Born: May 12, 1835, Madison County, Florida
Died: July 13, 1913, Tampa, Florida
Term: March 1, 1869 - October 4, 1869
Born in Madison County, Florida, John Thomas Lesley moved to Tampa with his family in 1848. During the Third Seminole War, Lesley joined the Florida militia as a private but quickly was promoted to lieutenant. At the outbreak of the Civil War, he formed a company of Tampa men and was elected its captain. In October 1862, Lesley was commissioned a Major in the Confederate Army. At the end of the war, Lesley returned to Tampa where he worked to establish his financial and social position. During the next several years, Lesley served as sheriff for two years and built a sawmill that supplied much of the lumber used to re-build the town. He later became a cattle rancher and state legislator.
At the end of 1865, Tampa resembled a ghost town. The majority of residents had left the city during the war and there was no municipal government. The election of Edward A. Clarke as Mayor on October 25, 1866, was unable to substantially improve conditions. Clarke's administration was confronted with an empty treasury, yellow fever epidemics and frequent unrest in the city. The situation worsened with arrival of federal troops and administrators to impose the Reconstruction policies established by the U.S. Congress. Deeply resented by the population, soldiers and federal civil authorities were subjected to frequent harassment.
The antagonism between federal authorities and Tampa residents was the foundation for John Lesley's mayoral campaign in early 1869. He campaigned on a single platform that Tampa's charter should be revoked by the state legislature due to the City's destitute financial condition. The majority of residents agreed and Lesley was elected mayor on March 1, 1869. While a City Clerk, Treasurer and a City Council was elected, the Lesley Administration did little more than wait until the state legislature revoked Tampa's Charter due to an inactive government. On October 4, 1869, the state legislature responded as expected and revoked the City's charter. When the news reached Tampa, Lesley and other City officials resigned their positions. The Hillsborough County government appropriated all City properties and assumed responsibility for providing educational and other principal services to Tampa's residents. Tampa's status as a non-chartered city continued until August 1873 when residents voted to reincorporate the city.
After resigning, Lesley returned to his business ventures. In 1872, he sold his lumber mill to raise cattle for the lucrative Cuban market and accumulated a fortune. Lesley was also one of the founders of the First National Bank and the Tampa Electric Company which, in 1887, installed the first electric traffic lights in Tampa. In 1876, Lesley was elected to the Florida Legislature and was reelected in 1882 and 1886. He later campaigned and won a seat in the Florida Senate and was one of the members of the Constitutional Convention.
John Thomas Lesley passed away on July 13, 1913 in Tampa and was buried in Oaklawn Cemetery.
Sources for this Biographical Sketch:
Covington, Dr. James W. and Wavering, Debbie Lee, "The Mayors of Tampa: A Brief Administrative History," Tampa, FL: University of Tampa, 1987.
Grismer, Karl H., Tampa: A History of the City and the Tampa Bay Region of Florida, St. Petersburg Printing Company, FL, 1950.
Robinson, Ernest L., History of Hillsborough County, Florida: Narrative and Biographical, The Record Company, St. Augustine, FL, 1928.
Tampa Council Minutes, City of Tampa Archives, Tampa, FL
January 1, 1857 - October 2, 1891 Microfilm Roll # 1
1869 Florida Peninsula Newspaper Index, Florida Heritage Collection