Who were the earliest settlers at Destin?

H.C. Klein | special to The Log
This is an early map of what would become Destin. [CONTRIBUTED PHOTO]

It has always been difficult to know exactly who the earliest settlers were in the area known today as Destin. That’s because from 1842 until 1930 the area was owned by the War Department as Moreno Point Military Reservation. Those living on the military reservation in the earliest years were just squatters and did not own the land. So who lived there and exactly where they lived has always been difficult to accurately determine. Our History Mystery this month explores who the known settlers were in 1847, 1864 and 1909.

In July 1847, surveyors came to Moreno Point to survey the land given by the United States government to the War Department known as Moreno Point Military Reservation. In the original survey, there is a mention of “a house.” So we know that one house already existed in the area and we believe the family that lived in that house was the McCullom family. They had migrated from Newbury District, South Carolina. They are shown in the 1840 Federal Census living in Newbury District (now known as Newberry County, South Carolina). They were farmers and owned six slaves.

John and Rebecca McCullom sold their land and their slaves in South Carolina and migrated through Georgia and Alabama to Florida. In the 1850 Federal Census, we find them living at Moreno Point. John and Rebecca’s oldest daughter, Martha, married Leonard Destin on May 25, 1851, in nearby Walton County.

Because the land was owned by the War Department, there are no property records to prove land ownership. But in 1864 the Union Army at Pensacola drew maps of the area from Pensacola to Vernon, Florida, showing landmarks and where families lived.

The area at Moreno Point on the map clearly shows five families and the location of their homes. The families living there were the Lennin, McCullom, Lewis, Anderson, and Lewis families. Lennin was the Leonard Destin family. His in-laws, the McCullom family lived next door. Martha (McCullom) Destin’s two sisters, Nancy and Harriet, married the two Lewis boys that lived in the area and they served in the Walton Guards during the Civil War. Sanders was actually William Anderson, a fisherman from Pensacola, who probably worked for Leonard Destin.

By 1909, it becomes clear that Leonard Destin had established a very successful fishing village. While he had died in 1884 and his wife, Martha, had died in 1896, his sons carried on his legacy and other families had come to fish the wonderful waters around East Pass. Some were permanent settlers while others lived a Fish Camp existence. They came while the fish were running in the spring and summer. Then they went back home to their families in the off-season.

In 1909, the War Department first began leasing the land to the squatters who were both local permanent residents and temporary fisherman. First, they resurveyed the waterfront land on both the Gulf and Bay from today’s Benning Drive to the Marler Bridge. They divided the land into 22 lots based where the permanent residents were living and where the fish camps were located.

Then on Sept. 1, 1909, the War Department entered into 17 leases on 21 lots. Those living and working at Moreno Point Military Reservation were no longer squatters but official government lessees. These leases give us an insight to just how few families actually lived at Moreno Point in 1909, exactly where they lived, what their names were, and how much they paid for their lease.

As you look over the names of those granted lessees you will notice a lot of Destin, Marler, and Woodward names. These were the permanent residents of the small fishing village. William T. Marler began fishing for Leonard Destin in 1879, but he still lived at Boggy (Niceville) as he is shown in the 1880 Federal Census as living with his parents at Boggy. But after the death of his father in 1884, he convinced one by one, his mother and his brothers and sisters to move to East Pass and take up fishing for a living.

The Woodward families were the sons of Leonard and Martha Destin’s oldest daughter, Jane. Jane married Fred Woodward in 1875. Fred was from Hallowell, Maine. The Woodward sons took up fishing at Destin and their relatives still live in the Destin area today as do the Marlers and, of course, the Destins.

The names of Bedsole, Williams, Sweeney, Cummings, Morris, and Parish were part-time fishermen who came to fish during the spring and summer fishing season and then returned to their homes. The Williams boys came from St. Andrew as did Charles Sweeney. Charles Sweeney eventually married the author’s father-in-law’s aunt, Fannie R. Marler, and they settled in the Panama City area. D. H. Parish was from Boggy (Niceville). E. D. Bedsole, J, E, Cummings, and J. D. Morris probably came from Point Washington or Pensacola. For these fishermen, the small fishing village was pretty much a Fish Camp existence with lots of fishermen living in dormitory-type living quarters and working as fishing crews for the Destin or Marler captains.

It wasn’t until the 1930s when the War Department sold the land that “outsiders” started coming to Destin. The pioneer settlers, who fished for a living, bought the land they had leased from the War Department since 1909. But there was more land for the War Department to sell. A road from the mainland and a bridge to Santa Rosa Island was being built in the mid-1930s. Once there was a bridge build and a road connecting Destin to the mainland, outsiders who were retirees, or businessmen and who owned cars instead of boats, eventually bought land and what had been fishing camps developed into a small city.

H. C. “Hank” Klein is a Destin historian, author, and speaker. He visits often and lives in North Little Rock, Arkansas with his wife (the former Muriel Marler of Destin). Klein recently published two Destin history books - DESTIN’S Founding Father…The Untold Story of Leonard Destin and DESTIN Pioneer Settlers...A Land History of Destin, Florida from 1819-1940. Both can be obtained from Amazon.com, The Destin History & Fishing Museum, in Destin, The Indian Temple Mound in Fort Walton Beach, Magnolia House Gifts at Grand Boulevard, and Sundog Books in Seaside. Klein can be contacted directly at klein@aristotle.net.