AUGUSTUS OSWALD LANG
Mary Collar Linehan
All accounts of Palm Beach County history call Augustus Oswald Lang the first settler in what is Palm Beach -in fact the first settler on the shores of Lake Worth.
The details, however, of his sojourn here and the reason for his being here did not always agree. For a comprehensive article about Lang see “First in Palm Beach,” by Louis Capron, in Tequesta, 1965. For over 100 years incomplete and conflicting stories of his life in South Florida have been told. Many questions are brought to mind.
This article will relate some of the latest information which has come to light, as well as to try to find the truth of some of the long misquoted facts. It is hoped that this will pique the interest of historians and even further information will be available for a more comprehensive article at a later date. There is still much to be learned.
A truer story began unfolding in February, 1984, when Lang’s great granddaughter, Teresa Lewis, of Lake Worth, saw his picture in the exhibit room of the Historical Society of Palm Beach County, in the Henry Morrison Flagler Museum. Teresa recognized the name and knew that this was her great grandfather. She had not known that he was the first settler. She contacted the author of this article to learn what the Historical Society knew of her great grandfather and then began asking her family for information.
The picture, the only one known to exist, had been copied from The Knockabout Club in the Everglades, by Fred Ober, published in 1887. It was discovered by Stuart Mclver about 1975 and reproduced in his Yesterday’s Palm Beach. Incorporated in Ober’s story is an account of a murder which took place on the St. Lucie River in December 1873 - that of Augustus Oswald Lang.
It has not been determined where or when Lang was born or when he came to America. It is said that he came from Germany, where he had been a gardener for The King of Prussia/Grand Duke of Baden/King of Saxony. Documents attest to the fact that Lang was in South Florida by 1861. There was political unrest in Prussia!Germany about this time, so he may have come to America earlier.
Construction on the Jupiter Lighthouse had begun in 1855. Trouble with the Indians halted work for a time but it was completed and lighted 10 July 1860. Thomas Twiner was the keeper from 12 June 1860 to January 1, 1861, when J.F. Papy became the keeper, with A.O. Lang and Francis Ivy as assistants.
The Civil War broke out in April 1861 and President Lincoln proclaimed a blockade of the entire Confederate coastline. The Confederate government ordered that the lighthouses at Jupiter and Cape Florida be darkened, to enable blockade runners to slip in and out under cover of darkness. Papy professed to be sympathetic to the South, but it seemed he could not bring himself to darken his beloved light.
In August 1861, Lang, with Ivy and James Paine of St. Lucie, removed some of the apparatus to make the light inoperable. They deposed Papy, then proceeded to travel south to Cape Florida Lighthouse, where they broke the lens and took some parts back to Jupiter with them. It was a trip of 140 miles, 90 of it along the beach, walking.
A letter to Governor Madison Starke Perry and one to C.G. Memminger, Secretary of the Treasury, Confederate States of America, tell of their acts. Lang had resigned as assistant keeper so that he was not in the employ of the government when complying with the order sent to Keeper Papy.
Lang has been called a deserter in various printed articles, but no proof has been found that he was ever in the Confederate Army. He proved his loyalty to the South by darkening the two lighthouses.
Some 20 or 30 deserters and evaders were clustered in the settlement around the Miami River. They were men from both sides and from the army and navy, banded together under Major Valdez at Ft. Dallas.
Lang may have fled south to the shores of Lake Worth to make himself scarce if he were being hunted for his part in the destruction at the lighthouses. Perhaps he feared arrest by crews from the coastal boats. It seems more likely that he just wanted to be left alone to continue his horticultural pursuits. The first National Draft Act was the Confederate Draft Act in 1862. By this time Lang was well hidden away.
In the fall of 1866, Michael Sears/Zair/Zahr and his son, George, residents of the Biscayne Bay area, were returning from a trip to Titusville, then Sand Point, where they had gone to trade at the store closest to the South Florida settlers. They saw an opening in the barrier strip which had not been there when they had traveled north. Upon investigating, they sailed into Lake Worth. After the Searses sailed south for a mile or two, they found A.O. Lang on an island near the east shore of the lake. His home was on the site of Old Bethesda-by-the-Sea Church, one mile north of present day Flagler Bridge. It is said that Lang was surprised to learn that the war was over.
The Jupiter Lighthouse had been back in operation since 29 June 1866. Lang was 10 to 15 miles to the south. As it was the only source of night time light any where, wouldn’t he have seen it and wondered if the war was over?
One account tells of Lang living on the lake with “a pal, Matthews.” In an article in Teguesta 1955, William J. Schelling writes of the activities of the “Sagamore”, a Federal gunboat. In January, 1863, the “Sagamore” was in Jupiter. It had captured a blockade running sioop, “Julia”, with Matthews as the captain.
Another account said that Matthews was taken off his ship because of conduct unbecoming an officer. Servicemen thought that duty off the South Florida coast would be very desirable, but soon found that it could be very boring. This may account for much drunkenness.
