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South Florida: A Brief History

Paul S. George, Ph.D.

It wouldn’t have been too surprising if Miami had been renamed “Flagler” at the incorporation meeting back in 1896, since it was in that year that the Florida East Coast Railway, owned by Henry Morrison Flagler, reached Miami. Before that time, most of the people in the area were homesteaders and the only “towns” were Coconut Grove and Lemon City. Persuaded by land offers from Julia Tuttle and William and Mary Brickell, which were accompanied by fresh orange blossoms to prove that Miami was frost-free, Flagler agreed to extend his railroad south from West Palm Beach, build a luxurious hotel, and lay out the city of Miami. John Sewell, who would later serve as Mayor of Miami, observed, “The Florida East Coast Railroad reached here the latter part of April, 1896, and the passenger trains were soon put on. Then it seemed that the flood gates were opened and people came from everywhere.” Flagler kept his promise by also building the Royal Palm Hotel, constructing houses for workers, dredging a ship channel, and donating land for schools, churches and public buildings. When 368 voters incorporated the city on July 28, 1892, however, the name remained Miami.

1896 was not the first time the banks of the Miami River were the location of a community. Hundreds of years earlier, before Christopher columbus discovered the New World, the Tequesta Indians lived there. The first to appreciate South Florida’s mild climate, the Tequestans lives simply. Abundant food supplied from the land and sea made agricultural activities unnecessary.

In 1566, the Tequesta settlement was visited by Pedro Menendez de Aviles, his men, and Brother Francisco Villareal. One year earlier, Menendez had founded St. Augustine, the oldest city in the United States, and now came to Miami to establish a Jesuit mission. Within a few years it was abandoned and another attempt to Christianize the Tequestans was not made until 1743. That effort was also short-lived.

During the more than two centuries that Florida was controlled by Spain, the Tequestans and other Prehistoric Indians of Florida were decimated by European diseases and warfare. The lands they vacated attracted people from several of the Creek tribes in Georgia and Alabama who had entered Florida as early as 1704. Collectively, they became known as Seminoles, and during the ninteenth century they would engage in a series of bloody wars against the United States partly to defend their right to live in Florida. After the conclusion of the Third Seminole War in 1858, the few hundred Indians remaining in the state lived in the Everglades.

The first permanent white settlers in the Miami area arrived in the early 1800s. During the decades that followed, a wide variety of individuals left their mark on the history of this area. In the 1830s, statesman Richard Fitzpatrick from South Carolina operated, with slave labor, a successful plantation on the Miami River. He cultivated sugar cane, bananas, corn and tropical fruit. Major William S. Harney, in command at Ft. Dallas which was located on Fitzpatrick’s Planatation on the north bank of the Miami River, led several raids against the Indians during the Second Seminole War (1835-1842).

George Ferguson made $24,000 in 1850 by selling the comptie starch he manufactured in his mill farther up river. Carpetbagger William Gleason dominated Dade County politics during the Reconstruction Era. A few years later, Kirk Munroe, well known writer of books for boys, built a home in Coconut Grove. Many of the other settlers were homesteaders, attracted to the area by offers of 160 acres of free land by the federal government. And nearly everyone took an interest in the wrecking industry--the salvaging of cargo from ships wrecked on the Florida reefs. Those pioneer days, when the mail came once a week, travel was primarily by sailboat, children attended one-room schoolhouses, and the trading post was the lone store, ended with the arrival of Flagler’s Florida East Coast Railway. Soon there were doctors and lawyers, shoe stores and hardware stores, electric lights and telephones.

Beginning in 1896, blacks provided the primary labor force for the building of Miami. Restrictive clauses in land deeds confined blacks to the northwest section of Miami which became known as Colored Town. This community, today’s Overtown, established its own stores and businesses, schools, churches, a hospital, library, newspaper, and social organizations. As was the case in the rest of the nation, Miami did not face segregation and civil rights issues until the decades following World War II. The outbreak of rioting in the spring of 1980 is evidence that the struggle for equal rights continues.

As thousands of people moved to Miami in the early 1900s, the need for more land quickly became apparent. Up until then, the Everglades extended to three miles west of Biscayne Bay. Beginning in 1906, canals were dredged to remove some of the water from these lands. In 1916, a few farsighted individuals recognized the need to preserve some of the unique Everglades environment. In that year, Royal Palm Park, the nucleus of the Everglades National Park, was dedicated. Another area of land, Miami Beach, was poised for development in 1913 when a 2-mile wooden bridge built by John Collins was completed. A major developer of Miami Beach was Carl Fisher, a millionaire from Indiana, who built hotels, golf courses and polo fields, realizing the potential of South Florida as a major tourist resort.


