Yellow Fever in Manatee and the Building of the Church
In 1887 Yellow Fever struck. 1887 had the makings of being a renaissance for the people of Manatee. DeSoto County had just been formed (taking with it a vast amount of the 5,000 square miles that made up Manatee County from 1855-1887) and the county seat was moving back to the Manatee River. The Methodist Church had a new preacher, Reverend J. R. Crowder, and they were starting to build a new church. In summer 1887, Tampa went under a Yellow Fever quarantine which cut off supplies for the church builder. The church elders were rumored to have pushed the builder to break the quarantine and go up to Tampa anyway.
Supposedly, that was the start of Manatee’s 1887 Yellow Fever outbreak. In reality, it probably had little impact. Yes, you need to have an infected person in the area for the disease to spread but it doesn’t spread person to person through respiratory droplets. Rather, it is a mosquito-borne illness that is uncommon in Florida today due, in part, to Mosquito Control. The full extent of the disease and how it spread would not be realized until a couple decades later during the building of the Panama Canal. For those who caught it, symptoms included: fever, chills, backache, neck ache, organ shock, and death.
The Manatee Burying Ground has several victims within it’s borders from the 1887 outbreak and other subsequent outbreaks including: Dr. Enos Johnson, Rev. J. R. Crowder, Harriet Wilson, Arthur Wilson, Gussie Smith Clark, and Capt. John Harllee.
Armed Occupation Act (1842) and Homestead Act (1862)
The Armed Occupation Act was one of the first official attempts by the U. S. government to populate Florida with settlers. Florida during the time was still a territory and the Seminole Tribe was not keen on being pushed further south into the Everglades. This Act, passed in August 1842, gave up to 160 acres of free land if settlers met certain criteria which is as follows: be a U.S. citizen (or intended citizen), settle and cultivate at least five acres in eastern or southern Florida for five years, and be willing to provide militia service if needed. The last criteria allowed the United States to maintain a military force in the territory (Florida became a state in 1845) without having to have soldiers present. This was incredibly important to them as the Seminole Wars (there were three in total) were still ongoing.
In 1862, the Armed Occupation Act was replaced by the Homestead Act. The conditions were similar but it did bar anyone who had taken up arms against the U. S. government from being included. This was incredibly important verbiage during the time as the Civil War (1861-1865) was raging. The five year residency requirement could also be deducted from time served in the U. S. army, a big perk to Union veterans post–Civil War. The other difference was that there was also a small filing fee ($1.25 per acre) and they were not required to join the militia.
For those in Manatee, both acts allowed new settlers to seek new opportunities. To see a map of local land acquired through federal land grants (such as those through these programs), Manatee Village has one hanging on the second floor of the Wiggins Store (two-story brick building).
Escape of Judah P. Benjamin
One of the most common stories in Manatee County’s history involves the escape of Confederate Secretary of State, Judah P. Benjamin. As the American Civil War was wrapping up in 1865, there was a mass exodus of politicians from the Confederate capitol in Richmond. While many were captured, like President Jefferson Davis, some were able to escape with the help of locals throughout the South. Benjamin fell into the latter category. Today, there is much debate about how Benjamin made it to the Bahamas and, it’s evident from local histories across the state, there were many Confederates who wanted to take credit for helping. This is part of the reason why so many of the stories in this packet detail how “so-and-so” helped get Benjamin to Frederick Tresca.
What isn’t widely debated is the following: In May 1865, Benjamin broke away from the escape party of President Davis and headed toward Florida. There he made his way to Brooksville (north of Tampa) where he was met by another party. They took him down to Gamble Plantation north of the Manatee River. Here he connected with Archibald McNeill (caretaker of the plantation at the time and husband to the widow of Henry S. Clark). Benjamin stayed at Gamble for a period before Frederick Tresca and Hiram McLeod spirited him away past the Union Navy to the Bahamas. From there, Benjamin made his way to Britain where he continued his life as a lawyer.
Sara Sota Vigilance Committee
In 1884, Sarasota was a small, somewhat lawless area that was part of a much larger Manatee County (Sarasota broke off in 1921). As the landscape of Florida shifted post-Civil War (1865 onward) an influx of people from the North with differing political and ideological beliefs created tensions with the primarily Democratic Floridians. In April 1884, a group of about twenty men known as the Sara Sota Vigilance Committee was formed to eliminate the political enemies of its members (or “obnoxious people” as they called them).
The first death was of Harrison “Tip” Riley that June. Riley was shot from his horse and left for dead. The coroner called to the scene was a Vigilante and Riley’s murder was unsurprisingly brushed aside with no official investigation ensuing. However, when a Republican postmaster, Charles Abbe, was shot in the middle of town during the day in December, everything changed. This second murder made national news and everything unraveled for the Vigilantes.
Sherriff A. S. “Sandy” Watson (husband of Rebecca Watson) was called in and, with a posse of around 26 men including John Riggin, they rode to Sarasota to investigate. This led to a manhunt for the murderer and conspiracy for murder charges for several others. Some in the community, like Frank C. Jones (husband of Rosa Jones), were members of the group but either turned over evidence for the State’s prosecution or produced an alibi and were not put on trial.
In all, three men were given the death penalty for the murders and several others were sentenced to life in prison with hard labor. By 1892, all those sentenced (including those given the death penalty) were either pardoned or had escaped from prison.