History of Santa Rosa County, A King's County

by M. Luther King. Used with permission.



The ancestry, the genesis, if you please, of Milton is a rather difficult thing trace. Conceived as it was in a rather illegitimate manner; like all other illegitimates its parentage is something of a cloud -unknown to a degree at least.

According to Allen Morris in the 1963-64 edition of The Florida Handbook, there is some uncertainty as to how Milton got its final name. "Some say it is a contraction of an earlier Milltown; others that it was Milton Amos, a pioneer and ancestor of the present Amos family; still others that it was John Milton -- not the English poet but the Civil War governor of Florida."

Milton had existed as a trading post, a trading center for many years before that time and a brisk import-export business was already going on here when "Santa Rosa County was created. Milton's location at the tidewater terminus of -an old Indian and trading trail had given it an early importance in the trade of a large frontier region. During the last Spanish regime in Florida the Spanish had tried to recapture and/or to hold this trade for Pensacola, since it was the seat of government for the Spanish Dons but even then there was a great deal of trading going on through the town here even though some of it might be termed in the parlance of today as "smuggling". The chicanery and intrigues that were participated in by the governing officials of that "Spanish" city of Pensacola and its great licensed trading firm of Panton, Leslie and Company to get and to hold the trade of the region makes pages of history. Even so, a lively and healthy trade went on during those years through Milton, often in those days spoken of as "Scratch Ankle" since many of the surreptious landings made here were at points where the briars came down to the water's edge. It was also referred to as "Hard Scrabble" since often these landings were made at the bluffs on the basins town where indeed it was a hard scrabble to get from the boat on the water to the top of the bluff. (From Senator Jackson Morton's brickyard ,operated on the upstream side of Milton came another name, Mortonia.)

There was, in addition to its location on the crossing of these two trails and their conjunction with tidewater at this point, some other factors contributing to the location of Milton. Its location places it in almost the exact center of one of the finest forested areas of long leaf yellow pine ever found anywhere. So yellow pine and naval stores early became high on the export lists of this tidewater town and the needs of people who work with these woodlands became the commerce flowing the other way.

Geographically Milton had another set of peculiar location factors: it is Iocated near the center of the base of a right angled triangle (the Gulf Coast); the hypotenuse of which is the Coosa-Alabama River Valley and the altitude of which is the Chattahoochee-Apalachicola River Valley. This triangular area is one of short rivers and rather frequent and navigable bays and bayous. This location and the nearness to plentiful timber supply made of Milton a rather important and necessary ship-building and ship-repair center. (This was in the days of "wooden ships and iron men" rather than "iron ships and wooden men.") There were at various times in the history of this little town no less than five shipyards and fully as many sawmills in the immediate vicinity.

In 1840, the Territorial Assembly granted to Milton a charter of incorporation. The boundaries of that town were set forth in that charter thus: "Be it ordained that the metes-and bounds of the corporation, that is to say . . . commencing at the N.E. corner of the Southwest Quarter of Section 34 of Township 2 of Range 28 north and west, thence on a line due west to the east line of Section 33 and along the east line of Section 4 Township 1 Range 28 north and west to a branch known as Higgin Branch where the same crosses the section line dividing Sections 3 and 4 in Township 1 Range 28 west thence down said branch to the Blackwater River and across same to a point I chain distant due East of said River, thence in a northerly direction with the meanderings of said river at a chain distant from the same to the Township line dividing Sections I and 2 in Range 28 north and West thence in a Northwest direction to the point of beginning."

It is interesting to note how important to these "old timers" the Blackwater River was. The citizens were very careful to include a margin of the river bank one chain in width on the east side of the river. Milton was at that time a river town and they would no more have considered stopping their town at the river's edge than would a town of today exclude the highways passing through. Truly speaking, the river was the highway: not only did the goods of commerce move along the river and bay but the people, too, moved along the same waterways. Even in my own memory, I know that most of the goods coming into Milton came by boat and that many of the residents of the rural portions of the county "came to town" on Saturday by boat. In those days of my earliest memories of this county, county officials traveled by boat to transact a lot of county business.

(Picture Missing)
Freight coming into Milton by water was hauled inland during the 1800s by ox-cart, like the one shown above. This view, on the souh side of the present court house square shows the store of J. C. Gainer and Sons.

[We were unable to locate the picture of this ox-cart, however, a similar one at Penton Grocery in Pace can be seen here.]


