Originally from Birmingham, Alabama, he moved with his parents Thomas and Elizabeth Starns Mitchell in 1846, at the age of fifteen to Jacksonville, Florida, and then shortly thereafter to Tampa, Florida. He had six brothers and two sisters.
Mitchell’s early education came from his mother and an itinerant Methodist minister who occasionally served as his tutor. By his teens, he began reading law books at the office of Judge James A. Gettis a well-known local attorney and was admitted to the Florida Bar at the age of eighteen. Not long after being admitted to the bar, he developed an affinity for politics and at the age of twenty-six was appointed Florida Attorney General. His annual salary was $400.
After the Civil War began, he resigned from being the Attorney General and enlisted in the Confederate States Army. As a strong supporter of Southern nationalism, when two members of his Masonic lodge enlisted in the Union Army, he had them expelled.
Finding other interests, he became the editor of the weekly newspaper, Florida Peninsular. After leaving the Confederate Army in 1873, he took a seat in the Florida House of Representatives, which he had been elected while serving. He then was then reelected after the war in 1875, which gave him more opportunities for public service. Soon, he was appointed as a Circuit Judge for the Sixth Judicial Circuit and held court from Key West up to Cedar Key.
During a trial, a fistfight broke out between counsel and he held both lawyers in contempt and fined each of the $50. Afterward, he learned that one of the attorneys was broke and didn’t have the means to pay the fine, so he handed him $50 and told him, “Now you go in and see the clerk and pay your fine, then get back in there and get this case settled.
From 1888 to 1891, he served on the Florida Supreme Court as an associate justice. When he left the Court in 1891, he started his campaign for governor.
The Democratic party in 1892 was in dissension especially when it came for them to select their candidate for governor. That year, the state convention was held in Tampa and none of the seven or eight candidates seemed to have the qualifications to bring the party together. As soon as Judge Mitchell’s name was proposed he was nominated. He won the election and served from 1892 to 1896. His term was plagued by several natural disasters. First, there was the “big freeze” when on December 29, 1894, the temperature dropped to fourteen degrees damaging the fruit and leaves on the orange and lemon trees. The weather started to warm which brought new buds and leaves, but then between February 7 and 10, 1895, the second wave of frigid air swept the state. In one night with very little marketable crop left, $50,000,000 worth of property disappeared.
Many farmers to recoup their losses turned to truck farming. The trucking business became a major factor in Florida’s economy. Another boost to Florida’s economy was cigar manufacturing in 1886 in Tampa. By 1896, the cigar industry produced 86,000,000 cigars.
The third disaster in Mitchell’s term was the September 28, 1896 hurricane that ripped across the state with 135 miles an hour winds, destroying Cedar Key. By the end of his term, he reported that the state was “in a prosperous condition,” but the government’s finances did not present “a healthy showing.”
At the end of his term as governor, he returned to Hillsborough County and was elected Clerk of the Court and subsequently County Treasurer. He remained the County Treasure until his death on October 14, 1903 and is buried at Oaklawn Cemetery.
The photograph is part of the public domain.