Fort Gatlin, as the Orlando area was once known, was established at what is now just south of the city limits by the 4th U.S. Artillery under the command of Ltc. Alexander C. W. Fanning on November 9, 1838, during the construction of a series of fortified encampments across Florida during the Second Seminole War. The fort and surrounding area were named for Dr. John S. Gatlin, an Army physician who was killed in Dade's Massacre on December 28, 1835. The site of construction for Fort Gatlin, a defensible position with fresh water between three small lakes, was likely chosen because the location was on a main trail and is less than 250 yards from a nearby Council Oak tree where Native Americans had traditionally met. King Phillip and Coacoochee frequented this area and the tree was alleged to be the place where the previous 1835 ambush that had killed over 100 soldiers had been planned. When the U.S. military abandoned the fort in 1839, the surrounding community was built up by settlers.
Prior to being known by its current name, Orlando was once known as Jernigan. This name originates from the first permanent settlers, Issac and Aaron Jernigan, cattlemen who acquired land two miles northwest of Fort Gatlin along the west end of Lake Holden in July 1843 by the terms of the Armed Occupation Act. Aaron Jernigan became Orange County's first State Representative in 1845 but his pleas for additional military protection went unanswered.
Fort Gatlin was briefly reoccupied by the military for a few weeks during October and November 1849 and subsequently a volunteer militia was left to defend the settlement. A historical marker indicates that by 1850 the Jernigan homestead (or Fort Gatlin in some sources) served as the nucleus of a village named Jernigan. According to an account written years later by his daughter, at that time, about 80 settlers were forced to shelter for about a year in "a stockade that Aaron Jernigan built on the north side of Lake Conway". One of the county's first records, a grand jury's report, mentions a stockade where it states homesteaders were "driven from their homes and forced to huddle together in hasty defences [sic]." Aaron Jernigan led a local volunteer militia during 1852.
A Post Office opened at Jernigan in 1850. Jernigan appears on an 1855 map of Florida and by 1856 the area had become the county seat of Orange County. In 1857, the Post Office was removed from Jernigan, and opened under the name of Orlando at a new location in present-day downtown Orlando. During the American Civil War, the Post Office closed, but reopened in 1866. The move is believed to be sparked, in part, by Aaron Jernigan's fall from grace after he was relieved of his militia command by military officials in 1856. His behavior was so notorious that Secretary of War Jefferson Davis wrote, "It is said they [Jernigan's militia] are more dreadful than the Indians." In 1859, Jernigan and his sons were accused of committing a murder at the town's post office. They were then transported to Ocala, but escaped.
There are at least five stories as to how Orlando got its name. The most common stories are that the name Orlando originated from the tale of a man who died in 1835 during a attack by Native Americans in the area during the Second Seminole War. Several of the stories relay an oral history of the marker for a person named Orlando, and the double entendre, "Here lies Orlando." One variant includes a man named Orlando who was passing by on his way to Tampa with a herd of ox, died, and was buried in a marked grave.
At a meeting in 1857, debate had grown concerning the name of the town. Pioneer William B. Hull recalled how James Speer (a local resident, and prominent figure in the stories behind the naming of Orlando) rose in the heat of the argument and said, "This place is often spoken of as 'Orlando's Grave.' Let's drop the word 'grave' and let the county seat be Orlando."
Through a retelling of history, it is believed that a marker of some sort was indeed found by one of the original pioneers. However, others claim Speer simply used the Orlando Reeves legend to help push his plan for naming the settlement after the Shakespearean character.
Historians agree that there was likely not a soldier named Orlando Reeves. Folklore is that Reeves was acting as a sentinel for a company of soldiers that had set up camp for the night on the banks of Sandy Beach Lake. Several different lakes are mentioned in the various versions, as no soldiers were in what is now downtown during 1835.
The legend grew throughout the early 1900s, particularly with local historian Olive Brumbaugh (or Kena Fries) retelling in various writings and on local radio station WDBO in 1929. Another historian, Eldon H. Gore, promoted the Reeves legend in History of Orlando published in 1949. A memorial beside Lake Eola – originally placed by students of Orlando's Cherokee Junior School in 1939 and updated in 1990 – designates the spot where the city's supposed namesake fell.
There are conflicting legends. One legend has Reeves killed during an extended battle with the Seminoles after being field promoted after his platoon commander fell. However, an in-depth review of military records in the 1970s and 1980s turned up no record of Orlando Reeves ever existing. Some versions attempt to account for Reeves having no military records by using the name of other people named 'Orlando' that exist in some written records – Orlando Acosta; however, not much is known about Acosta or whether he even existed. Another version of the story has Orlando Reed, supposedly an Englishman and mail carrier between Fort Gatlin and Fort Mellon, allegedly killed while camping with his friends near Fort Gatlin.
A second variation also places the story in 1835 during the Second Seminole War. This name is taken from a South Carolinian cattle rancher named Orlando Savage Rees. Rees owned a Volusia County sugar mill and plantation as well as several large estates in Florida and Mississippi. Rees' sugar farms in the area were burned out in the Seminole attacks of 1835 (the year Orlando Reeves supposedly died). Subsequently, Rees led an expedition to recover stolen slaves and cattle. In 1837, Rees also attempted to stop a peace treaty with the Seminoles because it did not reimburse him for the loss of slaves and crops.
It is believed Rees could have left a pine-bough marker with his name next to the trail; later residents misread "Rees" as "Reeves" and also mistook it as a grave maker. In subsequent years, this story has merged with the Orlando Reeves story (which may have originally incorporated part of Dr. Gatlin's story).
On two separate occasions, relatives of Rees claimed their ancestor was the namesake of the city. F.K. Bull of South Carolina (Rees' great-grandson) told an Orlando reporter of a story in 1955; years later, Charles M. Bull Jr. of Orlando (Rees' great-great-grandson) offered local historians similar information. Unlike Orlando Reeves who cannot be traced to any historical record, there is considerable record that Orlando Rees did exist and was in Florida during that time period. For example, in 1832 John James Audubon met with Rees in his large estate at Spring Garden, about 45 minutes away from Orlando.
Orlando (As You Like It)
The final variation has the city named after the protagonist in the Shakespeare play As You Like It.
In 1975, Judge Donald A. Cheney put forth a new version of the story in an Orlando Sentinel article. Cheney (a local historian and then chairman of the county historical commission) recounted a story told to him by his father, Judge John Moses Cheney (a major figure in Orlando's history who arrived in Orlando in 1885).
The elder Cheney recounted that another gentleman at that time, James Speer, proposed the name Orlando after the character in As You Like It. According to Cheney, Speer, "was a gentleman of culture and an admirer of William Shakespeare... Quoting a letter that Speer wrote, "Orlando was a veritable Forest of Arden, the locale of As You Like It." Speer's descendants have also confirmed this version of the naming and the legend has continued to grow.
This account also has some validity in that, as mentioned above, Speer was instrumental in changing the name of the settlement from Jernigan to Orlando, though he may have used the Orlando Reeves legend in lieu of his true intent to use the Shakespearean character. According to yet another version of the story Orlando may have been the name of one of his employees. It should also be noted that one of downtown Orlando's major streets is named Rosalind Avenue; Rosalind is the heroine of As You Like It, but this could also be a simple coincidence.