William Lauderdale gave our city its name but seems not to be commemorated anywhere within city lines. The only public representation of him is astride his steed in a majestic statue by Luis Montoya in Davie. It’s near the entrance of the residential community Forest Ridge, erected on the spot where historians believe Lauderdale’s regiment drove off the last warring Seminoles in Southeast Florida.
William Lauderdale was born around 1782 in Virginia to Scots-Irish landowners. His father, the younger son of a Scottish earl, left the family home – called Lauder Castle – for the New World. He and his brothers fought with George Washington’s army and later relocated westward to Tennessee with generous land grants for their service.
The move was very fortuitous for young William, because among his new neighbors was none other than future war hero and president Andrew Jackson.
While William and his brothers worked the farm and had little formal education, they were taught to read and write by their parents. As a young man, William twice volunteered for service along with Tennessee militiamen to head off attacks by Spanish forces in Louisiana. While he faced little combat there, his training experience led to him being commissioned in 1812 as a first lieutenant under his friend General Jackson.
This state militia was converted by President Thomas Jefferson to the Tennessee Voluntary Infantry under the direction of Congress. They were called on to help confront the British, Spanish and their allies, the “Red-Stick” Creeks, seeking to undercut the U.S. territories in the south. (Other Creeks were not at war with the U.S.)
Lauderdale was called to lead his own companies time and time again under Jackson. In 1813, after a heavy defeat at Fort Mims in Alabama, Jackson called Lauderdale and his militia down to fight the Red-Stick Creeks alongside local regiments. There, his Tennessee troops were victorious. Lauderdale, now promoted to captain, had an appreciation for the “no quarters” style of Indian fighters and had prepared his troops amply.
By 1814, Captain Lauderdale had earned not only a strong reputation for leading his troops in battle, but also in supply management and recruiting. So Jackson named him chief quartermaster of his army as they marched southward over rugged terrain to whip the British in the Battle of New Orleans.
Between military engagements, Lauderdale and his troops returned to their Tennessee homes. Lauderdale’s farm became quite successful, and expanded so much that it had ample room to drill militia. He married at the age of 40 and had two sons and a daughter with his first wife Polly, who died in 1826. He remarried Helen Goodall, with whom he had two more children.
In 1837, Major Lauderdale was recuperating from respiratory illness in the Smoky Mountains when he was called for service one last time. Major General Thomas Jesup, in command of the U.S. Army of the South, was facing a fierce enemy in the Seminole Wars. He asked Jackson, now retired after his two terms in the White House, for a recommendation. According to an archived letter, Jackson wrote back, “I know of but one man that I think can raise a battalion… who can and will beat the whole Indian force in Florida.”
So, soon enough, Major Lauderdale was back in action and had mobilized five companies of volunteers from Tennessee mountain country. Jesup named the battalion of 500 the Tennessee Mounted Infantry. They were assigned to carve a path and safe regions in Southeast Florida, while other forces battled Seminoles in the north.
Lauderdale’s march south culminated in the building of a fort on the New River in early March of 1838. Weeks later, a final victorious skirmish at Pine Island Ridge (where his statue resides) ended the fighting. The Seminole leader Sam Jones escaped with his braves, and they never fought the U.S. again.
When the Tennessee battalion’s six-month engagement was over, they headed back through Tampa, and up to Baton Rouge, where the Major, for several days very ill, and no longer able to ride a horse, finally succumbed. It was May 10, 1838. One of his soldiers said it was due to “over-fatigue from the long-haul marches.” That happened to be the day set aside for honorable discharge celebrations in Baton Rouge; ceremonies were quickly adapted for his funeral. His whole battalion was there.
“In the presence of a riderless horse, the band played, colors were presented, and a barrage of artillery and muskets fired a salute,” one account reports.
Four years later the fort, a two-tiered 30-foot-long stockade in a clump of oak trees that Jesup had named “Fort Lauderdale,” was abandoned.