Anyone who knows me, or follows my blogs, knows I have an affinity with the upper Yellow River area known as Oak Grove. For the last couple of years, I’ve been researching the genealogy and history of the area that will eventually culminate in a book. Some of us with family from the area like to make a joke about the tangled family lines that connect us. Pretty much everyone with families who started out and stayed in the area is related to everyone else whose families did the same. After well over a year of research, I am beginning to figure out what to write about and how to organize what I have. In this post, I would like to share with you why I think the history of this area is as important to Florida history buffs as it is to me as a descendant of the earliest settlers of the area.
Since I’ve written about this particular Oak Grove quite a bit over the last few years, I will refer you to these three posts (29Aug16, 12Sept16, 26Sept16) and try not to repeat myself too much. You can also use the search engine at the bottom of my opening blog page and just search for “Oak Grove”. This will give you a few more posts to read. Here I want to talk more about how this little community was instrumental in the early panhandle settlement and development by whites and blacks from America.
The end of the War of 1812 and the 1st Seminole War led to the agreement for Spain to transfer the territory of Florida to the United States (see post 5 Jun 17). It seems clear that a number of families in the south-central part of Georgia around Pulaski County began moving into the Alabama territory before the dust had settled from the War. Some have hypothesized that someone from the area may have served in the War but that hasn’t been confirmed with records yet. John BARROW’s last tax record in Pulaski Co. was in 1818 and Reuben HART appears to have started the journey from Pulaski County sometime around 1816/17. Thomas BAGGETT also appears to have been in Pulaski County, GA for a short period of time with at least one child born there in 1811 and the next being born in the Alabama territory. I’ve recently been told that David GARTMAN and Joab HORNE were also in Pulaski Co, GA prior to moving into the Panhandle. So we may be able to surmise that there may have been one or more wagon trains of families starting from the area of Pulaski County, GA heading to Alabama and eventually into the Panhandle. In reviewing the 1824 Congressional Record of names of men claiming land in the territory of Florida and settled between 1819 and 1824, we find Barrow, Hart and Baggett and a number of others who would become ancestors of known families across a Northern stretch of Florida from the Escambia River east to the current area of Walton County.
The surnames we find in Conecuh Co, AL in 1820 that would eventually be known to those of us who research the northern end of the counties of Santa Rosa, Okaloosa and Walton are: ARD, BAGGETT, BAKER, BARROW, CAMPBELL, COBB, COOK, COTTON, DEVEREAUX, HART, HORN/HORNE, HUGGINS, KENNEDY, McCASKLE/McCASKILL, McCLENDON/McCLENDEN, McKINNON, McLENDON, McLEOD, McMILLAN, SALTER, WARD, WILKINSON and WRIGHT. I doubt this is all that came south after stopping in Alabama, it is just those I am familiar with. And whether all of these men were the progenitors of the families of the same surname in the Panhandle is yet to be determined by me, if ever, but would be nice to know.
John BARROW and Reuben HART were both in the Conecuh County, AL 1820 census and both claimed land in Florida in 1824. Both indicated they had settled on the land between 1820 and 1824. BARROW claimed 14 or 15 acres and HART claimed 12. John BARROW likely settled along the west side of the Yellow River just below the Alabama line and spread south along the river from there. His son Richmond built his house around 1840 just above Horse Creek on what is now Yellow River Church Rd and owned a good bit of the land around that area and John’s son Reuben owned land around where Barrow’s Ferry was located just south of the existing Highway 2 bridge over the river. John BARROW died between 7 July 1824 and November 1826 based on two court records, the first between him and a man named WILLIAMS and the second when Thomas GOFF brought a suit against John BARROW’s heirs. There are still Barrow descendants on some of this property essentially at the two ends of Yellow River Church Road.
Reuben HART likely settled above what is now Blackman around Wes Kelly Road and north over the Alabama line. He also owned property north into Alabama near the community of Pleasant Home, Covington County, AL. Whether he owned all or most of the land in-between is not yet clear. He is in Florida until sometime between 1830 and 1840 when he moves to Alabama, though he and his wife continued to attend Yellow River Baptist Church until they died. However, his son Reuben Jr., and his wife Ellen LAMB HART did remain in Florida and lived in the same area where Reuben likely staked his early claim. Their son Allen continued to live on the property and today some of the land in that area is still owned by descendants of these HARTs.
The other men named above still need research by me to identify when and where they settled but I believe I will find several more who came to Alabama from the south-central part of Georgia at about the same time as Barrow and Hart and settled in the Panhandle across the northern parts of today’s three counties of Santa Rosa, Okaloosa and Walton counties. These families may have known each other, likely traveled together and may have intermarried by the time they arrived in Alabama and Florida.
Why does this matter?
We know American settlers were moving into the area almost immediately after the War of 1812 and the Creek War because the Spanish attempted to do a census of the families who were settling around the upper Escambia River in 1820 but bad weather stopped them before they were finished. Some of the family surnames that would populate the upper stretches of Escambia and Santa Rosa are here in 1820. The other known location of very early settlement in the Panhandle was around Campbellton, Jackson County, FL. This is how much of the Northwest Florida panhandle was settled by Americans from 1818 until after it was officially transferred to the United States in 1822 when serious migration began to populate the area with white settlers from the United States. Folks dropped off the migration trails, or temporarily settled around them, and followed rivers and streams into the Florida territory moving laterally and filling in spaces once the transfer was complete and more families moved into the area.
What would become Oak Grove was one of those very early American settlements, along with its sister community on the east side of the river called Almirante. In its early days, it was referred to as Barrow’s Ferry and is mentioned in an 1827 book as a settlement of industrious farmers on rich soil along the Yellow River. The name “Oak Grove” appears to have been given to the community between 1870 and 1880 based on maps available from the time periods. Some of the families we see in the southern halves of Santa Rosa, Okaloosa and Walton first settled this area along both sides of the Yellow River.
Based on the current status of churches – Yellow River Baptist is the 3rd oldest active Baptist church in the panhandle (the first two are in Jackson County). Yellow River Baptist would actively assist a number of the later Baptist churches in the area in getting organized and active in the development of both the Santa Rosa and Okaloosa Baptist Associations. Oak Grove is home to one, and possibly two, of the oldest known cemeteries in Okaloosa County (Stewart & Old Yellow River Cemeteries) and what was once Almirante is home to a third. This area along the banks of the Yellow River is rich in Florida history and its settlement helps us understand where we’ve come from and how we’ve gotten to today. It is a place that many native Panhandle Floridians can point back to as the start of their long family history in the Sunshine State.
I hope this piques your interest to know more.
Until Next Time
- A View of West Florida by John Lee Williams, 1827.
- Website: Historical Maps of Alabama. You will find the 1810 and 1822 maps here.