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The Betton Hills Neighborhood is one of the oldest suburbs in Tallahassee. The known history of the Betton Hills area goes back all the way to pre-history.

Native Americans and Colonization

Native Americans nomadically occupied the southeast region of America, according to some estimates, as long as 13,000 years ago during the prehistoric period at the end of the last ice-age. Paleo-Indian traveled to North America from the land bridge which connected it to Asia. During the Paleo-Indian period, the Clovis culture lived as hunter-gatherers, used tools and was the first to occupy the area. Ancient animals they may have shared the area with include bison, ancient mastodons, the giant ground sloth, saber-tooth tigers, ancient mammoths and American lions.

At Edward Ball Wakulla State Park, located in Wakulla, Florida south of Tallahassee, scientists have identified the remains of an Ancient mastodon and many other extinct Ice-Age mammals. This culture began to settle, which led to regionalization and a division of the cultural period. Sea levels rose rapidly and the ecosystems of then are akin to our ecosystems of today. This culture also used projectiles, or arrowheads, attached to spears for hunting. Next, the Archaic period (about 10,000 B.C. to 1,000 B.C.) introduced ceramic pottery. 

The Woodland period (about 1,000 B.C. to 1,000 A.D.) cultures also produced ceramics as well as used bow and arrow hunting methods. The Deptford culture (about 800 B.C. to 100 A.D.) occupied the region early during this period. They were the first to use the red clay of the Red Hills in their pottery. It is from this time period and culture that the Native Americans of this region are most recognized for their pottery.

Deptford natives visited the area seasonally and constructed many low sand burial mounds. The Weeden Island culture (about 300 A.D. to 1,000 A.D.) had a strong presence north of Tallahassee around Lake Miccosukee and Lake Iamonia and agriculture began to appear, especially the cultivation of maize. They constructed flat-topped, burial mounds. Villages were typically located in river valleys, forests, and other fertile places. Letchworth Mounds State Park is located near Monticello, Florida, northeast of Tallahassee. These are the largest mounds in the state, the tallest at over 45 feet high, and include large, flat ceremonial mounds and smaller burial mounds. The Weeden Island culture built these mounds. As the cultures from the Woodland period became more dispersed and regionalized they eventually created new regional cultures.

A prominent descendant of the Woodland cultures located in the southeast region of America, lived during the Mississippian period from about 1,000 to 1,500 A.D. These were experienced farmers that utilized the fertile clay soils of the Red Hills. During the Mississippian period, the Ft. Walton culture (about 1,100 A.D. to 1,500 A.D.) also built magnificent flat-topped and pyramidal, ceremonial mounds and separate burial mounds. The most prominent mounds in the Tallahassee area are about five miles northwest of the Betton Hills neighborhood at Lake Jackson Mounds Archaeological State Park. The Lake Jackson mounds were built by the Apalachee Indians of the Leon-Jefferson culture (also part of the Ft. Walton culture) during the Mississippian period and are the largest known ceremonial mounds from this culture. 

There are several archaeological sites near the Betton Hills Nature Center and Trails that have been documented by the Florida Master Site File from the Department of State’s Division of Historical Resources. They include a site called “Top Randolph” which is a farmstead from the Ft. Walton period where scattered artifacts were found. Another site, called the “Broken Shovel” site, which also has evidence of habitation as well as scattered artifacts, specifically pottery, from the Ft. Walton/Leon-Jefferson period cultures. The last site, not named, was also found to have scattered artifacts, especially prehistoric ceramics, from the Deptford and Ft. Walton/Leon-Jefferson period cultures. The creek that runs through the park, also a city drainage ditch, has been manipulated with retaining walls and cuts since these inhabitants lived here. However, there are traces of their existence still there as several people have found projectiles in the creek. 

The Apalachee Indians, from which the name of the Appalachian Mountains is derived, were part of this historic period’s cultures. It is believed that their trading area stretched to Oklahoma and the Great Lakes. The Apalachee were very important in the history of Florida. The largest Apalachee community was located on and around the mounds near Lake Jackson. 

