Were Destin pioneers homesteaders or squatters? Local historian Hank Klein explains

Matt Algarin
Special to The Log
Emma Marler Destin, wife of George, with their first four children, circa 1895: Gaines, Ada, Ida (lap), and George Jr. George is the son of city founder Leonard Destin.

While it may be hard to imagine now, prized real estate in Destin once sold for an astonishing $50 an acre.

During a presentation Tuesday night at the Destin Library, local historian Hank Klein posed the question, "Were Destin's Pioneer Settlers Homesteaders or Squatters?"

"The earliest settlers of Moreno Point were probably squatters," he said.

Taking the crowd of about 50 on a journey through Destin's history, Klein began his tale in 1840, when the city’s namesake Leonard Destin first arrived in the then Moreno Point. The area was named after Francisco Moreno, who was an early settler in Pensacola.

Based on records, Klein said it’s well-known that Leonard Destin built his home in 1852, which is 10 years after the federal government purchased a wide swath of Northwest Florida land for military purposes and harbor defenses after the War of 1812 saw the White House set ablaze.

Although the military owned the land, it was never occupied by troops or used as a fort.

The first land survey of the Moreno Point Military Reservation in July of 1847, according to Klein, showed that there was a single home. More than likely, this was a cabin that Leonard built before his actual home was constructed five years later.

With the turn of the century approaching, Congress authorized the Department of War to lease surplus government land, which gave those living in Moreno Point the ability to purchase the land they had been living on.

Between 1892 and 1919, Klein said a total of 893 leases were granted across the nation. In 1909 alone, 47 leases were granted in Moreno Point, with lots ranging in price from $3 a year to $25 a year.

Records show that Leonard Destin owned two lots and paid a total of $17 annually. These leases were renewed every five years, Klein told the crowd. He said the last known land lease, which is on display at the Destin History and Fishing Museum, was granted in 1919.

By the late 1920s, Moreno Point was considered excess property and was available to be sold. Although the land was up for sale, the process was burdensome, Klein said, as it took more than 10 years for some people to secure the land they called home.

After the early settlers purchased their land, businessman J.R. Moody purchased the remaining 38,226.22 acres of land in Moreno Point, which he eventually sold, but retained the rights to draw turpentine and sell the trees for timber.

"He really wasn't interested in the land at all," Klein said.

Looking back, Klein noted that Tyler Calhoun became the first land developer in Destin after purchasing more than 500 acres of interior land for $5,000. In a separate deal, Moody sold the land from modern day Benning Drive to the Walton County line, a third of a mile wide, along the beach for $25,000.

Moody sold the last 4,276.09 acres to Coleman and Mattie Kelly for $15,000 as part of a business partnership.

As he walked through the history of Moreno Point and Destin, Klein made sure to touch on the struggles the city's pioneers and early settlers faced.

"The Destin pioneers took quite a chance as squatters; they built homes, fishing camps and businesses — all on faith," he said.

But to answer his initial question as to whether or not they were homesteaders or squatters, Klein described it simply.

"I hope you will agree with me that they were neither," he said. "It took them a very long time to get their land, but in the end it was worth it."


Hank Klein will chronicle the history of The Walton Guards and Captain William McPherson Wednesday, Jan. 29 at 10 a.m. at the Coastal Branch Library of Walton County at 437 Greenway Trail in Santa Rosa Beach. Call for Reservations at 850-267-2809.