Northwest Florida from 1837 to 1949.

Most of us have lived our entire lives with reasonably accurate hurricane forecasting, FEMA and relatively effective local and national responses after a hurricane. Sometimes we know days in advance that the storm is heading our way. If we are inclined toward at least basic preparedness we make a last minute review of supplies and maybe make a trip to the store for something we need. Why bother though? When there will be food and water afterwards thanks to the State or the County or the Feds? One good reason to bother is that may not always be there or can’t get to you quickly. And then you will not be able to care for your family or any neighbors who might need help. There is a reason the airlines always tell parents to put the mask on themselves first, then their children. To put it gently, if you don’t, you become part of the problem, not the solution.

We do know that the panhandle was hit by a number of hurricanes during the very early years of Spanish settlement in Pensacola. In 1559 the new Spanish colony of Pensacola was devastated by a hurricane to the point that the Spanish thought better of settlement by 1561. But records don’t get reliable until after Florida became a territory of the United States in 1821. One of the best sources of information on Florida hurricanes is found in a book by the same name by Jay Barnes. The following table was extracted from the narrative on early hurricanes.

Date Locations Impacted Severity
7 Aug 1837 St Mark’s
30 Aug 1837 Apalachicola Severe
Oct 1837 First hit Mexican coast in the Gulf, turned northern & hit Brownsville & Galveston, veered east and passed over New Orleans & Mobile and north of Pensacola.  Crossed the southeastern states and exited into the Atlantic near Charleston.  Moved north & destroyed the paddle-wheel Home, killing 90 Severe
September 1841 St. Joseph Severe
22 Sept 1842 Pensacola Moderate
5 Oct 1842 Lighthouse at East Pass lost 30 feet of height, Apalachicola, St. Mark’s, Tallahassee Severe
13 Sept 1843 Port Leon on the banks of the St Mark’s River Severe
September 1844 Apalachicola Moderate
23 Aug 1850 Apalachicola Moderate
August 1851 Apalachicola, Tallahassee, St. Mark’s Severe
24 Aug 1852 Pascagoula, Mobile but effects of winds and water were felt in Pensacola.  Pensacola got more than 13 inches of rain from the 23rd to the 26th Severe
9 Oct 1852 east of Apalachicola, St. Mark’s & Newport Moderate
30 Aug 1856 Cape San Blas, near Panama City, Apalachicola, Marianna Severe
11 Aug, 14 Sept & Oct 1860 All three hit Louisiana, Mississippi & Alabama but Pensacola received high winds & rain Moderate
July 1870 Mobile & Pensacola Moderate
3 Oct 1877 Cape San Blas, St. Mark’s Moderate
20-31 Aug 1880 Apalachicola & Pensacola Moderate
9-10 Sept 1882 Pensacola Moderate
21 Jun 1886 Apalachicola, Tallahassee Moderate
 8 Oct 1894 Apalachicola, but every place between Pensacola and Jacksonville received some damage Moderate-Severe
7 July 1896 east of Pensacola Severe
2 Aug 1898 between the Apalachicola and Choctawhatchee Rivers.  St. Andrews Bay reported 18.29 inches of rain during the week of the storm Severe
11-14 Sept 1903 near Apalachicola Category 1
September 27, 1906 near the Alabama & Mississippi border but did severe damage in Pensacola (see photos) Severe
September 4, 1915 Apalachicola Minor
October 18, 1916 Pensacola Category 3
September 28-29, 1917 Pensacola east to Panama City Category 2
Setember 15, 1924 Port St. Joe Category 1
September 18-21, 1926 Crossed the Gulf and had a second landfall along the Alabama/Florida border (see photo) Massive
September 28-30, 1929 near Panama City Moderate
July 31, 1936 Pensacola, Ft. Walton Beach, Valparaiso Category 3

A couple of things jump out at me when looking through the listing. The area around Apalachicola was a difficult place to live in the 19th century, and the area around Pensacola was a good runner-up. In reality, if the storm was very big it covered all of the area between them.  Our ancestors were tough if they settled here early and stuck it out. If hurricanes didn’t get you, the epidemics, Indians or critters might. Until 1870, people were truly on their own when it came to hurricanes. There was no forecasting, little ability to track and monitor (reports from ships might indicate a potential problem but no way to know where it was headed) and no ability to spread the word that bad weather was heading their way. It would be a matter of their experience telling them one morning that the air felt different or was coming from an unusual direction, the wind was gusty, the air smelled saltier, the sky to the south was darkening and clouds were what my grandmother used to call “angry”. If things deteriorated through the day, by mid-afternoon they might decide they needed to take care of a few things around the farm then settle in to ride out whatever was coming. Or if they were busy, they might not realize the impending weather until there was little time left. Regardless, you would gather everyone in the house and hope and pray.