By 1920, Miami’s population had grown to 29,571, an increase of 440% during the previous decade. That development was but a prelude to the great Florida Land Boom of the mid-1920s. People from all over the country flocked to South Florida in hopes of getting rich buying and selling real estate. They sent home tales of riches being made when orange groves and swamp lands were subdivided, sold, and developed.

Standing above all the other Boom-era development projects was Coral Gables. Created by George Edgar Merrick, Coral Gables began in 1921 with the Merrick family grove and a Mediterranean architectural style. By 1926, the city covered 10,000 acres, had netted $150 million in sales with over $100 million spent on development. Among the beautiful and distinctive landmarks in Coral Gables are the Venetian Pool, Douglas Entrance, the Biltmore Hotel, and many fine residences.

Other communities were also developed during the Boom, including Miami Shores, Hialeah, Miami Springs, Boca Raton, and Opa-locka. In 1925 alone, 971 subdivisions were filed for platting and 174,530 deeds recorded.

The Florida land boom fit the spirit of the Roaring Twenties when women were bobbing their hair and raising their hemlines, bootleg liquor was enjoyed at speakeasies, and South Florida became the nation’s winter playground with its beaches, fancy hotels, horse races, and top-name entertainers.

The Boom, dependent on continuing rising prices, could not last forever. In 1925, federal income tax specialists were examining real estate records for profits, the railroad and shipping lines were putting embargoes on all cargoes except foodstuffs, and anti-Florida propaganda was appearing almost daily in northern newspapers. Sales began slacking off and prices were not escalating as rapidly. Early in 1926, the 241 foot barkentine Prins Valdemar overturned in Miami’s harbor blocking the ship channel for several weeks. When a major hurricane struck South Florida in September of 1926, killing over one hundred people and causing millions of dollars in damage, Miamians were forced to confront the end of the Boom.

Miami did not have much time to recover from the 1926 Bust before the Depression Era of the 1930s hit the nation. There were a few bright moments, however. One was the growth of commercial aviation, made possible by the Kelly Air Mail Act of 1925. The flight of a Fokker tri-motor F-7 from Key West to Havana on October 28, 1927 marked the birth of Pan American World Airways. By 1935, Pan Am was connecting Miami with 32 Central and South American countries. At the same time, Eastern Airlines was flying daily between Miami, New York, Chicago and intermediate cities. During the decades that followed, aviation would continue to play a major role in Miami’s development, and today Miami International Airport is one of the busiest in the world.

The post Boom years also saw the development of a new architectural style commonly known as “Art Deco,” but including Zig Zag Moderne and Streamline Moderne. Most of the 200 hotels built on Miami Beach between 1935 and 1941, marking the return to prosperity for South Florida, are Art Deco. The area of 6th to 23rd Streets between Ocean and Alton Roads was designated the Art Deco Historic District by the National Register of Historic Places in 1979.

World War II brought the Depression Era to an end. Within months of the attack on Pearl harbor, German submarines were sinking tankers off Florida’s coasts. In order to combat these attacks, the Gulf Sea Frontier and Seventh Naval District headquarters were set up in Miami, the Submarine Chaser Training Center was established, and a U.S. Naval Air Station to house and service blimps was constructed. At the same time, the hotels and beaches of Miami Beach were converted to barracks and training grounds by the Army Air Force. During the War, over 500,000 enlised men and 50,000 officers were trained on Miami Beach.

Miami enjoyed another boom following World War II with construction, tourism, and aviation among the major industries. Beautiful new parks were established including Crandon Park, Cape Florida State Recreation Area, Biscayne National Park, and Everglades National Park. Tourism gave birth to the cruise ship industry and today Miami is the “Cruise Ship Capital of the World” with 3.5 million passengers departing annually from The Port of Miami.

Greater Miami’s soaring population received a significant boost in the 1960s when thousands of Cuban refugees arrived in Miami. They have made a major impact on Dade County, now a bilingual metropolis, owning more than one third of the local businesses including restaurants, furniture stores, garment plants, cigar factories, and banks. The Boatlift of 1980 brought over 100,000 more Cubans to the United States; their impact on South Florida remains to be seen.

But the story of South Florida has always been one of arrivals, from the early Tequesta Indians to the homesteaders of the 1800s, to the modern influx of Cuban and Haitian refugees, South Americans, Europeans, Canadians, and Americans from other states. Whatever South Florida’s future may hold, it is certain the “arrival” will remain a basic theme of our history.

Linda K. Williams
June 1983

Revised June 1995
Dr. Paul George



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