James W. Whidden was the first white settler of the Peace River Valley of Florida.
James W. Whidden, son of James Whiddon, Sr. aka Whitton, was born June 20, 1791 in that part of Washington County, Georgia that in 1796 became Montgomery County. A family Bible has "James Whitton," with his birth given as heretofore listed, but 1790 has also been cited by a descendant. The family surname variously was spelled also as Whitten, Whiten, Whiddon, and Whidden, with the latter becoming the accepted form during the last years of James W.'s life. About 1818, James W. married Mary Altman, born 1801 in South Carolina, daughter of Thomas and Lydia Altman. The couple lived in Appling (1820 census), and Ware (1830 census) counties in Georgia before moving in December 1830 to Upper Mineral Springs, Hamilton County (1840 census), Florida.
During the Second Seminole War, James began what was to be a protracted battle with the Seminoles when he served in 1838-39 in Capt. William B. North's Company.
Under terms of the Armed Occupation Act of 1842, James Whitten, on February 17, 1843 laid claim to land at Alafia, a few miles south of Tampa in Hillsborough County, Florida described as: "Lying about three miles above the fork of the big and little Alifia River. Line commencing at a Blazed pine tree marked JW running thence due West 160 Rods - thence due North 160 rods -- thence due East 160 Rods thence due North [sic] 160 Rods, Embracing One Quarter Section of Land." On September 7, 1846, James was appointed a road commissioner of the Alafia District.
Sidney Whidden in September 1966, reminisced of his grandfather:
He seemed to get along very well with the Indians who often stopped at the place and camped overnight on their raiding trips to Tampa. They would spend the night at the Whidden farm and proceed to Tampa the next morning and do such trading as they could. About the only thing they produced or brought in for trading was skins of animals they had killed and needed for food. They traded skins for such articles as they needed most, which often included whiskey."
Sidney further related that an Indian named Old Frank and his squaw chose to live on the Whidden farm. This caused trouble, as his chief decreed that Old Frank return to his tribe. When he refused, the chief broke a whiskey bottle over Old Frank's head and then chopped at him with a broken bottle. Although he returned to the tribe, he, thereafter, on three occasions warned James of potential trouble. Twice they fled their farm until the danger was over. On another time James knocked the chief on his head with his rifle when he tried to force his way into the house.
At the beginning of the spring of 1849, James became the first white settler of the Peace River Valley when he and his family settled illegally in a neutral zone, which had been reserved as a buffer between the Indians and white settlers. The site was located southwest of Pease Creek Settlement (now Bartow) near a creek, which soon was called Whidden Creek.
Indian agent John Casey visited the Whidden settlement in March 1849. On March 19, 1849, Casey noted in his diary: "...this AM Sampson and I visit Pea Creek see Chaifee & wife on the deading -- E. of last night's camp -- like the place. Trees destroyed by hail year after Jackson was on the Suwanee -- Pretty little girl (Lizzy) at Whidden's. I find healthy looking boys & children -- road very crooked at store -- Darling's avenue.
The settlement was, however, temporarily abandoned after four Indians on July 19, 1849 shot into the Whidden house and wounded a son. The family sought refuge at Alafia where they were soon joined by their daughter, Nancy and her husband William McCullough, refugees from the Indian attack at the Kennedy-Darling store on July 17, in which son Dempsey Whidden and Capt. George S. Payne had been killed and William and Nancy wounded. The attack had been perpetrated by a small band of outlaw Indians. Three were, thereafter, turned over to General Twiggs while a fourth was slain by the Indians as they wanted to avoid a war. The bereaved father yearned for revenge and served in Capt. John Parker's Company, which was raised after the murders. He also petitioned Judge Simon Turman for a state warrant for the murderers, but General Twiggs opted with a military solution by deporting the three Indians to Arkansas.
The Whiddens returned to Whidden Creek. As James Whitton, he and Mary and unmarried children were enumerated in household # 139 in the Pease Creek Settlement in the 1850 census of Hillsborough County, dated October 29. The Agricultural Schedule showed him to have sixty-six head of cattle.
The Third Seminole War offered the aged Whidden a second opportunity for revenge, but he was only to endure more sorrow. Records show the Whidden clan of age unanimously joined the militia companies of Captains Hooker, Durrance and Lesley. James W. served in Hooker and Lesley's companies. His son, James L. Whidden, and sons-in-law, William L. Campbell and William McCullough, were in Hooker's Company while Rabun Raulerson, another son-in-law, and sons, Lott and John Whidden, saw action in Durrance's Company. Again, James was to endure the loss of a son to the Indians. In the Willoughby Tillis Battle on June 14, 1856, 2nd Lt. Alderman Carlton, William Parker, and Lott Whidden, the nineteen-year-old son of James, married only four days before, were killed.
