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Were Destin’s earliest settlers homesteaders or squatters?

Staff Writer
The Destin Log
The Destin Log

The question is, before the War Department made the land at Destin available for sale in the 1930s, were the earliest settlers homesteaders or squatters? In our History Mystery this month we will explore exactly who the earliest settlers were and what ownership, if any, they had to the land they lived on.

As outlined in my book, “DESTIN Pioneer Settlers…A Land History of Destin, Florida, from 1819 to1940,” on Feb. 9, 1842, President John Tyler issued an Executive Order setting aside nearly a dozen Military Reservations on government-owned land in the Florida territory. One of those was Township 2 South, Range 22 West, in Washington County, territory of Florida. It consisted of 5,958.20 acres and they named it Moreno Point Military Reservation. We know this area today as Destin, Florida.

There was one family probably already living there at the time. They were the McCullom family, consisting of John McCullom, his wife Rebecca, their son Gaines and daughters Martha, Nancy, and Harriet. By 1852, Leonard Destin had settled at what he called East Pass. According to the Union Army Map drawn during the Civil War, the following families were then living in the area in 1864: Lennin (Leonard Destin), McCullom, Lewis, Lewis, and Sanders.

The McCullom daughters married local fishermen. Martha McCullom married Leonard Destin in 1851, Harriet Lewis married Alfred Lewis in1856, and Nancy Lewis married Calvin Lewis in 1858. Alfred and Calvin Lewis were brothers and later served in the Walton Guards during the Civil War.

During the 1700s, 1800s, and early 1900s, our country was settled east to west by homesteaders. The United States government sold land and later gave land away to citizens (and those who wanted to be a citizen) if they would live on the land, build a home, and cultivate the land within five years. Often the U.S. government gave parcels as large as 160 acres to a single homesteader.

Because the War Department owned the land as Moreno Point Military Reservation, even though they never used the land to build a fort, the land was not available for homesteading. So Leonard Destin, the McCullom, Alfred Lewis, and Calvin Lewis families were simply squatting on War Department land.

That changed over time. On July 25, 1892, the 52nd Congress of the United States passed Public Law 27, Statute 321, Chapter 316. This act authorized the Secretary of War to lease public property in certain cases. The Secretary of War was authorized to enter into leases of up to five years for the property on military lands not being used for military purposes.

This gave the residents of Moreno Point Military Reservation the ability to lease the land they were living on, and they took advantage of this newfound privilege. The first time the War Department got around to re-surveying this reservation and dividing it into lots was in 1909. By this time Destin was a full-fledged fishing camp and those who took those first leases are shown in the following list.

Fish camp residents granted leases on Sept. 1, 1909:

— E.D. Bedsole, Lot 1, $3 a year

— R.J Williams, Lots 2, 3 & 9, $9 a year

— Ralph Williams, Lot 2a, $5 a year

— Leonard Destin, Lots 4 and 12, $17 a year

— George Destin, Lots 6 & 11, $12 a year

— Charles Sweeney, Lots 5 & 16, $20 a year

— Marler brothers, Lot 7, $25 a year

— F.C. Williams, Lot 8, $6 a year

— J.E. Cummings, Lot 10, $5 a year

— Leonard Woodward, Lot 12, $10 a year

— W.J Woodward, Lot 14, $10 a year

— J.D. Morris, Lot 15, $5 a year

— William T. Marler, Lot 14, $10 a year

— S.T. and Mrs. J. Marler, Lot 19, $5 a year

— Joe Marler, Lot 20, $5 a year

— George. S. Marler, Lot 21, $8 a year

— D.H. Parish, Lot 22, $8 a year

The Destin, Woodward, and Marler families were full-time residents, but the others were what could be called Fish Camp residents. They came from St. Andrews, Boggy, Pensacola, and Point Washington during the fishing season and then returned home in the late fall.

The War Department entered into leases from 1909 through 1919. The 1919 five-year leases were not renewed in 1924. After World War I the War Department considered Moreno Point Military Reservation surplus. In 1926, Congress approved the War Department’s request to sell their surplus land.

In 1930, a new survey of the land was completed. However, it took the War Department 10 years to sell all of the Moreno Point Military Reservation. The main reason the land was not popular was the fact that no road or bridge connected this land to the mainland either to the east or west. The road, State Road 115 (later renamed U.S. Highway 98) and the first bridge were not completed until April 1935.

So we have learned that the earliest settlers, those who settled before 1909, were squatters because you could not homestead on land the U.S. government had already given to the War Department. After 1909, but before 1930, you had to lease the land you were living on from the War Department for about $2 an acre, per year. After 1930, the War Department sold the land to those who could afford $50 an acre.

The earliest settlers to the area were building their houses and docks on faith that someday the War Department would sell the land to the fishermen. Their faith eventually paid off as they formed the World’s Luckiest Fishing Village and eventually received deeds to their land.

H. C. “Hank” Klein is a Destin historian, author, and speaker on local history. 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, Henderson Beach Resort in Destin, The Indian Temple Mound in Fort Walton Beach, and Sundog Books in Seaside. Klein can be contacted directly at klein@aristotle.net.