The Knight Family: Pioneers in the U.S., Florida and Boca Grande
Tales of Island Life: August 2023
The Knight family is not only an early Florida family but an early American family. As Steve Godwin, a Knight family member, told during a 2012 History Byte, ancestors of the Knights were in Virginia in the 1600’s among the early English colonists. Over the next two centuries, they continued south into the Carolinas, Georgia and finally Florida.
In 1844 they settled in Knights, Florida near Plant City where they ranched cattle. Descendant Johns Knight Jr. suggests that earlier generations of the Knights had raised cattle and probably brought a herd with them from Georgia then added to that herd by rounding up some of the wild cattle then roaming Florida.
The Town of Knights, Florida Today
From there, the more recent generations moved further south to then Manatee County which included the area we know today as Nokomis. In 1868 Jesse Knight, his wife Carolyn, their children and 300 cattle moved to land just south of Shakett Creek. Jesse was a committed Methodist and an un-ordained preacher. The Knights held the area’s first church services in their home. When the house became too small, they built an arbor on the property which served as the church for about five years. In 1893, they donated land and lumber and an 18 by 24 foot schoolhouse was built. The church then met in the school.
In 1903, Knight again donated land and a new church building was constructed. The church had stained glass windows, a belfry and a cast iron bell which had come from an old coal and wood burning locomotive. According to the church history, when Knight died at the age of 94, the bell tolled 94 times in his honor.
The long-time connection of the Knights with the Methodist church recalls a story Mary Knight Vickers told at History Bytes a few years ago. The Gasparilla Island Knights always attended the Methodist Church until sometime during World War II. George Knight, Mary’s grandfather, had four sons fighting in the War when at a Sunday service the minister suggested that those fighting were breaking the Commandment “Thou shalt not kill.” Grandfather Knight and family stood up, left the church and became Baptists.
In 1868 while Jesse and Carolyn Knight moved to Nokomis, his father Samuel Knight, wife Mary Roberts Knight, son Joel Knight and wife Virginia Mitchell Knight and family moved to Charlotte Harbor and established what is described as a “cattle kingdom.” In 1989 Johns Knight Sr. described the Knight kingdom to the Beacon as ranging from Kissimmee to Tampa to the Myakka and Peace Rivers. As in Nokomis, the Knights were early members of the Trinity United Methodist Church which has met continuously since 1873. The Knights built a dock and a store on the Port Charlotte side of the Peace River to ship cattle and fish.
George Knight, grandfather of Mary Vickers Knight and Johns Knight Jr., was a commercial fisherman in Lemon Bay in the early 1900’s. The island he settled is still known as Knight Island. He was also the first Knight to work and live on Gasparilla Island. He arrived in 1906 and helped to build the railroad trestle which still exists, in part, at the north end of the island. From 1917 to 1944, he, his wife Francis and their six children lived and were caretakers of Journey’s End which was owned by William Johns and family. George was also a fishing guide for the Johns. From 1944 to 1948, George continued caretaking Journey’s End for Mr. and Mrs. Anthony B. Drexel of Philadelphia. During his time at Journey’s End, George repaired the main house, built a road, a garage, and the Circle and Red Roof cottages on the property.
The Knights have held many jobs – cattlemen, preacher, shippers, land owners, sheriff, boat builders, realtors and librarian. Stay tuned for the follow-up story on the Knights post-World II when they built some of the best boats in southwest Florida and demonstrated their seamanship as boat operators, fishing guides and sea rescue operators.