Like much of North America, pre-Orlando was inhabited by Native American tribes, and primarily the Creek tribe. European settlers arrived in 1536. The land used to be known as Jernigan, based on its first discoverer, Aaron Jernigan, who lived near Lake Holden and raised cattle. Jernigan claimed land based on Florida’s Armed Occupation Act of 1842, which was passed in an effort to grow Florida’s population. Every family head was granted 160 acres (0.6 km²) of unsettled land, meeting general conditions.
The name Orlando supposedly comes from a soldier named Orlando Reeves, who in 1835, died in battle with Native Americans in what is known as the Second Seminole War. Reeves was keeping watch for a group of soldiers on Sandy Beach Lake (Lake Eola). However, local authorities seem sceptical regarding the long-accepted story because of the lack of military records citing Orlando Reeves’ official existence. The story may have been spread due radio broadcasts and local legend repeating a legend. Nevertheless, a memorial to Reeves is still standing beside Lake Eola, where he supposedly died.
Another view is that Orlando Savage Rees was a cattle rancher who owned real estate in Florida and Mississippi and who tried to stop a peace treaty with American Indians because it didn’t reimburse him for the loss of his slaves, crops and cattle. He lost his property in Seminole attacks and led a battle to reclaim them. Rees became “Reeves” because of confusion over a pine-bough marker, which people misread and thought was his grave.
Yet another view states that Orlando was merely based on the Shakespeare play As You Like It, created by an admirer of literature. Further proof would be that there is a street in Downtown Orlando called Rosalind Avenue. The U.S. Army created an outpost at Fort Gatlin for the Seminole wars, which still stands today as one of the rare archaeological sites attesting to Orlando’s origins. Which of these origins is true is anyone’s guess, though a few historians conclude it may well have been a combination of all three.
We do know for certain that Jernigan was the former name and the area became Orlando in 1857 when much of the war was over. Jernigan’s reputation was tarnished because of excessive corruption and he was relieved of command one year earlier. Secretary of War Jefferson David said that Jernigan’s men were “more dreadful than the Indians.” Since the area was often mentioned for “Orlando’s Grave”, pioneers suggested that it be called simply Orlando.
After Mosquito County was divided in 1845, Orlando became the county seat of Orange County by 1856. An isolated river territory during the Civil War, it only suffered more because of the Union’s blockade treatment. However, the Reconstruction Era saw it recover nicely with an explosion in population. It was declared a town by 1875 and a city just ten years later. The Golden Era referred to the years from 1875 and until the end of the nineteen century. Oranges because the hub of the state’s industry, at least until 1895, when a great freeze occurred. This sent many independent growers packing and let ambitious and large-scale “citrus barons” take over, who took orange growing south.
However, within a couple of decades, Orlando would find its place as a tourist city. Florida’s largest inland city benefited by location and even found its tourist industry thriving during the Spanish-American War and World War I. By the 1920s housing development also started to boom and neighbourhoods in the downtown area followed. The Great Depression and some nasty hurricanes halted its growth in the late 1920s and 1930s but at the end of World War II, the city gathered more momentum.
Army personnel stationed at the Orlando Army Base settled down and brought new development and urbanisation to the area. The establishment of Lockheed’s plant (formerly Martin Marietta) also helped to establish Orlando as a city for employment, not to mention its close location to other significant science and defence stations like Patrick Air Force Base, Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, and Kennedy Space Centre. Its close location to Port Canavera, a cruise ship terminal, also boosted its profile.
The post WWII years also saw prosperity and new development, such as Florida Technological University (University of Central Florida) in 1968 and the opening of the Orlando Naval Training Centre. By the halfway point of the twentieth century, the city had a population of over 50,000 residents and was the heart of Central Florida.
It not only benefited from the post-war period but even the Cold War that followed it, as the air base only grew and put millions of dollars into Florida’s economy. In the 1950s, a dramatic shift took place and the population grew by almost 80% of its first population count, as did the millions of tourist, upwards of four million per year.
The invention of the air conditioner was inarguably one reason for Orlando’s boom, as it helped residents and visitors stay cool in the hot summers. Together with the creation of NASA’s headquarters, the city has modern technology to thank for much of its present day success.
However, even those successes are dwarfed by that Snow White-producing capitalist Walt Disney, who in many ways gave Orlando its cultural influence and a huge opportunity with the launch of Walt Disney World. Disney’s interest in Florida farming lands had many people guessing for years, some even speculating that Howard Hughes may have been launching a new endeavour. Little did they suspect Disney was a visionary who saw great potential in Orlando’s weather, attractive lands, and unclaimed property. When the theme park arrived in 1971 (D Day as many jokingly call it) monumental success followed, with a construction boom that included everything from hotels to banks to stores and apartment buildings. Disney World employed 9,000 individuals (then increased to 13,000) and took two years to construct. It received great attention upon its debut, national and international coverage, as well as celebrity visits.
The mouse’s successful launch brought only more theme parks to the area, like Sea World, as well as ambitious expansions to Disney’s own resort, in the Epcot Centre and Animal Kingdom. Disney’s almighty hand even caused surrounding swamplands of Orlando to sell for millions of dollars. It was now the fastest growing city in Florida and one of the most amazing in all the United States. Universal Studios opened in 1990 and only further invited entrepreneurs to take a chance and to receive big pay offs.
One can only imagine how it must have felt to be a local Orlando resident who saw his calm and prosperous backwater town explode into a worldwide Mecca of entertainment. Orlando’s faithful either adored or detested the mouse and all the animated characters that represented Disney’s impact. Nevertheless, Orlando’s miraculous recovery is largely credited to entertainment and technology, and so no one can really hold a grudge for long. Industrial and business technology increased throughout the 1990s and 2000s, eventually affecting the business district, and not only air defence and entertainment. It is now home to many tech-friendly businesses and companies who base their headquarters in the City Beautiful.
The economy was rocked a bit after the September 11th attacks of 2001, not to mention bad hurricanes a few years later. Within ten years however, most of Orlando has recovered. Cypress Gardens closed in 2003 only to become Lego Land several years later. Good real estate is good real estate and nothing goes to waste in Orlando, a city that dreams big and prospers in due time.
A whiff of Old Orlando can still be observed in the historic district of Downtown Orlando, around areas such as Church Street, Avenue and Garland Avenue. Neighbourhoods around Lake Eola still contain many century-old oak trees and a few antique houses that remind tourists and big business tycoons the modest discovery Jernigan, Florida once was.
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