In the ensuing battle of June 16, Robert Prine and George Howell were killed, with James Whidden being wounded. Soldiers of Florida by the name of James Whidden, Sr. has this notation, "Wounded at Peace River, June 16 '56." It was, however, James L. Whidden, son of James W., who received the wound. On October 3, 1892, James L. Whidden, of Fort Meade, attested, "That while a member of the organization aforesaid [Hooker's Co.], in the service and in the line of duty near Ft. Meade in the State of Florida on or about the 16th day of June 1856, he was wounded by being shot with a ball from a rifle, said ball striking his person on the right side of the right thigh and penetrated some distance."
Probably, after the war's end, James W. Whidden relocated near Fort Pierce. Again, Sidney Whidden recalled:
"He later tried a settlement on Ten Mile Creek out of Ft. Pierce but was washed out by a high water from a hurricane. The entire place was covered with water and mullet were jumping in the potato patch. His cattle had all departed back toward the west coast so they abandoned the Ten Mile Creek project and moved to what is now Polk County. I believe his first farm in Polk County was two miles west of Fort Meade."
James W. Whidden died at Phosphoria in Polk County in 1869. He was followed in death by his wife, Mary Whidden, a few months later. He was remembered as "a strapping big Irishman who wasn't afraid of the devil and a buzzsaw." They are buried in Old Elam Cemetery, in the old Chicora section, west of Fort Meade. In March 1938, William J. J. Whidden, a grandson, placed a double headstone over the graves.
Issue of James W. and Mary (Altman) Whidden:
1. Margaret Whidden, born January 18, 1819; married James North.
2. Elizabeth Whidden, born March 2, 1820; died September 19, 1875, Fort Ogden, Fla.; married ca. 1835 James Brewer. (April 1, 1820 is also listed as the date of her birth.)
3. Tempie Whidden, born December of 1821; died March 22, 1904, Bartow, Fla.; married in February 1839 Noel Rabun Raulerson. (Her birth is variously given as Dec. 11 & 19 in different family Bibles & Dec. 29, 1821, tombstone.)
4. Mary Ann Whidden, born January 19, 1823; married on February 27, 1843, William Campbell.
5. James Lawrence Whidden, born February 15, 1826; died December 6, 1907, Kissimmee, Fla.; married (1) Amelia Hall, July 9, 1852; (2) Mary Ann Taylor, August 26, 1864; (3) Mrs. Sarah Arnold, December 22, 1893.
6. Dempsey Whidden, born January 13, 1828; killed by Indians July 17, 1849.
7. Nancy Whidden, born February 20, 1830; died August 31, 1908, Kahoka, Missouri; married on November 14, 1844 William McCullough.
8. William Whidden, born November 6, 1832; died single. An inscription in the Bennett Whidden Family Bible has "William Whitton died March 16, 1850 at Alafia, Hillsborough Co.," but a transcription of the 1850 census, dated Oct. 29, 1850, has William. He probably died in the 1850s.
9. Leacy Whidden, born November 4, 1833; married (1) Henry Mason Collins, December 31, 1851; (2) Readding Blount, Sr., July 19, 1866; (3) Peyton Merritt.
10. Lott Whidden, born May 8, 1837; killed by Indians on June 14, 1856; married Caroline Crews, June 10, 1856.
11. John Whidden, born February 6, 1839; died March 13, 1926; married Arminda Roberts, May 27, 1867.
12. Bennett Whidden, born July 1, 1841; died October 10, 1921; Bartow, Fla.; married March 8, 1866 Emily Jane Durrance, daughter of William Hutto and Sarah Harriet (Robertson) Durrance.
13. Elias Whidden, born January 14, 1844; died ca. 1930, near Fort Myers, Fla.; married Laurinda Corbitt.
References: Pioneers of Wiregrass Georgia, Vol. 1V, pp 321-322; "The James Whitton Family of Polk County, Florida," Polk County Historical Quarterly of March 1986; "Births & marriages of James Whitton & family," Bennett Whidden Family Bible, courtesy of Don Whidden; Diary of Capt. John C. Casey; U. S. Original Census Schedules, 7th Census 1850 Hillsborough County, Florida;
Soldiers of Florida, 1903; Sidney Whidden letter in DeVane's Early Florida History, Volume 11; Indian War pension application of James L. Whidden, courtesy of Denton Cash; "Noel Rabun Raulerson 1820-1910," South Florida Pioneers 10 (Oct. 1976); Canter Brown, Jr.
This article is adapted from the authors profile in The Herald-Advocate (Wauchula, Fla.) of July 27, 1989.