Hidden within the palmettos, scrub oaks, and piney flatwoods of the Jay B. Starkey Wilderness Park are the former 19th century homestead and farm of James McNeill.
As thousands of visitors take advantage of the park’s natural beauty and some tour the former homestead site, some might wonder: Who was James McNeill?
Born June 21, 1843, in Ocala, Florida, James McNeill was the twin son of pioneer settler and farmer Neill McNeill. James McNeill was raised on the Florida frontier during an era when Indian Wars raged and life was a struggle.
After the death of his father, while older sisters Margaret, Betsey, and Mary Jane all shared the house duties, twin brothers James and Angus McNeill, both 17-years-old, were already working the family’s 160-acre farm.
By the latter part of 1861, as the Civil War raged on, James left the farm and headed south to Hillsborough County. On January 1, 1862, in the small community of Cork, where he enlisted for service with the Confederate Army and joined the already organized Company K of the 1st Florida Calvary.
But, within months of his enlistment, the company was dismounted and sent to the battle lines in Kentucky and Tennessee, where they offered infantry support in Civil War battles of Richmond, Perryville, Chickamauga and Missionary Ridge.
On October 8, 1864, James transferred to the 9th Florida Infantry, first serving as a private with Company B, but was quickly transferred to Company I, commanded by his older brother Capt. John McNeill, and promoted to second lieutenant.
As second lieutenant, James soon found himself deep in the mud and trenches of Virginia at the First Battle of Petersburg, where his new company was already engaged in the lengthy siege of that city.
After five long months in Petersburg, he marched with his company to the Appomattox Court House, where he was paroled as part of Lee’s surrender and likely witnessed the general’s farewell speech before heading home.
The war finally over, James returned to Florida and, by 1867, was married and had settled deep in the woods of what would eventually become Pasco County in 1887, not far from the Anclote River.
Here, he and his new wife started a family and carved out a life of living from the land.
Remains of the former homestead still tell the story. Notched beams from the old log cabin lay atop of the ground. Several bricks strewn around a shallow depression in the soft earth make up the hand-dug well where the family retrieved fresh water.
The remnants of three animal pens can also be seen-- wire still attached to wood posts that might have held hogs. At the edge of the site is an area that early surveys showed as a prairie where cattle and horses likely grazed.
This was the McNeill homestead.
But, one unique and intriguing feature of the 19th century homestead site is the small family cemetery-- believed to contain McNeill’s first wife Martha and at least two sons.
Census records reveal between 1867 and 1879, James and Martha had at least five children-- John S., Donald J., Martha J., James F., and Georgia-- who were all likely born at the family’s home.
In 1879, McNeill also accepted a position to teach at the Lang School near Hudson. With the semester beginning on February 3, 1879, and ending June 13, 1879, records show he was paid $48.72 for the 4-month school year.
But, by 1880 he is shown as a widower caring for his four young children, as his wife Martha and young son Donald disappear from records-- laid to rest behind the family’s home.
When or how Martha and Donald died isn’t known.
After Martha’s death, James remained close to home and turned his attentions to farming and raising his children.
Land records reveal in 1882, fifteen years after settling there, he finally purchased the land comprising his 61-acre home site from State of Florida-- he paid $54.90 which equates to 90 cents an acre.
In 1889, he accepted another teaching position, this time at the Baillie School and was soon appointed as school supervisor. But, by August 1890 he resigned from the position, afterwards seeking work as an area carpenter.
With nothing more then a small colt, a pony, and a few carpenter tools, by 1905-- 61-years-old and living alone-- McNeill made the tough decision to sell the old farm.
He was growing old, and according to reports by his doctors, was suffering from a hereditary kidney disease and general rheumatism, particularly of the shoulder joints, with ankylosis in the right shoulder-- a result of injuries sustained during the Civil War.
In 1909, he married Elizabeth Tennessee Luffman Stevenson, widow of the late Henry Washington Stevenson-- his neighbor since 1866. Afterwards, he moved into Elizabeth’s home in Elfers and managed a small orange grove started by her first husband.
But, on December 13, 1917, James was widowed again when Elizabeth died-- laid to rest in the East Elfers Cemetery next to her first husband.
After Elizabeth’s death, James left Elfers and headed to San Antonio, near Dade City, where he bought a home near his daughter Martha Osborn and found employment on the local farms. At 76-years-old, he was also caring for his orphaned teenage grand-daughter, Lottie Christine Youngblood.
On October 4, 1922, James McNeill finally succumbed to death at the home of his son in Jasper, Florida, where he was living-- likely a result of his kidney disease.
Accompanied by his son, McNeill’s body was shipped to Vinson Funeral Home in Tarpon Springs, and then brought to Elfers for services at the Methodist church. A large number of family and friends attended the services and gathered by his graveside to pay their final respects.
Today, as McNeill’s memory lives on, his grave lies among the unmarked at the old Methodist cemetery, now known as -- believed to be next to his daughter in a family plot.
Sometime in the future, the East Elfers Cemetery committee hopes to honor McNeill by having a new VA headstone placed on his grave, commemorating his sacrifice during the Civil War.
So, next time you visit the J.B. Starkey Wilderness Park, take a few minutes to visit the former home site of Pasco veteran, pioneer, and family man James McNeill.
How to get there.
The McNeill homestead site is located along a trail that starts at the horse corral within the J.B. Starkey Wilderness Park. (See map included with this article)