Frontier Florida was a hostile place. Settlers dealt with the problems of living on a frontier—the extreme limit of settled land. Jefferson County, located in North Florida, was no exception. It was a sparsely populated wilderness and a refuge for people to misbehave.
Frontier Florida had its own gangs of outlaws. I identified one such gang in the book “Palmetto Pioneers: From Harmony to Hostilities.” I plan to release the book within a couple of weeks. Here is an excerpt from the first chapter.
Monticello’s Courthouse in 1844
“Before New Year’s Day of 1845, three South Georgia men captured Stephen Yeomans. Word spread. Rumors were rampant. Yeoman’s gang plotted to free him either while he was being transported to the jail or as soon as a posse brought him back to town. Everyone worried the rickety old Monticello jail could not hold him long. So the Florida men planned to meet the three South Georgia men and their prisoner at the Florida-Georgia line for the exchange in “No-Man’s Land.” An assembly of ninety men rode north from Monticello, a ride of eight miles.
“No Man’s Land” was the name for the strip of land located on the state line. It received its name because of an ongoing dispute between the two states about where exactly the state line stood. It wasn’t until the 1870s that the US Supreme Court finally decided the dispute. Because both Florida and Georgia claimed it, it belonged to neither and was not subject to either’s laws.
In “No Man’s Land,” the exchange of the prisoner took place; and subsequently, the men chose a committee on the spot to serve as a jury. Yeomans’s impromptu trial was out of the jurisdiction of either state.
One man was voted chair. “I need one of you men of the cloth to swear in the witnesses.” Earlier, Yeomans confessed, naming fourteen men as his accomplices. Several were Jefferson County citizens.
The trial lasted all day. “Guilty!” said the juror’s foreman.
The crowd of men hesitated. A tall, gaunt man said, “His gang knows how poor our jail is. They’ll be waiting for us by the time we get back. They’ll probably set fire to our town to break him out.”
Added another, “Even if they don’t show up, our jail will never hold him, anyway. We’ve just wasted our time if we take him to Monticello.”
“It’s a long way back, and there are many places where an ambush is certain.” It was as if they were trying to convince themselves what they would do had to be done.
Another vote followed. The chair spoke. “I need a show of hands. Who votes to take him back? And who votes to hang him here?” On a vote of sixty-seven to twenty-three, they voted to hang him in “No Man’s Land” on the following day. A guard of twenty-five men watched him during the night, as they expected his gang to free him at any moment.
Early the next morning, Yeomans asked for a prayer on his behalf. Since there were four ministers in the group, one stepped forward to pray. All the men removed their hats.
At noon, January 2nd, they hung Yeoman.”
This newest book, the 2nd book in the Palmetto Pioneers series, should be released soon!
By today’s standards, we would consider this uncivilized. But we have good jails, trained law enforcement, and almost two centuries of laws and court precedent. Communities in these sparsely populated areas in 1844 had none. It was usual for convicted felons to escape and commit more carnage. Gangs pillaged unimpeded. People did what they had to do to remain safe.
What would you have done to keep your family safe in this part of Florida in the early 1800s? Also, No Man’s Land reminds me of “Yellowstone,” the TV series. Any thoughts about that?