Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Was Orlando named for a grave?!

The simple answer is "maybe."

But, the origins of the name Orlando have been the cause of a lot of contention in this little corner of heaven.

If you believe this downtown marker by Lake Eola, the city was named for a soldier named Orlando Reeves who was killed in action during the Second Seminole War.

Despite extensive research at the National Archives, Tallahassee, and in Gainesville, though, yours truly has never been able to find any record of a soldier from that era who bore any name even somewhat similar to the one on this marker.

And, the only clash with the Seminoles in these parts took place several miles south of downtown Orlando, at Hatcheelustee (now Disney property).

I did find a plantation owner named Orlando REES who lived at Spring Hill in nearby Volusia County in the years leading up to the Second Seminole War. But, he fled back to his native South Carolina when the fighting started.

Still, the earliest American settlers in these parts claimed to have encountered the word "Orlando" carved on a tree near the shores of Lake Lawsona, just east of Lake Eola. They assumed it marked the resting place of some poor soul by that name, and took to referring to the area around it as "Orlando's grave." In time, this moniker was shortened to simply "Orlando."

Of course, that's just legend, too. I haven't seen any surviving photographs of the carving in question, only the second-hand account by local historian Kena Fries who wrote about how distressed her father (surveyor J.O. Fries) was when the tree was felled.

I believe the carving was made by Mr. Rees in the 1820s or 30s. He was a friend of famous naturalist John J. Audubon, who visited him at Spring Hill and explored the Central Florida wilderness with him. Audubon had adopted a habit learned from Daniel Boone, whereby he periodically carved his name or a symbol in a tree trunk to mark his wanderings and thus make retracing his steps a little easier. It seems entirely likely that the ORLANDO the early settlers spotted in that trunk near Lake Lawsona was such a guidepost, not really a grave marker

Still, the legends are very entertaining . . . which is probably why they seem to last a lot longer than trees and gravemarkers!

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