Florida: Commentary

Florida Atlas of Historical County Boundaries

John H. Long, Editor; Peggy Tuck Sinko, Associate Editor and Historical Compiler; Kathryn Ford Thorne, Historical Compiler; Douglas Knox, Book Digitizing Director; Emily Kelley, Research Associate; Laura Rico-Beck, GIS Specialist and Digital Compiler; Peter Siczewicz, ArcIMS Interactive Map Designer; Robert Will, Cartographic Assistant

Copyright The Newberry Library 2007

Florida began creating counties much later than most eastern states; the Spanish and British governors found no need for sophisticated administrative divisions due to the sparse settlement of the colony. In 1821, following Spain's cession of East and West Florida to the United States two years earlier, Andrew Jackson assumed the governorship of the territory. He retained the division of Florida into eastern and western parts for administrative purposes, but he moved the dividing line to the Suwannee River from its earlier location along the Chattahoochee and Appalachicola Rivers. Jackson decreed that East Florida would be called St. Johns County and West Florida would be Escambia County. After 1821, county creations and boundary changes became the responsibility of the legislature.

Bradford, Brevard, and Orange Counties had different names when they were created, and Hernando County was renamed Benton County for six years. In addition, there was an attempt to change the name of Mosquito (now Orange) County to Leigh Read County. In 1842 the legislature passed a law changing the name of Mosquito County to Leigh Read, in honor of the former legislator who was murdered in 1841, the victim of a longstanding quarrel with the Alston family (Read had killed Augustus Alston in an 1839 duel after repeated challenges from Alston). Although the bill honoring Read passed the legislature, a clerk kept the bill from reaching the governor's desk, effectively killing it. While the change never officially took place, the name Leigh Read can be found in various documents, including a contemporary map, as well as in several acts passed by the 1842 Florida territorial legislature.

With one exception, Florida counties were fully organized at the time of creation and remained fully organized. Dade (now Miami-Dade) County, the lone exception, was created in 1836 with a temporary county seat at Indian Key, about half way between Miami and Key West. However, the lack of population created problems from the start. In 1838 one correspondent reported that there were not enough men in the entire county to form a grand and petit jury. Dade's fortunes diminished further in 1840 when Indians led by Chekika raided Indian Key, killing several citizens and destroying much of the town. Monroe County began to take over Dade's duties; in 1851 when the legislature ordered the records and files of Dade County removed to Monroe, Dade ceased to exist as a fully organized county and was for all practical purposes attached to Monroe. No single piece of legislation re-established Dade to fully organized status. Rather, over a period of time, beginning in the late 1860s, the county government again began to function, first with the meeting of County Commissioners in September 1869, then with the appointment of a clerk of court and sheriff, and finally in 1872 with the re-establishment of judicial functions.

This digital atlas maps the boundaries of two proposed counties that the Florida legislature tried to create in the 1910s. The creation of Bloxham County, named for a former governor, was authorized by the state legislature 1 June 1915, after an eight-year effort. However, the creation of a new county required the approval of voters in those portions of Levy and Marion Counties that would compose Bloxham. Throughout the summer the proposal was hotly debated, and on 14 September 1915, creation of the new county was voted down, 460 to 339. Following this defeat, no serious efforts were made to revive Bloxham County. In a second instance, the outcome was different. On 6 June 1913, the Florida legislature authorized creation of Broward County from Dade County. Dade County voters in the affected area voted against the proposed county in a referendum. However, proponents of the new county did not give up, and two years later the legislature again passed an act authorizing creation of Broward County. This Broward County covered more territory than the earlier attempt and included land in Palm Beach County, as well as Dade. This time the referendum passed at an election held 1 October 1915, and Broward County was organized.

The boundary between Hernando, Hillsborough, and Polk Counties presented some especially difficult problems in the mid-1800s that cannot be definitively resolved. Beginning with Hernando's creation in 1843, part of its southern boundary with Hillsborough ran along the Hillsborough River in township 26 south, ranges 21 and 22 east. This part of the boundary was confirmed on 1 January 1847. On 19 February 1874 Polk was given all that part of Hillsborough County that lay in township 26 south, so that Hernando and Polk now shared the boundary along the river in township 26 south, ranges 21 and 22 east. At some point between 1874 and 1883 Hernando acquired from Polk all of township 26 that lay south of the Hillsborough River, although there is no legislation to that effect, and research in other local sources has not identified the reason or source for this change. On 5 March 1883 legislators transferred three sections of the township from Hernando to Polk; they apparently understood that by that date all of township 26 south, range 22 east belonged to Hernando. The compiler has decided to use the date "by 1880" for the transfer of township 26 from Polk to Hernando based upon the rendering of the boundary on contemporary maps, especially the annual Rand McNally business atlases which showed a boundary change beginning with the 1880 edition.


The dating standard in this digital atlas is the legally effective date of change, whether it is for the creation of a new county or for the alteration of lines between existing counties. As the nineteenth century progressed, legislators recognized the importance of preparing for the establishment of a new county organization or for the shift in jurisdiction that accompanies boundary changes. Some laws, therefore, began to carry two dates: one marking the passage of the law and the other specifying when the line change or new county creation would go into effect. If the date of passage and effective date are different, the law gives both.