Spanish Occupation

Ponce de Leon was the first explorer to arrive in Florida in 1513. Leon County was named after him. Spanish explorer Panfilo de Narvaez came through northwest Florida in 1528. The most important Spanish explorer to visit the Tallahassee area was Hernando de Soto. He camped here in the winter of 1539 and was the first time Christmas was ever celebrated in America. De Soto was enticed by natives from settlements near his arrival point near Tampa Bay to go to the wealthy Apalachee capital of Anhaica. Remnants of the town were found in Myers Park in 1987. It had an estimated population of 30,000 people and the Apalachee Province, in its entirety, was thought to have incorporated 60,000 people. The Apalachee territory was bordered to the west by the Ochlockonee River, the Aucilla River on the east, the Florida-Georgia border to the north and Apalachee Bay on the south.

Around 1607, most of the Apalachee who had survived the diseases brought by the Europeans fled the area, which explains Tallahassee’s Apalachee name, meaning “old” or “abandoned fields.” Lake Jackson Mounds Archaeological State Park, Mission San Luis, and the Museum of Florida History are wonderful places to view Apalachee artifacts such as pottery and arrowheads and a reconstructed 16th century Spanish mission. Some Apalachees stayed aligned with the Spanish missionaries and it is believed up to 20 missions were established in the Apalachee territory starting in 1633. The Apalachees of Anhaica were moved a few miles west to Inihaica, a smaller village, for security reasons. In Inihaica, Mission San Luis de Apalachee, presently in western Tallahassee, was established in 1656 and is speculated to have had a population of over 1,000 people. It also served as the western capital of Spanish Florida. Yamassee Indians moved into Anhaica in 1675 and another mission was established for them, the Mission La Purificacion de Tama.

Spanish occupation continued until the Spanish, Apalachee and Yamassee were forced to flee Tallahassee before a British invasion came from the North. Some captives were taken into slavery after British Colonel James Moore, governor of South Carolina, and the Creek Indians attacked the town and destroyed Mission San Luis in 1704. The fleeing Apalachee relocated to Mobile, Alabama which at that time was occupied by the French, and later to Louisiana. The Yamassee Indians were allowed to settle in the area, but were subsequently forced out again by the British. The Yamassees and Creeks rebelled against the British in 1715 in the Yamassee War, but were forced to retreat to Spanish St. Augustine. The Yamassee and Creek were part of the Creek Confederacy which also included the Apalachicola tribe. Further dispersed, the remaining Native Americans of the region formed the Seminole tribe and established communities near Tallahassee at the encouragement of the Spanish who again wanted to control the area and create a buffer from its British neighbors in the North. After a short rule by the British, the Spanish again gained control around 1718, but lost it again to the British in 1763. Florida was lost again by the British to the Americans following the end of the American Revolution in 1783. It was then given back to Spain. Fighting from both the Spanish/Native American side and the American side occurred between Florida and Georgia because of frequent attacks and runaway slaves seeking refuge in Native American communities in Florida which was a major problem for the slave-labor dependent Americans. Future President Andrew Jackson was ordered to invade Florida and Tallahassee was burned to the ground in the Spring of 1818. After the First Seminole War (1816 to 1818) Spain sold Florida to America in 1821. The Second Seminole War also made its way near Tallahassee in 1839 with the massacre of the prominent Chaires family in what is presently the unicorporated town of Chaires east of Tallahassee. After the Second and Third Seminole Wars ending in 1842, what remained of the once thriving numerous Native American population was defending itself in the swamps of the Everglades and eventually most were forced to Oklahoma. 

 Florida’s New Capital City and the Lafayette Land Grant

The Territory of Florida was created in 1821 and the capital was proposed to be mid-way between the eastern and western central cities of Pensacola and St. Augustine. Tallahassee was chosen as the territorial capital and the economy of the area largely depended on agriculture, namely cotton. In 1845, Florida was the 27th state to join the United States of America and Tallahassee became the capital of the State of Florida. During the American Revolution the Marquis De La Fayette donated the fledging American democracy $200,000. To help the Marquis after the war, as he was in financial turmoil after returning to France during the French Revolution, the U.S. Government granted Lafayette land in the northeast section of Tallahassee and gave him $200,000 in government issued bonds. This area encompasses the first township created in Florida, Township 1 North Range 1 East. Lafayette is still remembered in Tallahassee, including Lafayette Street and Lafayette Park, even though he never actually visited here.