The twenty-first county, Santa Rosa, was formally founded in 1842 from parts, of Escambia (one of the first of the original two counties) and Walton Counties. It included its present territory as well as one-half of what is now Okaloosa County. Milton became the county seat in 1843. One of the first, if not the very first, official acts of the new town was to make an application for "Port of Entry" for the town of Milton.

The year 1845 was a busy one --Florida became a state of the United States on March 3 of that year, one of the last acts of President John Tyler before he left the office of president on March 4, 1845. He signed a bill admitting Florida, a slave state, and Iowa, a free state, into the Union on the day before he left office.

Honorable W. W. Harrison became the first sheriff of the new county of the new state. He took his office in the wooden building used as a courthouse which stood on the lot where Berryhill School now stands.

We should note here that Florida came very near to being admitted as a state with its northern, western, and southern boundaries as they are, but with its eastern boundaries at the Suwannee River. The bill creating the state as it is now passed by a vote of 123 to 77.

In 1846 Neil McMillan was elected state senator from Santa Rosa County.

Milton and Santa Rosa County endorsed and supported Zachary Taylor for president in 1848.

In 1850 Neil McMillan was again elected state senator and Isiah Cobb was elected sheriff.

Joseph Forsyth was elected state senator in 1852.

"Shades of the Old West!" A vigilante committee was formed in Milton on June 24, 1854. The year 1854 seems to have been another of those "marked" years. Dating back perhaps to the burning of William J. Keyser's store in 1850, there seems to have been generated quite a bit of feeling during a period of several months over the arson, illegal entry, mayhem, and even murders that were becoming too commonplace. Like many another frontier community, there was a demand for some direct action. A meeting was held in the auditorium of the Methodist Church which was, at that time, the only general assembly hall in the town large enough to hold a town meeting. The "Intendent" (a carryover from Spanish government forms) for this meeting was Joseph Mitchell and the secretary was John Chain. We find a notice of this meeting as it appeared in the Pensacola Gazette of July 1, 1854 -being the transcript of the minutes of a mass meeting held in Milton on the evening of the 24th of June, 1854: . .. "A committee of five was appointed by the chairman, to draft suitable resolutions for the considerations of the meeting . . .

"The committee . . . returned with the following preamble and resolutions, which were read and adopted as follows, to wit:

"We, the citizens of Milton, Florida, in primary meeting assembled, feeling that persons and property are rendered insecure from the vicious and depraved; and while the smoke from the incendiary's torch has ascended on high, bearing the sad story that the homes and industry of some of our good citizens have been reduced to ashes, it at the same time, admonishes us to be more watchful and vigilant; ... to investigate all suspicious circumstances in relation to the cause of the sad fire which occurred last night ...

"Resolved second, that a committee of five be appointed by the chairman, whose duties shall be to look up and hunt out all subjects of vagrancy . . .

"Resolved third, that a standing committee of five be appointed by the chairman, which shall be nominative, 'The Committee of Vigilance' whose duty it shall be, to aid and assist the public authorities in hunting out and locking up all violators of the laws of the state, and of the ordinances, rules and regulations of the corporation of the Town of Milton. . . .

"Resolved four: That the Intendent and Board of Wardens of the Town of Milton, be, and they are respectfully requested to create the office of nightwatch for the Town, and to employ a suitable person to fill said office.

"Joseph Mitchell Chairman"

William L. Crigler (lately an alien refugee from Germany -the Baron William L. von Crigler) was next elected as state senator, and James C. McArthur was elected as sheriff. It was during this same year that Benjamin Marshall was franchised to operate a toll wharf for the Town of Milton with the rates set no higher than those in other places.

A "Torrens Rectangular Survey System" (township and range by section) of the lands of the whole state of Florida was begun in 1831-32 but was not considered as nearly complete until 1853. Then in 1855 a United States Land Office was established in Milton.

The survey listed some of the property owners within the town as follows: that area of Milton as we now know it lying east of Canal Street to the river up to Berryhill Street was listed under the ownership of Ben Jernigan; that area north of Berryhill Street from Canal Street to Stewart Street was listed under the ownership of John Hunt; the same corresponding area south of Berryhill Street (that is west of Canal Street) was listed under the ownership of F. A. Ball and George Walker. (Walker was a member of the first Territorial Senate for which he was treasurer in 1843-44). The land in the general area of what we now call "Allen's Dam" was listed under the ownership of Joseph Keyser who had a sawmill at that site. Adjoining the sawmill property were lands claimed by James R. Riley and Ben Jernigan, and the lands directly south of the sawmill were listed under the names of C. W. Stokes and A. G. McArdle.