Florida counties created before 1858 all have the same passage and effective date. Beginning with the creation of New River (now Bradford) and Suwannee Counties, many (but not all) counties had different effective dates—in some cases these dates were established in the creation act, and in other cases they were dependent on the outcome of a referendum.

Suwannee and New River are the only counties for which a precise effective date is not known. Both counties were authorized in a single act approved 21 December 1858, but the creations were dependent on a referendum that was to be held after thirty days public notice following passage of the act. Neither Bradford, Suwannee, nor the parent county, Columbia, have county commissioners records from this period, and no record could be found at the State Archives or in local historical sources. The earliest possible date for the referendum would have been 20 January 1859, but because of the time lag in communications, it is more likely that the referendum would not have been held until February, hence the effective date "February 1859" used in this digital atlas.


Most county boundary changes in Florida are found in the session laws of Florida Territory and the state of Florida, which were published annually. However, some individuals began to compile and publish collections of territorial and state laws in the nineteenth century; some of these works were commissioned or at least sanctioned by the legislature, and are recognized and accepted as reliable and authoritative. In Florida John P. Duval's Compilation of the Public Acts of the Legislative Council of the Territory of Florida Passed Prior to 1840 (1839) and Leslie A. Thompson's Manual or Digest of the Statute Law of the State of Florida, Including Law of the United States Relative to the Government of Florida (1847), proved helpful in reconstructing early county boundaries.

Collections of pertinent sections of county boundary laws are convenient but demand caution. There is a potential for error in transcription, as well as the possibility that valuable information (e.g., an effective date) may be lost in the editorial process of excerpting the selected passages. Such a compilation can be a marvelous convenience for the researcher, once it has been checked against the session laws and has been found reliable. There are compilations of county creations and changes for a number of states, many prepared by the Historical Records Survey in the 1930s and 1940s, but they vary greatly in content and in accuracy. It is virtually impossible to judge their reliability until much of the work has been replicated. These secondary sources, therefore, are useful chiefly as guides to the primary laws, proclamations, and decisions. Such a secondary source is available for Florida, although it is little known. The Florida Historical Records Survey researched and prepared a compilation of county boundary laws, but the 1937 typescript was never published. A photocopy of this work, "Record of Acts of the Legislative Council of the Territory of Florida and General Assembly of the State of Florida Relating to County Boundaries, 1821–1937" was acquired from the State Library of Florida and was used to insure that the compilers' search of session laws was complete.

Although all works used to determine the courses of county boundary lines appear in the bibliography, several deserve special mention. Five volumes of the Territorial Papers of the United States, covering Florida from 1821–1845, were very important for identifying locations, people, and survey lines; Charles C. Royce's "Indian Land Cessions in the United States" (1899) helped determine the early boundaries of Alachua and Orange Counties, and explained the re-surveys of the Indian boundary line. Local histories were helpful for identifying places and confirming referendum dates. Several place name compilations were also important: Places in the Sun:  The History and Romance of Florida Place-Names, by Bertha E. Bloodworth and Alton C. Morris (1978); Howard Cline's Provisional Historical Gazeteer [sic], with Locational Notes on Florida Colonial Communities, 1700–1823, and 16 Maps, 3 Figures (1964. Reprint 1974); and Allen Morris's Florida Place Names (1974).


Historical maps are generally treated as secondary works, used to locate lost landmarks and names, but sometimes errors on old maps can benefit research. When a boundary description cannot be plotted on a modern base map or does not seem to make sense, the flaw may lie not in the description but in the geographic notions upon which it was based. If the errors on an old map accurately reflect accepted ideas and knowledge, however mistaken they may have been, that map may be the key to the true meaning of contemporaneous boundary descriptions. Florida provides an excellent example of this. In the 1820s and 1830s the southern interior of Florida was still largely unknown and unexplored. When Monroe County was created in 1823 the northern boundary was described as a line running east from Charlotte Harbor up the Charlotte River to Lake Macaco (now Lake Okeechobee). The problem is that no river runs from Lake Okeechobee to Charlotte Harbor. Given the swampy conditions and difficult terrain, it is not surprising that such a mistake was made. John Williams wrote of the area in 1837: "Macaco, or Charlotte River, is supposed to have its source in Myacco Lake [Lake Okeechobee], in the heart of the Peninsula. We have not been so fortunate as to find white man or Indian that had ever visited the lake or the river more than fifty or sixty miles above Charlotte Bay" (Territory of Florida…, 49). In fact, on a map Williams drew to accompany his book, he included a Macaco River, but left out Lake Okeechobee. I. G. Searcy's 1829 map of Florida shows Charlotte River running from Lake Okeechobee to Charlotte Harbor, although the lake is placed southwest of its actual location. In this case, the early, erroneous maps are essential to understanding the information available to legislators, and a line can be drawn to approximate the intended boundary.

The historical maps most frequently consulted for roads, rivers, lakes, and other locations were I. G. Searcy's Map of Florida Constructed Principally from Authentic Documents in the Land Office at Tallahassee (1829); the maps accompanying John Williams's two books, Territory of Florida… (1837) and View of West Florida… (1827); U. S. Engineer Department, Map of the Seat of War in Florida… (1839); J. Goldsborough Bruff, State of Florida, Compiled in the Bureau of Topographical Engineers from the Best Authorities (1846); and Atlas of Florida… (1926. Reprint 1980).