After 1870, when President Grant signed a proclamation giving the Signal Corps responsibility for forecasting and warning of hurricanes, things got a bit better in the larger towns (which weren’t abundant in 1870 in the panhandle) but any of our ancestors who were in the backcountry were still pretty much on their own. By 1900, the forecasting was getting a better and the warnings were improving. While most of the storms that hit the panhandle were relatively less severe than many had been in the 19th century, there were a couple of category 3 storms and one massive storm in September 1906. Pensacola was on the “dirty” side of the 1906 hurricane and took a severe beating. In 1926, the Great Miami Hurricane that devastated south Florida, crossed the peninsular, entered the Gulf and had a second landfall along the Alabama/Florida border. From what I can gather, the storm had thankfully lost some of its strength as it traveled the Gulf waters but still did damage in and around Pensacola.




Honing your senses to read weather patterns would have been a valuable survival skill that most of us have no clue about these days. Since moving to the country, I’ve learned to pay attention to the sky.  But I would not put my current skills up against a hurricane. I have a weather alert system for back-up; though I have to admit when it goes off in the middle of the night, I sometimes want to stomp on it.

The other thing about hurricanes is you can find yourself isolated for a while after they pass. Roads have debris on them, water flooding them or both. That wonderful thing called electricity on-demand is generally not responding. Water may not be safe to drink without boiling it or it might not be available at all. If we think about our ancestors in this regard, we can imagine the following: 1) They came out of their houses, or what was left of them; sized up the damage and got to work. No one was going to come in and give them money to rebuild.  2) They were farmers and preserved foods by canning, salting and root cellar. That was ongoing. Food did not go to waste because you never knew when a disruption would occur. Even if it didn’t look too good, if it was eatable they did something with it to fill the hunger spot. Prepping, as it is called these days, was part of life not an extra activity. But hurricanes could destroy the coming years crops and mean what you had to eat was what you already had put up that didn’t get destroyed.  3) They checked the well and cranked up some water for cleaning and drinking.  4) Cooking was already by fire in the fireplace kitchen so they might be constrained by the wood they had protected from rain and flood before the storm and set some additional logs to dry.  5) They checked on their extended family and neighbors and shared if they could and helped where it was needed.

Someone asked me once why hurricanes don’t scare me. They were from California so I figured I could ask them why they weren’t afraid of earthquakes, but I didn’t. I explained that as bad weather goes, hurricanes and tropical storms get a lot of coverage and the forecasts are pretty good unless you are ignorant of how to understand them. I’ve been through quite a few, the advantage of many decades on the Atlantic or Gulf Coast. Donna in 1960, Cleo in August 1964, Dora in September 1964, Gladys in October 1968, Eloise in September 1975, David in September 1979, Alicia in 1983, Chantal and Jerry in 1989, TS Frances in 1998, TS Allison in 2001, and Ivan in 2004. I think I might have a PhD in hurricane survival though I’ve not been through anything more than a category 3 and a couple of tropical storms with enough water to float a battleship. Still, I’m always pleased when another year passes without one visiting.

Which brings me to the weather we’ve experienced on the Gulf Coast so far this summer. The ground is saturated and the rivers are high.  If we get a hurricane or another tropical storm this year, after or in the middle of all of this rain, we will all need snorkel and fins. So, might I suggest that even if you aren’t one to stock up on batteries, flashlights, lanterns, canned food and bottled water; this might be a good year to do that. Put yourself in your ancestors’ shoes. What can you do right now to be better prepared for any more bad weather this year? If it doesn’t come, that’s great. Nothing you’ve done can’t be carried over to next year or used this year. Put stuff in place now and then get on with life. I was raised to be prepared for an “oops” event.  Less stress.  Which is good because I’m not crazy about shopping for groceries, especially when everyone is acting frantically.

May we all have a quieter rest of the year. Until next time.


  • Florida Hurricanes by Jay Barnes

My Books for Sell

Northwest Florida History & Genealogy: My Current Projects

Drawing of Richmond Barrow homestead

This post will be a little different.  I’m going to talk about my current projects in history and genealogy of the Northwest Florida panhandle and then do some encouraging for readers to take on similar projects.

