Before European settlers arrived in 1536, Orlando was sparsely populated by the Creek and other Native American tribes. There are very few archaeological sites in the area today, except for the ruins of Fort Gatlin along the shores of modern-day Lake Gatlin south of downtown Orlando.
Prior to being known by its current name, Orlando was known as Jernigan. This originates from the first permanent settler, Aaron Jernigan, a cattleman who acquired land along Lake Holden by the terms of the Armed Occupation Act of 1842.
City officials and local legend say the name Orlando originated from a soldier named Orlando Reeves who died in 1835 during a supposed attack by Native Americans in the area during the Second Seminole War. 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 (now Lake Eola). There are conflicting legends, however, as an in-depth review of military records in the 1970s and 1980s turned up no record of Orlando Reeves ever existing. The legend grew throughout the early 1900s, particularly with local historian Kena Fries' retelling in various writings and on local radio station WDBO in 1929. A memorial beside Lake Eola – originally placed by students of Orlando's Cherokee Junior School in 1939 – designates the spot where the city's supposed namesake fell.
Local historians have come up with a more credible version of the "Reeves" story. During the Second Seminole War, the U.S. Army established an outpost at Fort Gatlin, a few miles south of the modern downtown, in 1838, but it was quickly abandoned when the war came to an end. Most pioneers did not arrive until after the Third Seminole War in the 1850s. Many early residents made their living by cattle ranching. One such resident was a South Carolinian Orlando Savage Rees. Rees owned several large estates in Florida and Mississippi. 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. Rees most certainly did exist and was in Florida during that time period: in 1832 John James Audubon met with Rees in his large estate at Spring Garden, about 45 minutes away from Orlando. In 1837, Rees also attempted to stop a peace Treaty with the Indians because it did not reimburse him for the loss of slaves and crops. The story goes Rees' sugar farms in the area were burned out in the Seminole attacks in 1835 (the year Orlando Reeves supposedly died). Subsequently, he led an expedition to recover stolen slaves and cattle. It is believed he could have left a pine-bough marker with his name next to the trail, and later residents misread the sign as "Reeves" and thought it was his grave. In the years since the telling of this story, it has merged with the Orlando Reeves story. Some variants attempt to account for Reeves having no military records by using the name of another 'Orlando' that exists in some written records – Orlando Acosta. Not much is known about Acosta and if he even existed.
In 1975, local historian, and then chairman of the county historical commission, Judge Donald A. Cheney put forth a new version of the story in an Orlando Sentinel article. Cheney is the son of Judge John Moses Cheney, a major figure in Orlando's history who arrived in Orlando in 1885. John Cheney knew James Speer – another major figure who proposed the name of Orlando. Cheney's retelling relates how Speer proposed the name Orlando after one of the main characters in the Shakespeare play As You Like It. Speer, "was a gentleman of culture and an admirer of William Shakespeare...According to him, was a veritable Forest of Arden, the locale of As You Like It." One of the main streets in downtown Orlando is named Rosalind Avenue, after Rosalind, the heroine of the play. Speer's descendants have also confirmed this version of the naming and the legend has continued to grow.
What is known for certain is Jernigan became Orlando in 1857. The move is believed to be sparked, in part, by Aaron Jernigan's fall from grace after he was relieved of his military command by military officials in 1856. His behavior was so notorious that Secretary of War Jefferson Davis wrote, "It is said they militia are more dreadful than the Indians." At a meeting in 1857, debate had grown concerning the name of the town. Pioneer William B. Hull recalled how Speer 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 this retelling of history, it is believed that a marker of some sort was indeed found by Jernigan (or one of the other original pioneers); but, others claim Speer simply used the folk legend to help push for the Shakespearian name.
After Mosquito County was divided in 1845, Orlando became the county seat of the new Orange County in 1856. It remained a rural backwater during the Civil War, and suffered greatly during the Union blockade. The Reconstruction Era brought on a population explosion, which led to Orlando's incorporation as a town on July 31, 1875, and as a city in 1885.
