The region of Central Florida that is now known as Lake County has been inhabited for thousands of years. For the same reasons that still bring people to this area, namely mild weather, excellent growing conditions, and an abundance of fish and game, the Timucuan Indians called this region home.
Evidence of their presence is throughout Lake County. In fact, there are more than 1,000 identified archeological sites in Lake County, as recognized by the state.
In 1562 a French Huguenot colony was established at the present site of Astor on the St. Johns River. The entire colony was wiped out by the Spanish in 1566.
During the late 1560s, the Spanish established a system of missions throughout the Lake County area with the goal of converting the Indians to Catholicism. What they accomplished instead was to massacre uncooperative villages and spread European diseases to the rest.
By 1763 when James Spalding established a trading post at Astor, there were few Indians left in the area.
British Royal botanist, William Bartram came to the area to study the “flora and fauna.” He made the first sighting of a royal palm tree in North America in Lake County in 1774.
During the Revolutionary War all of Florida belonged to the British and residents were loyal to that country. A few white hunters and traders lived in Lake County, along with runaway slaves and Freedmen who found hiding in the scrub to be very effective means of evading the Slave Hunters.
In 1782, Spain re-occupied Florida and began awarding large tracts of land to reward favors. In 1819, Moses Levy received such a land grant from the Spanish. He established a plantation along the St. Johns River in Lake County, which was to be a settlement for oppressed European Jews. He was the father of David Levy, who later changed his name to “Yulee.” Mr. Yulee was Florida’s first senator after it acquired its statehood. During the first Seminole Indian War, the Seminole Indians burned the plantation to the ground.
Forts were built throughout Lake County, known then as Mosquito County, to defend the settlers against the Seminole Indians. In 1823, at the Treaty of Moultie Creek, the Seminoles were ordered to live in a reservation, most of which was in Lake County.
At the close of the Seminole War in 1842, Congress passed the Armed Occupation Act. It offered 160 acres to any man, who would bear arms to protect the area against potential renewed hostilities, if he would build a habitable dwelling, live on the property for five years and cultivate at least five acres of his homestead. Many men accepted the challenge and joined the blacks already engaged in farming here.
Towns grew and vanished. Other towns took their places. When the Civil War started in 1861, there were several large plantations and many small farms in Lake County. Florida became one of the states to secede from the Union. The Statute of April 1862 forced most white males between the ages of 18 and 35 into involuntary service to the Confederacy. By September of that year the age limit was increased to 45 and soon 17-year-old young men were conscripted. This left only women and their slaves to run the plantations and farms. Even at that, Lake County was able to provide beef and other provisions to the army. The people left at home simply “went without.”
By the end of the Civil War in 1865, another homesteading act was in place, again offering 160 acres of land to settlers who would live on the land for five years and improve it. Soldiers, both Rebel and Yankee, were eager to get on with their lives. The attractive Homesteading Act offered a fresh start and many men took advantage of the opportunity and came to Lake County to make their homes.
In July 1887, Lake County became a county. It was carved from Orange and Sumter counties.
The courthouse, known as the Pioneer Building was dedicated in 1889.
Contracts were let for the construction of the first hard surface roads in Lake County in 1915. Prior to that, most transportation was on the waterways with special hybrid steam/paddlewheel boats. An elaborate system of railroads was also developed.
A militia group was established during the Spanish-American War. It was called the ‘Leesburg Rifles” and were ready to bravely defend our country.
Many young Lake County men enlisted in the Armed Services of this and other countries during the First World War. Others stayed at home and served in the Home Guard.
World War II took many Lake County men to war. Again, a Home Guard was established which combed the evening skies for enemy planes. The civilian effort was strong in support of the war. Lake County was famous for the number of war bonds sold here and scrap metal collected. In fact, the first war bond sold in the United States was sold in Leesburg.
Lake County was the site of a Prisoner of War camp during the Second World War, as well.
Early industry consisted of reliance on the land: farming, citrus growing, lumber, turpentine, etc. All of this to some degree or another relied on the weather and time and time again big freezes killed not only crops and citrus, but also hopes and dreams. Back-to-back freezes in 1894 and 1895 devastated large and small farms alike. Some farmers replanted and others settled here, making their living at farming. Lake County was known worldwide for its record crops of peaches, tomatoes, watermelon, ferns, and, of course, citrus.
Other industries moved into Lake County and the economy grew.
Lake County’s history is rich and diverse. It sparkles with the ingenuity of its people. Colorful stories abound. Today, as in the past, Lake County is a pleasant place to live and work.
Historically, the official Lake County seal, which is used by the Clerk and registered with the state, has been used as the “logo” for the County. There have been at least three different versions of the seal.
In 1987, Harry Nies, then with the Clerk’s office, designed a logo for the festivities surrounding the Lake County Centennial Celebration.
During the Oct. 6, 1987, Lake County Board of County Commissioners meeting, Mr. James C. Watkins, Clerk of the Court, suggested that the Board, as a tribute to the County’s Centennial, adopt the modified Centennial logo as the County seal. (The modification was made to the band surrounding the circle. It now reads: “Lake County, Florida Board of County Commissioners”. The ribbon at the bottom was eliminated.)
On a motion by Commissioner Smoak, seconded by Commissioner Carson and carried unanimously, the Board approved and adopted the logo as the new Lake County Seal.
It was noted that a resolution, would be filed with the Department of State by the County Attorney’s Office regarding the seal.
Therefore, it appears that the County logo is also the County seal.
The Spanish arrived in Florida in 1513, bringing black slaves with them.
In 1542, Spain outlawed slavery, thus freeing all of their slaves. Most remained in Florida and continued to work for their Spanish neighbors. Spaniards continued to offer freedom and land to runaway slaves in exchange for military service.
As plantations grew in the South, slaves escaped to the freedom that Spanish Florida afforded them. They often traveled to the areas around the rivers and lakes (such as the Lake County area) to establish farms and villages.
In 1687, the first group of fugitive slaves arrived in St. Augustine from Charleston, S.C. Most of this group came from the same part of Africa, “The Rice Coast.” They mostly stayed together as a group and were thus able to preserve some of their culture and “Gullah” language.
Since they were legally free in Spanish Florida, they worked at a variety of jobs, some owning their own businesses. However, when Spain ceded Florida to Great Britain in 1763 in exchange for Cuba, most of the Black colonists were evacuated to Havana.
Plantation runaways continued to find safety in the center of Florida. Many willingly served as slaves (rather, more like indentured servants) to the Seminoles for the protection they afforded.
By 1783, all of Florida had been returned to Spanish rule and once again the slaves in Spanish Florida were free. Slaves escaped from the harsh Charleston plantations along with others from Georgia, the Carolinas and Alabama.
In 1838, the Spanish militarized Blacks established Ft. Mose, the first free recognized black settlement in North America.