The city of Orlando, though well known today as a world-class tourist destination, had a rather small start. And from the beginning the origin of its name has been a mystery.
Orlando’s modern history dates back to 1838 and the Second Seminole War. The U.S. Army built Fort Gatlin southeast of present day downtown Orlando to protect settlers from the Indians. By 1840, a small settlement known as Jernigan had grown up around the Fort. The name came from the Jernigan family, early settlers in the area.
By 1850, Jernigan had a post office. And by 1856, the community had expanded northward, and changed its name to Orlando. In 1857, the U.S. Post Office adopted the name change.
The Town of Orlando was incorporated in 1875 with only 85 residents, 22 of whom were qualified voters.
Now for the part of Orlando’s history that is still cloudy: Where did the name come from?
If you ask the locals, you’ll usually get one of four versions of how the name change happened. The question is…”Which is the truth?”
Option 1 – An early politician, Judge Speer, named the town Orlando, after a prominent character in Shakespeare’s play “As You Like It.” It is known that he was responsible for naming Rosalind Ave. which passes through downtown after another of Shakespeare’s more famous characters. So this lends some credence to this option.
Option 2 – A man named Orlando was passing through the area on his way to Tampa with a herd of oxen. He got sick, died, and was buried near present day downtown Orlando. The locals would refer to the grave marker and say “there lies Orlando”.
Option 3 – Orlando Reeves was a U.S. soldier on sentry duty one night during the Seminole Wars. He spotted a disguised Indian sneaking up on the troops, and fired his gun to warn his fellow soldiers. He was killed by arrows during the ensuing attack, but his warning saved the troops. They buried him on the south side of Lake Eola in current downtown Orlando and the city took the name of the local hero. Note: There is no record of an Orlando Reeves ever serving in the military during that time. Though records from that time are anything but complete and thorough.
Option 4 – A man named Orlando Reeves owned a sugar mill and plantation north of Orlando in what is now Volusia County. He carved his name in a tree near what is now Lake Eola. Later settlers assumed the tree was a grave marker. Their speculations as to the carving’s origin led to the various accounts of Seminole War battles, and the area around the tree became known as “Orlando’s Grave” or simply “Orlando.”
Locals have their favorite version and some will defend their belief quite fervently, but a definitive answer has continued to allude Orlando’s residents up to the present day.
Do you have a favorite take of how Orlando got it’s name? Maybe it’s one we didn’t list! If you have a favorite or know of a another legend that may be the true story of how Orlando got its name all those years ago share your thoughts.