The lands lying between Milton and Bagdad for the most part were listed in the name of Ben Jernigan, while that same gentleman and Joseph Forsyth were listed as the owners of what we now know as Bagdad (proper).

It was not too strange a thing, for this period, that G. and P. Railway (Georgia and Pensacola Railway) was listed as the largest land owner of the time in this area. Neither is it any stranger that this land was donated by the federal and state governments as an inducement to the railway company to build a railway here, and it is no stranger either that the railway company was never completed. (As time moved along, this railway became the Milton-Ft. Gaines Railway.) Much of the contract work on this railway was let and a large amount of work done. I have seen grades that were completed, even trestles that were built but for some unknown reason the Milton-Ft. Gaines Railway was never completed to Milton.

The year 1848 was likely the greatest "boom" year in all of Milton's history. As we read newspaper accounts of that time it seems rather clear to us now that the people of Milton and Pensacola were fairly certain the railway would be built to Milton. An article in the April 1, 1848 edition of the Pensacola Gazette says, "Milton is the most convenient point for this steamboat navigation from New Orleans . . . ." The article was envisioning the terminus of rail traffic of the Ft. Gaines, Georgia Railway (The G. & P. Railway Co.). The account continued, . . . "it is impossible to calculate the advantages which such cities as Charleston and Savannah on the one hand and New Orleans on the other will derive from this intimate relationship with Milton . . . Those persons in Pensacola who are so desirous of disposing of their real estate in that city in order to invest on Blackwater are acting hastily. Indeed it is the general opinion here that the property will not fall in the good old Spanish city. Pensacola is a healthy city and a very delightful summer residence, and contiguous as she will be to a large business community, doubtless many of our businessmen will seek retirement from the hum and din of a large bustling city (Milton) to a quiet, little one (Pensacola) during the warm season to enjoy the delights of sea bathing and to drink of the water from the pure springs." (Even at that date Pensacola was boasting of its pure water.)

One who travels over the site of the old road bed of that proposed railway and allows himself to dream can but wonder what jugglings of finance and political chicanery caused it to be abandoned when it was so nearly and practically complete. (Maybe "payola" is simply a new name --not a new practice --maybe, too, the answer to this question may be found in the "lost" effects of some of the businessmen and politicians of that day. They were facing political and financial ruin. Who knows the answer?)

A note of the year 1858 is that Milton is becoming a cotton market for the whole area -from as far away as Geneva, Sparta, and Montezuma (now Andalusia) in Alabama, as well as from other places.

The darkening war-clouded years that lay ahead found: John Chain elected to the state senate in 1859 and Isiah Cobb elected as sheriff. In 1861, James M. Amos was elected sheriff, and he was followed in that position by John L. McClellan in 1863. (Mr. McClellan is of the family for whom the postoffice and community in the northeastern part of the county was named.) A. B. Dickson became sheriff in 1865, which was during the post-war period but the area didn't settle down to an "as usual" basis until about 1872.

The fact that many of the substantial citizens of the county, as well as of Milton, were not of the radical type in their thinking, and that there were many independent craftsmen making their livelihood here, plus the fact that there were few slaves in proportion to the white population, made for a somewhat quicker recovery from the evils of the reconstruction period. However, Florida was one of those states which found it hardest to make her political readjustments. (This was in part due, no doubt, to the fact that the Northern Florida counties -Madison, Jefferson, Leon, Gadsden, and Jackson -dominated as they were by slave-owning plantation-type farmers, also tried, and did, dominate the Florida political scene. However by 1868, Milton seemed to be going about business as usual, when it chartered the sidewheeler steamer "Reindeer" for regular trips to New Orleans by way of Pensacola and Warrington. She was listed as a combination passenger and packet-freight steamer of steel sides and bottom.

Politics in Milton seemed to be as "usual" by 1870. This account appeared in the Pensacola-Sentinel on September 10, 1870: "Last Saturday the Republicans of Milton held a meeting to nominate a candidate for legislature. The meeting was called in the interest of A. Holley who expected to be a candidate without opposition as J. W. Butler was absent at the Gainesville (Republican State) convention; but unfortunately for Holley, Butler arrived home the day previous to the meeting and put in his claim, altering the program considerably. At the meeting Holley received only three votes and Butler was chosen as the candidate for Santa Rosa County."

"Sheriff Butler has made the most efficient officer Santa Rosa County has had for a long time and men of all shades speak of him in that county as an officer prompt, energetic, and honest in his official duties."