I posted on my Facebook page a few weeks ago on the recent appearance of the original Yellow River Baptist Church records from 1840 to 1890. These records had disappeared several decades ago and as with most breaks in institutional memory just passed from thought and was assumed lost. Then I found out last year that someone had brought them to Baker Block Museum and they had photocopied and returned the records to this person. That led to the book the Church, the Museum and I published last year on membership records. There were a number of problems with the copies available to me in the project. 1) Some were quite difficult to see when printed because the resolution was not high and they were saved as .jpg files; a format that loses resolution over time when saved. 2) The transcriptionist at the Museum apparently had access to image files that no longer were with the others, so there was no way to put a new set of eyes on the pages to improve the transcription of the minutes. 3) That led to me wondering if all of the pages had been copied or were some missed in the process.  4) The Museum indicated that the pages were badly scrambled so trying to put the pages in sequential order so the minutes made sense was a real challenge in some cases. 5) It was obvious to me that the membership lists had consisted of two pages for each list of names. The left page listed the names and the right-hand page listed dates such as when the person joined the church, was baptized or left the church. Very little notations included death dates and at no time did the church record birth dates. In fact, children were not included as members until they had their own experience of God, reported that and was accepted as members. When these pages were copied no effort was made to link the two pages because no effort was made to document the pages in the order they were in, or note what was on the back of a page, so the files were just a big pile of unsorted images.

I admit I added a request in my prayers that the person who had them would be called to bring them to the Church before they crumbled to dust. Now in my sixth decade I’ve noticed that we don’t always get what we pray for because it isn’t the right thing to happen; regardless of whether we understand why it isn’t. The other thing I’ve noticed about praying for something is it doesn’t always happen when I want it to. I also pray for patience so I find I get lots of opportunities to practice patience but I’ve not just had it given to me; unfortunately for those around me. And then in May of this year, Pastor Nixon called me and announced that a man had appeared at the church after Sunday service and handed over the records. Maybe not a miracle, but certainly a blessing. I hope to be able to address each of the problems listed above and conserve the records so they are with the Church at least to their 200th anniversary in 2040 and images survive for many years after that. Going through these records is just fascinating to me though the minutes are often routine and nothing eventful happened. However, there are tidbits there that give a glimpse of the Church and the community it served and I hope to extract those out as part of my next project.

Any of you who know me, or follow me on Facebook or have read all or most of my blogs, know I’m very interested in the community of Oak Grove in northern Okaloosa Co, FL. Oak Grove was one of the earliest panhandle communities in the territory of Florida settled by Americans.  It was originally referred to as Barrow’s Ferry. On the upper Yellow River just south of the Alabama line, it was never incorporated as a town but was the seed for a lot of the settlement that extended south as Florida became a territory, then a state. If you don’t know where this Oak Grove is located, drive east on Highway 2 from Blackman and turn left on Yellow River Baptist Church Rd just before you get to the river. If coming from Crestview, cross the river and take a right on Yellow River Baptist Church Rd. If you are sensitive to your surroundings you may feel an instant sense of traveling back in time. When you get to the fork in the road, look to your right and you will see where the General Store, run by William F. King, was located. Stay to your right and keep driving until you get to the Church. This was the heart of Oak Grove, figuratively and literally. As late as the 1940s there would have been farms all around you. Now there are pines.

Oak Grove, Okaloosa Co, FL
Center where the old road (now Yellow River Baptist Church Rd) crossed the river. Hwy 2 would be built straight across above where the road dipped.

I’ve decided to turn my interest in all things good, and not so good, about Oak Grove into a One-Place Study with an eventual book and maybe a website that pulls all of the records available together, by links or transcriptions. I am currently trying to locate the school that burned in 1924. A wonderful example of not asking obvious questions of my grandparents, both of whom attended the school.  I believe I have a pretty good idea but no clear documentation. If anyone out there knows where it was or has seen anything clearly locating it, please share with me. I’ve almost completed the extraction of census records for the community from 1830 to 1940, including the 1885 agricultural census for the area. From there I will be doing extractions of land records to put folks on a map to see relationships and connections. School records if available, military service throughout the period and of course the church records will provide additional information.

Which brings me to my final project – the earliest cemeteries in the area. I now know that Stewart Cemetery is the oldest cemetery in Okaloosa County based on known burials. Early families sometimes buried their kin on their property and of course early markers were wooden and lost over time but Stewart does have a known burial from July 1840. The next oldest is Magnolia Cemetery, just across the river with a burial from December 1843. Both of these men were Revolutionary War veterans. Stewart Cemetery was purchased by Yellow River Baptist Church in 1901 from I. [Isaac] H. And Rozilla Harrison. The Harrisons, a black couple who owned a fair amount of property in Oak Grove in the early 20th century, had acquired the cemetery property from Dugal Stewart when he sold it with some surrounding acreage to Rozilla in 1884. That he sold it to Rozilla and not the couple is an interesting point to pursue in time.