Whether before the war or not, it was said that Matthews had been farming corn and potatoes at Jupiter with a Mr. Smith. A storm had made an inlet and flooded their crops. A Mr. Albert Smith is known to have been a lighthouse keeper for a short time. In addition, there was a Smith family in the Stuart—Ft. Pierce area. Frank and Joseph Smith were Justices of the Peace at St. Lucie in 1870. Another Smith figures in this Lang story.
After Michael and George Sears spoke with Lang, he very shortly left the shores of Lake Worth and went to Indian River country, on Tenmile Creek which runs into the North fork of the St. Lucie River. This location is west of present day Ft. Pierce, near White City. When the Searses returned to Biscayne Bay, they told Charlie Moore of the beautiful lake they had discovered. Charlie went to see for himself. Lang had left, so Charlie moved into his house.
From 1886 to 1873, Lang was busy with his horticultural activities. He may have made some trips back to the Lake Worth area to see how his plants there were doing. It is said that he kept a diary and records of his experiments. The family is still searching for this diary.
Teresa Lewis located a land record showing that on 25 November 1867, Augustus Oswald Lang bought from the Internal Improvement Fund of the State of Florida Section 13 in Township 33 South and Range 39 East. This property is located about 15 miles north of Tenmile Creek, just south of Vero Beach.
F.W. DeCroix, in his An Historical and Progressive Review of Miami. Fort Lauderdale and Other Sections in Dade County Florida, published in 1911, writes of Lang’s murder:
* A sad ending came to this honorable old man, who disregarded all obstacles in the way of fulfilling promises he had made. Later the old fellow moved his family from the Lake Worth district, and settled up on the Tenmile Creek, just above White City, in St. Lucie County. One day the old man was missing. Search was made, but to no avail, he could not be found.
* One Day a man named Hendry told a story that paralyzed the country. In a quarrel amongst Lang, Drawdy, and a man named Padgett, Drawdy and Padgett killed the old man Lang, and cut up the body and placed it in some alligator holes, the ‘gators destroying the corpse.
Young Hendry had witnessed the killing, and the two murderers so frightened him that he became insane over the tragedy, but before losing his mind, he revealed the facts and the two were brought to trial.., in Ocala, and received a sentence of eight years.’
Louis Capron’s comprehensive “First in Palm Beach,” (aforementioned), relates several versions of Lang’s death. Thomas Drawdy and Allen Padgett took a meal with Lang after which he ferried them across the creek. It was at this time that the men shot Lang.
Possible motives given by Capron for the murder varied widely:
1. Lang’s neighbors were jealous of the accomplishment of a man much better educated than they.
2. They accused him of killing their hogs and cattle.
3. They thought he had gold hidden on his property and wanted a free hand to look for it.
DeCroix stated that Lang had a wife and children while living on the shores of Lake Worth. Family records show that there was only one child, Walker Augustus Lang, born 23 February 1874, two months after his father was killed. His mother, Susan, was two months short of being eighteen and was Lang’s only wife.
Dugald Priest moved to the Ft. Pierce area with his family in 1868. His daughter, Susan, born 30 April 1856, married Augustus Oswald Lang in 1870. She had several miscarriages before Walker’s birth.
Susan married John Smith in 1880 and her mother, Sarah C. (Robinson) Priest, reared Walker. Susan died in Ormond, Florida in May 1918. She is buried in the Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church cemetery on Tomoka Avenue, west of
During his lifetime, Walker worked on the Florida East Coast Railway, built bridges, and after 1896, operated grocery stores in Ft. Lauderdale. Walker married Nora Neal after placing an ad for a wife in an agricultural magazine of the day.
They corresponded, then eloped and married on 17 September 1906. They had two daughters, Winnie Estelle and Augusta, named after Augustus, who are still living on Florida’s west coast.
Lang’s name does not appear in the histories of nearby areas so that it is not known whether he had lived in the Indian River country before coming to the Jupiter Lighthouse.
So much remains unanswered about Augustus Oswald Lang. Fortunately, more and more people are working hard to learn all they can about the first man to live in Palm Beach.
This article was written in 1986 and published in Update February 1987 by the Historical Association of Southern Florida in Miami. Since that time even more has been learned from family members living in Lake Worth and Deiray Beach.
In 1990 a diary was discovered in the Priest family. This has been very helpful in ascertaining the true story.
Augustus Oswald Lang married Susan Priest in Brevard County in 1870. She was 14 years old. He was 35. The above mentioned diary was written by Joseph Priest, Susan’s brother. Lang and Susan had one son, Walker Augustus. He was born 23 February 1874 two months after his father was murdered while living on Tenmile Creek west of Fort Pierce.
Susan went to the Daytona area to be with her family. Walker was raised by her grandmother, Sarah C. Robinson. Susan married secondly, John Smith, the only white man in Fort Pierce at that time.
A.O. Lang went back and forth from his land in St. Lucie County and his home on Lake Worth. In 1867, when he learned that the Civil War was over, he moved back to Tenmile Creek.