Oak Grove – the little northwest Florida community that everyone has heard about but few know much about. To begin with there are more than one of them in Florida so be careful when picking up info on Oak Grove. I guess it isn’t surprising there is more than one since we have lots of oaks that were once in large groves. This series of posts will be on the one in what is now northern Okaloosa County, Florida. Today if you drive from east to west on Highway 2 you will be in Oak Grove as you cross the bridge over Yellow River. To your right will be a road off at an angle, called Yellow River Baptist Church Rd. That will take you to what was once the center of the community of Oak Grove. I’ve driven down this road more times than I have lived years so far and I never tire of the feeling that engulfs me as I drive beneath the overhanging tree canopies and moss. I feel home deep in my soul and enveloped in the arms of my ancestors. Once you get up to Yellow River Baptist Church get out of the car, close your eyes and just listen. The wind sings through the pines and oaks with a melody that recalls early days and a simpler way of life. This picture taken in the early 1980s will give you a little bit of the feel of the road. Down this road, many of my maternal ancestors lived, worked, died and were buried.
Since Oak Grove was never a formal town with some form of town governance it is a bit tricky to figure out where Oak Grove was actually located and who considered themselves living in Oak Grove. Though not a town with governance it did at various times have one or more general stores, a post office, a schoolhouse, a grist mill and a cotton gin, a Baptist church (from 1840 on), several cemeteries and a Masonic lodge. If you are familiar with the Public Land Survey System used to survey and lay out land in Florida, the following may be helpful and is based on my own research and talking with folks who were born and raised in Oak Grove. The heart of Oak Grove in the early years was in Township 5N, Range 23W, Sections 8 and 9 with a bit over into the northern portions of Sections 16 and 17. In addition to these sections in Township 5N, Range 23W we need to include Sections 4, 5, 6, 7, and 18. Sections 31, 32, and 33 in Township 6N, Range 23W just below the Alabama line and Sections 1, 12, and 13 in Township 5N and Range 24W. For those who do maps better than Survey Systems that would be an area bordered on the north by the Alabama line, on the east by the Yellow River, on the south by Highway 2 and on the west by Rock Hill Rd with the heart of the community in the area between Stewart Cemetery on the north, the river on the east, Yellow River Baptist Church on the south and Yellow River Baptist Church Rd. on the west. A case could be made to take the western boundary all the way over to what is now Highway 189, at least in the early days, primarily because the people in that area were involved in the community life of Oak Grove. If you have access to Google Map you can subscribe to a little add-on called Earth Point that will allow you to see these Township and Range grids overlaid on a current map of the area. A very useful tool for genealogy nerds! By the way, I don’t have any relationship with them other than using their software add-on.
There are two early mentions of the settlement that would become Oak Grove that I’ve been able to find. The first is in the Territorial Papers of the United States, Vol XXIII which covers the territory of Florida for 1824-1828 (compiled and edited by Clarence Edwin Carter). Here judges are being appointed for the various precincts in the territory. Within the third district, 1st precinct is the following: “at Barrow’s ferry, judges, Jeremiah Seville, Robert McKennon & Jesse Bryant.” The second is from about the same time in a book by John Lee Williams entitled A View of West Florida. Originally published in 1827, the book provides two key contributions to the history of Oak Grove and is overall a very interesting read. On pages 20 and 21 is the following statement on Yellow Water (Yellow River) and what would become Oak Grove” “ The Yellow Water also rises in Alabama. Its course is southeast, till it enters the bay of the same name. It receives from the south-east, near its mouth, Shoal river and Titi creek. About ten miles from its mouth, the Yellow Water is obstructed by extensive rafts, which wholly impede the navigation. There is a very good settlement of industrious farmers on this river, forty miles above the bay. These lands stand the droughts of summer better than any other lands in the country.” In the back of the original book was a number of maps, one of which shows what was termed “Barrow’s Ferry” on the Yellow Water (River).
Barrow’s Ferry (the actual ferry not necessarily the community) was likely started by John Barrow, an American immigrant from south-central Georgia to first Conecuh Co, Alabama, then to the Oak Grove area by 1820. Since he is listed in both the Conecuh Co, AL census for 1820 and in the 1824 Congressional Record being in Escambia Co, FL by 1820, it is possible he was settled in an area that was on the border and was counted on both, though he didn’t move. Based on where his son Richmond owned property, it is likely that John’s property was right on or just south of the Alabama/Florida border. John Barrow died between 1824 and 1826 based on a lawsuit filed against his heirs for a debt he incurred before he died. His wife stayed in Oak Grove after his death as did most of his sons, at least for a time. His son Richmond remained in the area for the remainder of his life and is the ancestor of many people who connect back to Oak Grove, including myself. From this map, it is more than difficult to get an idea about where the ferry was located on the river but it was likely somewhere between where Highway 2 now crosses the river and the approximate latitude of the existing Stewart Cemetery (30° 56.829’N) but most likely very near the existing bridge.
Besides John Barrow, there were a number of other very early settlers in the area. We will get to know some of them as we move through this series of posts but here are some of the surnames that show up in the 1824 Congressional Record, then in one or more of the following; the 1830 Eastern Escambia Co, FL census, the 1830 Walton Co, FL census, the 1840 Walton Co, FL census and in the Yellow River Baptist Church membership records for the 1840s through the 1860s: Hart (Reuben and several of his sons), Baggett, Campbell, Cobb, Evans, McCaskill, Moore, Morrison, Ward and Wilkinson. They were joined early on by the Horne, Stewart, Steele, Clary, Gaskin(s), George, Gartman/Girtman and Turner families.