Within 15 years, the Church experienced a long period of drought with no ongoing pastor and membership fell off substantially until the late 1930s when efforts were made  (by two of my ancestors) to find a pastor and revitalize the church. Unfortunately, like the problem with the disappearing church records above, institutional memory is easy to lose. I suspect the deed to the cemetery disappeared during this time. Of course, the county knew the church owned the property, as did some of the church members, but with the surrounding land being bought and sold and consolidated even more it become harder for this little church to exert its rights; even though the last purchase in the early 70s clearly noted on the deed that the purchase excluded the 4 acres known as Stewart Graveyard. When I stumbled over reference to the ownership of the cemetery and brought it to the church, they asked me to proceed to re-establish the link between the church and the cemetery. That has been done. A survey has been completed and documentation provided to the land owner with property around the cemetery. Next effort for the church is some work on the grounds and fencing.

Oak Grove, Okaloosa Co, FL
Church and Old Yellow River Cemetery on 1941 aerial map
Oak Grove, Okaloosa Co, FL
Stewart Cemetery on 1941 aerial map

My next effort is some mapping and documentation of burials in Oak Grove’s cemeteries. There are three cemeteries in the area immediately around the Church. Stewart Cemetery is about 1.5 miles northeast of the church. There is an old graveyard directly east of the church that is sometimes referenced as the “Old Black Cemetery” and sometimes as the “Old Yellow River Cemetery”. There aren’t many headstones left (about 19) there and it is on private property, as far as we know. It has been badly abused and needs some TLC. The earliest visible grave there is 1859 (Daniel R. Baggett). It is my guess there are earlier ones but the headstones have been lost. My Mom remembers numerous, wooden headstones at this cemetery when she was a kid.  I believe this cemetery is near where the schoolhouse and the original church was located. It appears from some preliminary research that not all graves are black community members but several of them, both black and white, are recorded as church members in the remaining church records. This may be the earliest church cemetery but that needs a lot more research.

And finally there is the existing church cemetery with the earliest known grave from 1893. Ann Dixon was the wife of A. B. Dixon, one of the early postmasters in the area. They are both buried in the existing church cemetery along with William Coplin and Roseda King. These are the oldest known burials in the current church cemetery though there appears to be areas around these headstones that are graves without headstones and one grave badly damaged with no identifiers visible. The year 1893 for one of the first burials would fit with the purchase of this church property. Documenting all of these graves, the people’s connections to the community and each other, and preserving these resting places is very important to me. I have known ancestors in two of these cemeteries and enough “missing” ancestors from this area that I may have some in the third. It would be great to do a project that identifies grave locations without headstones using ground penetrating radar. It doesn’t hurt to dream! There are resources out there and companies who work with churches and communities to map cemeteries.

After completing all of the above, I hope to work on, and succeed in getting a historical marker for Oak Grove and the church. All of the above should make that easier.

So, you can see while these are different projects they all fit together nicely. I now want to make a suggestion. If you have one or more ancestors that helped settle a small community in the panhandle and are interested in looking at the bigger environment that contained and supported them, consider doing a project such as my One-Place Study on Oak Grove. The northwest panhandle of Florida, especially the northern part, constantly gets the short end of the stick when it comes to information and celebration. There is Pensacola, and the rest just doesn’t exist in written histories of Florida to any great extent.  I don’t take it personally any more, I just have decided to try and do something about it. A whole lot of people in this area love history and genealogy. Let’s put it to work to help others. Let’s begin to get all of our wonderful research together to put our local and family histories out for others to appreciate and learn from in a way that connects the dots and the families.

This month I’m doing two talks on my book on the First Florida Cavalry Union Volunteers.  On 13 July, I will be speaking at the Jay Historical Society meeting at 6:00 pm.  Address is 5287 Commerce St, Jay, FL.  On 23 July, I will be talking at 2:00 pm to the Santa Rosa Historical Society about the First Florida and the role of Milton and Bagdad in the Civil War at the Imogene Theater, 6866 Caroline St in Milton, FL.  I will have both paperback and hard cover books for sale and will be glad to autograph.  If you are a modern reader and have the Kindle app, my book is available from Amazon for their Kindle.

Tomorrow is a national celebration of our American history. Enjoy it. Be safe and responsible. Be with family. And think about the above and what you might be able to do to add to our local history.

Until next time!


  • is a website that provides connection to others working on one place studies.  While many of these studies are in the United Kingdom (they do appreciate genealogy a lot over there!), there are some here in the States and there needs to be many more.
  • University of Florida, George A. Smathers Library Map and Imagery Collection (
  • Florida Memory

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