In the 1830’s several of the Marquis’s friends from France and around 50 others came to Lafayette’s land to live and repair their fortunes. Unfortunately, they could not stand Florida’s mid-summer subtropical weather. After only a few months very little land had been cleared and the colony disseminated because their deeds to the land were deemed null and void. Some stayed and formed the area near downtown which we know today as “Frenchtown”, while others moved to New Orleans or returned to France.

The Plantation Era

Historic Plantation Cemetery at Betton Hill Marker
Historic Plantation Cemetery at Betton Hill Marker

So how did Betton Hills get its name? In the 1850’s and 60’s Leon County ranked 5th out of all Florida and Georgia counties in producing cotton. In 1824, President John Quincy Adams gives Lafayette the township of 23,000+ acres. Sections 19 and 20 were sold to John Skinner and Robert Williams, who was Lafayette’s attorney. Lafayette died in 1834. Until 1855, Lafayette’s heirs claimed ownership of the land; however, it was mistakenly willed by John Skinner or Robert Williams to William Nuttall in 1838 and was subsequently inherited by his partners Hector Braden and William Craig after Nuttall’s death. Nuttall was a law partner of Tallahassee’s famous and eccentric Prince Achille Murat. It went through many more hands and in 1841 Turbett Betton bought 960 acres that encompass today’s Betton Hills Neighborhood. Betton and Lafayette’s heirs were in court till 1855. Finally in 1855, Bryan Croom bought the property through a Sheriff’s Deed which he then signed to his brother Richard Croom as “Betton Place.”

The Croom Family of North Carolina bought some of Lafayette’s land. From the mid-1830’s to 1840’s the Crooms amassed land in Tallahassee and surrounding towns. Bryan Croom was the first to live here and in the 1840’s began constructing Goodwood Plantation which neighbored the property that would later be known as Betton Hill Plantation. Florida courts recognized Bryan Croom as the owner of the land until 1857 when Henrietta Smith won an appeal in the Supreme Court of Florida. She was awarded 6,184 acres and 149 slaves of Hardy Croom’s estate after a twenty-year court battle over Hardy Croom’s estate in both Florida and North Carolina dealing with the tragedy of the Steamship Home. Hardy Croom was Smith’s daughter’s, Francis, husband. Smith would have been considered heir to Hardy Croom’s estate if the courts found that Croom’s children died after their father. Smith first pled her case in Florida’s courts and then when she lost pled her case in North Carolina and won. About 20 years had passed and Henrietta Smith was named heir of Hardy Croom’s estate in Florida. She moved to Tallahassee in 1857 and it is during this time that Betton Hill Plantation receives this name. Turbett Betton purchased the property during the Croom-Smith dispute, unbeknownst to him the final ruling of the case. Betton constructed “Betton Place” and Henrietta Smith moved in with her family in shortly after she won her appeal to the Supreme Court of Florida.

After Henrietta Smith’s death in 1862, Betton Hill Plantation was willed to John Still Winthrop, Jr., her great-grandson and then to her great-great grandson Guy Louis Winthrop. (Smith’s daughter, Elizabeth was married to Richard Armistead, who produced a daughter, Evelyn Susan Armistead. Evelyn Armistead married John Still Winthrop, Sr., who later fathered John Still Jr., who was the father of Guy Louis Winthrop).  Along with the archaeological sites near the park which have already been described there is a plantation cemetery, remnants of the Betton Plantation and other nearby plantations.

More In History…

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  • Betton Hills Herstory
    Here’s an oral history of Betton Hills! It’s from a speech given by Pat Winthrop, wife of Betton Hills original developer, Guy Winthrop.