Then in 1872, judge McClellan was nominated to the assembly by the Democrats. In that same year, Milton and Pensacola were connected for the first time by telegraph.

In 1874, John W. Butler was reelected sheriff for a four year term. It was during this term of his office, in the year 1875, that the wooden courthouse was destroyed by a fire of peculiar and undetermined origin, and with it were destroyed most of the pertinent county records. The destruction of those records in this, one of the older counties of the state, has made the assembling of historical data concerning this whole region more difficult than is usual. It has served time and again to point out the advisability of having records stored in fireproof buildings and vaults. It has also served to point out how destructive unconstrained political strife may be.

In 1877, the new courthouse was dedicated. It was located on northeast corner of what is now courthouse square. A. C. Benbow was the first sheriff to occupy the new building.

One of the incidents told of Milton, connected with the Spanish-American War, (1898) is of sufficient "local color" interest to retell here: It seems that General Leonard B. Wood and his "side kick" Colonel Theodore Roosevelt had organized their "now nearly immortal" regiment of cavalry made up of far western cavalry which they somewhat boastfully named "The Rough Riders." They were accepted for Federal service and mustered in. When they were ordered to war debarkation areas, they left San Antonio, Texas for Tampa, Florida, by train. (Their cavalry mounts were pulled along in horse cars by the same train.)

This train's occupants (troops) gave everybody (brass, railway officials, and especially trackside residents) no end of trouble. At every stop they restocked on bottled alcoholic liquor. They emptied bottle after bottle. They never bothered to open the glass windows to throw out their bottles until glass in windows was the exception rather than the rule. Women, young and old, all nationalities and all colors, were the victims of a lot of indignities, to say the least, at New Orleans, Mobile, and Pensacola--not only in those cities but also in small towns --wherever the mood struck them.

City police had no control, in fact, no one seemed to be able to face them down.

Finally, somewhat in desperation, after they had passed through Gait City, the conductor announced in each car: "The next town is Milton. The men there are proud of their town and their women. They actively resent any, real or implied, insult to either. I, myself, have seen men hanged to the cross arms of the telegraph poles there and then riddled with shot. I have had them take a train from me to search for one man. They would have no qualms about burning your horse cars and contents. Please for your own sake, go through quietly!"

That was one of the best behaved groups of passengers ever to pass through Milton.

One of their number returned here following the war, made his home here, and lived a long useful life. He died here. Before his death, he told me this story.

A Washington dispatch on August 13, 1880 stated, "Population Milton -1,056; Santa Rosa County -6,652."

There was a time when Santa Rosa County claimed 1% of the population of the state; while the state could claim 1% of the population of the nation. The late great population growth of both county and state may substantially change this.

Milton has been and continues to be a rather cosmopolitan community. It has had, and has much less of the influence of the "Deep South" than many of the nearby areas -even in Florida. Many of the early settlers were Europeans or "Yankee" rather than "Plantation South" which accounts for its still-remaining ability to assimilate newcomers from a great variety of points of origin.

This Oak Street Scene shows the home of George Creary which was located in the block now occupied by Mrs. D. R. Read's and Mrs. A. H. Smith's residences. [On the back of this photo is this notation: Oak Street - shortly after 1912. Note wagon tracks and power lines, of Milton's new city power plant]

Gainer's Store on Courthouse Square.


[Above and below] The old Waldorf Hotel located on the corner of Grace (Highway 90) and Elmira, where Johnson and Johnson law offices are now . . The bottom picture is a side view.

Willings Street scene where Licille's Beauty Shop, and the Leader Shoe Sotre are presently located. This shows the stores of Mr. Wiley Williams, Jr. and his brother D. T. Williams.

Site of former Fisher and Hamilton Hardware southeast corner of Willings Street and Highway 90.
[Above and below] 1916 Milton Marci Gras scenes. The car above was driven in 1916 by S. G. Collins with Mrs. Collins also riding in the front. In the rear are Irene, Alto, and Gladys, one of whom is the Mardi Gras Queen.


R. S. Robertson's confectionary store and the Chaffin Bank on North Willings Street where Christian & Frame Jewelers are presently located.
1917 Mardi Gras float of W. G. Collins, standing on Berryhill Street, opposite present homes of Mrs. Eloise Stewart (left) and Mr. and Mrs. Curtis Lynn (right).
The John Collins' home (Pine Street across from former Canal Street School), later belonging to Mrs. Irene Pippin.


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