History is full of “what-ifs,” and Suwannee County is no different. The whole course of our County’s history, including its population size and demographics, land use and urbanization, and education (all for better or for worse), could have been drastically different due to one decision nearly two hundred years ago. Today, we look at this big “what-if” for Suwannee County.
When Florida became a territory in 1821, it was divided into two counties, with the Suwannee River being the dividing line. Not only were there two counties, but there were also two territorial capitals, Pensacola for West Florida and St. Augustine for East Florida. The Territorial Legislature would hold session at one city for six months of the year, then hold session at the other city for the remaining six months. However, the round-trip between the two capitals took 20 days over incomplete non-linking roads, and there was always the threat of Native American attacks along the way. The “safer” route was to go by sea around the Florida Keys, but even that was fraught with danger from weather, uncharted reefs and poor seamanship. Early on, the Legislature decided that holding session in two different places was not very practical, and attempts were begun to find one central location for the State capital. In 1824, Governor William DuVal approved the recommendation of special commissioners to establish a capital at the old deserted fields of Tallahassee, an Indian name meaning “old town” or “old fields.” The location had been the site of an Apalachee village destroyed nearly 125 years before by the English and their Native American allies, and more recently, of a Seminole village destroyed by General Andrew Jackson during the First Seminole War (1818). The Territorial Legislature was to meet at the new site for their next session, and a small rough log building was soon constructed as the first Territorial Capitol.
However, not everyone was satisfied with the location of Tallahassee as the capital. In 1835, the Territorial Legislature (Florida would not become a state until 1845) passed “An Act to fix permanently the Seat of Government of the Territory of Florida.” The act authorized the governor to appoint three commissioners “who shall forthwith proceed to select the most elegible (sic) spot on the Suwannee river, for the permanent location of the seat of government of the Territory of Florida, and having done so, said commissioners shall make their report thereof to the Governor, and if the place so selected shall be approved of by the Governor, it shall be his duty to take all necessary steps to cause suitable arrangements to be made for holding the next session of the Legislative Council at said place.” It was added in the act that if arrangements for an appropriate site on the Suwannee River were not made by the first Monday of the next October, the governor would convene the Council at Tallahassee, which “shall become the seat of government until such arrangements shall be perfected.”
Probably due to one of the periodic floods along the Suwannee River (which would have affected the Santa Fe and Ichetucknee Rivers as well), the commissioners apparently never found that suitable site for the new Territorial capital along the Suwannee River. Despite the Suwannee River area being more centrally located, the Territorial Council continued to meet at the abandoned Indian village of Tallahassee. The area that is now Suwannee County slowly grew as settlers moved in for purposes other than State government functions.
Suwannee County citizens were still trying to move the state capital as late as 1915, when the Suwannee Herald, a long-defunct Branford newspaper, ran an article at the end of the year expressing “the belief that Branford will be the capital of Florida within ten years, and the Metropolis of the south.” The editor of the Suwannee Democrat added to the Branford optimist’s sentiments, stating that Live Oak “will be content to have the capital at Branford, just so it comes to Suwannee County, where it belongs.” However, nothing became of this proposal.
In the 1970s, there were serious discussions to move the state capital to a more central (population-wise) location such as Orlando, but the construction of a new 22-story Capitol (completed in 1978) in Tallahassee ended this talk. And thus, Tallahassee remains the capital city with all the hustle and bustle of a metropolitan area, while Suwannee County remains a quieter rural area surrounded by nature…
More history next week!
Eric Musgrove can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 386-362-0564.