How DeFuniak Springs Acquired Its Name
By Anna Reardon, Staff Writer
The man for whom the town of DeFuniak Springs was named, was a Frenchman, according to his grandson, Colonel William Q. DeFuniak of Santa Cruz, California. He is thought to have been born in Rome, Italy although a biographical encyclopedia dated 1878 gives his birthplace as near Trieste, Austria. Several records agree that his birthdate was August 15, 1839.
Frederick DeFuniak’s grandparents fled from France during the French Revolution, taking with them their twelve-year-old son. Alfred; thus they escaped the guillotine and took refuge in Rome. It is believed that Alfred returned to France and attended the St. Cyr Academy, which was founded by Napoleon. When Alfred grew to manhood he became an officer in the Papal Guards and married a young lady from Trieste, Austria. Born to this couple was a son, Albert, a daughter, and a son, Frederick.
When the elder Count DeFuniak died, his title descended to Albert and Frederick became a baron under the European traditions of nobility. During the era of Napoleon III, Count Albert DeFuniak became a cavalry officer in the French army; later he was lent to the Turkish army as an instructor, stayed in Turkey, renounced his Christian religion and all rights pertaining to his title. He changed his name to Mehetnet Ali, served as Governor-General of Albania and was assassinated about 1875. At the time of his death, the title “Count” descended to Frederick DeFuniak.
According to some records Frederick DeFuniak spent his boyhood in Rome and other parts of Italy. When about fourteen, he was sent to Vienna where he studied civil and mechanical engineering at the Austrian School for Engineers, later graduating from the Polytechnic High School in August, 1857. Upon graduating, he went immediately to Cairo, Egypt where he was engaged as an assistant engineer on the Alexandria and Cairo Railroad. In 1859, he returned to Italy and entered the military. He was a leader in the fight to remove Austrian domination and unify Italy.
In May, 1862, Frederick DeFuniak left Rome for the United States, staying several months in New York City, learning the language. The DeFuniak family history indicates that he had been offered a commission in the Union Army which he declined. He is said to have been placed under surveillance by Secret Service agents. He ﬂed his hotel under cover of darkness, leaving behind his clothing and other possessions, crossed the Ohio River into Kentucky, then into Tennessee where he joined the Confederate Army. He carried letters of introduction to Generals Dix and Beuregard.
While serving as an engineering officer on the staff of General Richard Taylor in West Tennessee, Frederick DeFuniak was wounded. He was dropped off at the plantation of Captain Richard Browning at Hernando, Mississippi, where he was nursed back to health by Miss Olivia Browning. In story book fashion, he and Olivia Browning were married after the war. (Captain Browning, Olivia’s father, was killed at the battle of Atlanta.)
After the end of the Civil War, Frederick DeFuniak became a civil engineer for several southern railroads, most importantly the Louisville and Nashville Railway; where he was promoted to Chief Engineer and General Manager.
About 1880 the L. and N. decided to build the Pensacola and Atlantic division through the wilderness of northwest Florida. A construction camp was built at an open pond where a railway station was to be built later. Officials of the L. and N. agreed that this would be an ideal resort location. It is not clear whether Frederick DeFuniak ever visited the area, but the story goes that he and several other ofﬁcials met at the exclusive Pendmen’s Club in Louisville, ﬂipped a coin or rolled some dice to decide who would have the honor of having the new town named for him. Frederick DeFuniak won, so that is how the town acquired its name.
Captain DeFuniak was a member of the American Society of Civil Engineers, a corresponding member of the Austrian Society of Architects and Engineers and a member of the Roman Catholic Church. He was ﬂuent in English, French, Italian, Turkish and Greek languages. He is described as a “fair” portrait painter, fond of scientiﬁc investigation and above all, a mathematician of unusual excellence.
His personality is described with such terms as politeness, lack of ostentation, somewhat retiring, genial in company, a wonderful organizer and manager. He is said to have been one of the leading engineers in the United States and that he commanded a high degree of respect both professionally and socially.