John T. Lesley

“A man with great influence...” – Tampa Journal, May 19, 1887.

A cattleman and pioneer in the Tampa Bay that dedicated his life to the growth of the city and the community.

On May 12th, 1835 in Madison County Florida, John Thomas Lesley was born. He was the eldest of the three children of Leroy and Indiana Lesley, who were both raised in South Carolina and made way to Florida. The Lesley family lived on a planation not far from the town of Madison before moving to Tampa in 1848. At the time, Tampa was still a location of backwoods and far from the development of the cigar industry that Tampa is highly known for. The relocation of the Lesley family would forever change Tampa, and the Lesleys would contribute to the growth city has made over the decades. John T. Lesley was involved in the Third Seminole War, where he would help the army force out Seminoles and even supposedly almost was killed by the famous Seminole Warrior “Billy Bowlegs” during a raid. After returning from war on May 17th, 1858, he would join the cattle industry which was currently in its prime in Hillsborough County. This industry grew in Florida because of the booming trade with Cuba led by James McKay. The cattle industry was a major influence on the economic growth of not only Hillsborough County but the state of Florida as well. John T. Lesley soon would form the “Sunny South Guards” that was originally a volunteer group to protect the city of Tampa, but eventually became something more. The Sunny South Guards supplied aid to the Confederate Army during the Civil War and would travel as far as Georgia and Tennessee as recruits in the war. They were one of the first formed groups to do so out of Tampa. Besides the Sunny South Guards, John T. Lesley commanded the “Cow Cavalry” where they would protect cattle from federal raiders and would set up cattle drives. These cattle drives would supply the Confederate army with food because of the blockades of supply. In his lifetime, John T. Lesley left his mark on the city of Tampa. Beside fighting in wars, such as the Civil War, he also accounted for service as a sheriff for two years before becoming the 12th mayor of Tampa in 1869. A decade after becoming Mayor of Tampa, he would be elected into the Florida House and eventually Senate in 1878. In addition to his acts of service and cattleman duties, he was a part of many establishments, such as being a part of the board of the First National Bank of Tampa also listed as the oldest bank in Florida. He was also one of the founders of the Tampa Electric Company, which is still a significant company in Tampa today. John T. Lesley also sold and contributed land to Henry B. Plant for the railroad expansion in Tampa, and land to the Ybor and Company to construct what Ybor is today. John T. Lesley made a significant impact on the growth of Tampa as we know it. He was a pioneer, businessman, and cattleman, making him one of the wealthiest men in the State of Florida. He also became one of the largest landowners in Hillsborough County during his lifetime.

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