The period from 1875 to 1895 is remembered as Orlando's Golden Era, when it became the hub of Florida's citrus industry. But the Great Freeze of 1894–95 forced many owners to give up their independent groves, thus consolidating holdings in the hands of a few "citrus barons" who shifted operations south, primarily around Lake Wales in Polk County.
Notable homesteaders in the area included the Curry family. Through their property in east Orlando flowed the Econlockhatchee River, which travelers crossed by fording. This would be commemorated by the street's name, Curry Ford Road. Also, just south of the airport in the Boggy Creek area was of property homesteaded in the late 19th century by the Ward family. This property is still owned by the Ward family, and can be seen from flights out of MCO southbound immediately on the south side of SR 417.
Orlando, as Florida's largest inland city, became a popular resort during the years between the Spanish-American War and World War I. In the 1920s, Orlando experienced extensive housing development during the Florida Land Boom. Land prices soared. During this period several neighborhoods in downtown were constructed, endowing it with many bungalows. The boom ended when several hurricanes hit Florida in the late 1920s, along with the Great Depression.
During World War II, a number of Army personnel were stationed at the Orlando Army Air Base and nearby Pinecastle Army Air Field. Some of these servicemen stayed in Orlando to settle and raise families. In 1956 the aerospace and defense company Martin Marietta (now Lockheed Martin) established a plant in the city. Orlando AAB and Pinecastle AAF were transferred to the United States Air Force in 1947 when it became a separate service and were re-designated as air force bases (AFB). In 1958, Pinecastle AFB was renamed McCoy Air Force Base after Colonel Michael N. W. McCoy, a former commander of the 320th Bombardment Wing at the installation, killed in the crash of a B-47 Stratojet bomber north of Orlando. In the 1960s, the base subsequently became home to the 306th Bombardment Wing of the Strategic Air Command (SAC), operating B-52 Stratofortress and KC-135 Stratotanker aircraft, in addition to detachment operations by EC-121 and U-2 aircraft.
In 1968, Orlando AFB was transferred to the United States Navy and became Naval Training Center Orlando. In addition to boot camp facilities, NTC Orlando was home of one of two Navy Nuclear Power Schools, and home of the Naval Air Warfare Center Training Systems Division. When McCoy AFB closed in 1975, its runways and territory to its south and east were imparted to the city to become Orlando International Airport, while a small portion to the northwest was transferred to the Navy as McCoy NTC Annex. That closed in 1996, and became housing, though the former McCoy AFB still hosts a Navy Exchange, as well as National Guard and Reserve units for several branches of service. NTC Orlando was closed in 1993 by the Base Realignment and Closure Commission, and converted into the Baldwin Park neighborhood. The Air Warfare Center had moved to Central Florida Regional Park near UCF in 1988.
Perhaps the most critical event for Orlando's economy occurred in 1965 when Walt Disney announced plans to build Walt Disney World. Although Disney had considered the regions of Miami and Tampa for his park, one of the major reasons behind his decision not to locate there was due to hurricanes – Orlando's inland location, although not free from hurricane damage, exposed it to less threat than coastal regions. The vacation resort opened in October 1971, ushering in an explosive population and economic growth for the Orlando metropolitan area, which now encompasses Orange, Seminole, Osceola, and Lake counties. As a result, tourism became the centerpiece of the area's economy. Orlando now has more theme parks and entertainment attractions than anywhere else in the world.
Another major factor in Orlando's growth occurred in 1962, when the new Orlando Jetport, the precursor of the present day Orlando International Airport, was built from a portion of the McCoy Air Force Base. By 1970, four major airlines (Delta Air Lines, National Airlines, Eastern Airlines and Southern Airways) were providing scheduled flights. McCoy Air Force Base officially closed in 1975, and most of it is now part of the airport. The airport still retains the former Air Force Base airport code (MCO).
Today, the historic core of "Old Orlando" resides in Downtown Orlando along Church Street, between Orange Avenue and Garland Avenue. Urban development and the Central Business District of downtown have rapidly shaped the downtown skyline during recent history. The present-day historic district is primarily associated with the neighborhoods around Lake Eola where century old oaks line brick streets. These neighborhoods, known as "Lake Eola Heights" and "Thornton Park," contain some of the oldest homes in Orlando.
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