Naples Florida History
Most of us may remember Walter Haldeman's name when we think back to the beginning of Naples. But, how about Roger Gordon? Joe Wiggins or the Weeks brothers?
After the Civil War ended, when many Southerners lost everything, Florida was seen as a "land of opportunity." As early as 1868, poor families or single men trekked down the Gulf Coast in oxcarts, mule wagons, or boats, to rebuild their lives. Their aims were the same: to scratch out a living by fishing, hunting, or farming on "free land," where they could claim "squatter's rights." It was a process where you'd build a house, raise crops, show improvements to the land as a squatter, but at the end of three years, file a homestead.
Joe Wiggins drifted down to the area we call "Wiggin's Pass" today in the late 1860s. Roger Gordon came in the 1870s to settle on land off what we call "Gordon Pass." The Weeks brothers made their homes on an ancient shell mound at the north edge of Gordon Pass. They fished for mullet, snook, pompano and redfish. They hunted the waterfowl, turkey, gator, deer, and birds (plume hunters were common until the 1900s). Turtling, where you not only ate the meat, but gathered the hundreds of eggs, was also possible, as well as picking up clams and oysters. The first farmers were usually squatters who tilled the fertile high ground where saltwater would not kill the cabbages, turnips, potatoes, pumpkins, and tomatoes (amongst other garden crops). Pineapples grew well, as did banana trees, mangoes, lemon, orange, lime and others. All of this was delicious and free.
These white men, trying to make a living for their families, were not the only squatters Haldeman and his "Kentucky Syndicate" might have seen in 1885 from their yacht -- numerous blacks and Indian families were also in the area. Small in number, and hidden from view, they never called attention to themselves. Seminole Indians can be seen as "squatters" on public or private land because they came into Florida during and after the War of Indian Removal (1835-1844) when the federal government said all Indians must move west of the Mississippi River. Where better to hide than the Everglades, the eastern edge of Naples? It is estimated that 200 Indians came into the Big Cypress area. They all took advantage of what the land had to offer their families.
In the early 1880s, Hamilton Disston of Philadelphia, PA bought the rights to 12 million acres, from Orlando to Miami. He agreed to drain the wetlands, to make them habitable, and started marketing not-yet-drained "farmland" throughout the world. When the Naples Town Improvement Company was formed by Haldeman, Williams, and others in 1886 with land purchased from the Florida Land Improvement Company (Disston's Company), one could imagine how the squatters felt. Squatters could have purchased their land at the end of several years' work, but they believed they should be able to use their "squatter's rights" until they got the homestead. All this land, however, was designated as "swamp and overflowed" so the title to the land was the state's (and, definitely so after Disston's land plans crashed). For those companies who purchased their property from the state, the matter was clear: the land was theirs. The Naples Company wanted the squatters off their land - it was not their homestead because they had never filed for title. Squatters could have purchased the land for a dollar an acre. They had protested before, when Disston got "their land." In 1889, militant squatters protested loudly when the Naples Company edged them off - they were rich homeowners, not year round residents! They had built a house, raised a crop, and were in the process of securing their land - they were okay... NO WAY! But, many individuals did "settle" when the Naples group offered them money to move on. Everyone won… no court costs, now lawyers, a settlement, and the land was clear for Naples to grow. Others, pushed, bought their land and remained.
Onward, into the 1900s - and the squatters were not forgotten: Gordon River and Wiggins Pass remain as names on the map today. And, where does that leave the Seminole Indians (the reader may ask)? They were not bothered. They were quiet, hidden, small in number, and left alone by state officials, the land company, and later by Mr. Barron Collier. Reservations happened much later in the state - but that is another story. (End part 2, 346 words)
By: Nancy K. Webster
Docent for the Naples Historical Society
This is the first of several historic stories from the Naples Historical Society. Take a step back in time, and see what it was like for the squatters and early settlers...tour Palm CottageTM, the oldest house in Naples!
Located at 137 12th Avenue South, one block east of the Naples Pier
The Palm Cottage house museum is open for tours.
Florida's Last Frontier: The History of Collier County
By Charlton W. Tebeau
The Founding of Naples
By Ron Jamro & Gerald L. Lanterman
By Lynne H. Frazer
Conversations with David Southall, Collier County Museum
Call the Naples Historical Society for more information: 239-261-8164.