Miami, the city founded in 1896 on the land of a sole person

Aerial view of Miami / photo Towpilot on Wikimedia Commons

On September 14th, 1898, a few weeks after the US and Spain signed an armistice in the Spanish-American War and the Spanish army capitulated to the US in Manila, meningitis killed a middle-aged woman who left a series of debts but was buried in a preferential place at the Miami cemetery. It was only fair, since she was known by the nickname of Mother of Miami for having been practically its founder. Her name was Julia Tuttle.

Pedro Menéndez de Avilés

Miami is today a great city whose metropolitan area is close to five and a half million inhabitants, something really amazing because in 1891 it simply did not exist; it was a forested territory in Florida, inhabited since ten thousand years before, where Juan Ponce de León arrived in 1531, although it was Pedro Menéndez de Avilés who traveled through it in 1566 in search of his son, lost in a shipwreck, making contact with the Tequesta people and claiming it for Spain.

A religious mission created by Jesuit Francisco Villareal at the mouth of the Miami River testified to this possession, which in practice was harmful to the Tequesta because, as had happened in other places in America, smallpox caused its population to collapse, which was used by their ancestral enemies, the Maskoki or Muskogee, to defeat and subdue them. The survivors asked the viceroy for permission to emigrate to Cuba in 1711 but diseases continued to take their toll on the group and they almost disappeared. Three decades later, another mission was founded, this time under the protection of a fort, in Biscayne Bay, although it lasted less than a year.

The Spanish abandonment in the face of the hostility of the place left the door open to the British, who arrived in 1766 and established a colony under their usual formula of donating land – in this case a hundred acres – to those who settled in a stable manner. However, in 1787 Spain took over again, so that the colonizing project would not be consolidated until the beginning of the 19th century, with the United States becoming independent. It is curious that among the settlers who came were a Menorcan from nearby St. Augustine, who were joined by many others from Spanish Florida and the Bahamas. Around the same time, in the first quarter of the 19th century, the Seminole arrived and settled in the marshes.

The Seminole were a tribe related to the Maskoki but swelled in peculiar crossbreeding with members of other peoples who refused to move to the Indian Territory created in Oklahoma by President Andrew Jackson, especially their Cherokee neighbours, and also with thousands of Maroon slaves; the latter led them to war with the US government. They were defeated and decimated in successive campaigns, with most agreeing to march into Oklahoma. However, the prolongation of the fight in time, plus the excessive human and material cost due to the difficulty of the terrain, allowed a group of indomitable people to get permission to stay in the Everglades.

William Brickell / Image: History Miami

This turbulent situation led to very few people settling in the region, so that by the beginning of the last decade of the 19th century there were barely a handful of farmers, attracted by the government’s offer of 160 acres each. One of those pioneers was William Brickell, a native of Cleveland (Ohio), who settled with his family in South Florida in 1871, acquired several plots of land at the mouth of the river and built a post office near Fort Dallas, the current urban center of Miami but then a small town born from a military stronghold that once served to guard the Seminole but was abandoned at the end of the war. Brickell became a landowner who has gone down in history with the nickname of Father of Miami, although as we shall see, that fatherhood is quite spread out.

The irony is that if he was a father, the role of mother would be assumed by another person also from Cleveland, Julia DeForest Tuttle. Her maiden name was Sturtevant, daughter of an Ohio state senator, math teacher and owner of an elite school, who in 1870 moved to Biscayne Bay in South Florida in search of a more benign climate for his battered health. There he acquired a sixteen-hectare farm that he dedicated to growing oranges and other tropical fruits and flowers, until ten years later he returned to Ohio, already very ill, to die.

Julia DeForest Tuttle / Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

In the meantime, Julia had married but in 1886 she became a widow and discovered that her late husband’s foundry was not doing well, so her financial situation was delicate. She was forced to convert her house, a four-storey building, into a guesthouse, although her real intention was to raise money to go to Florida and settle on that wonderful plantation of her father’s, which epathed her when he visited it years ago. The opportunity arose when the federal government offered to buy 640 acres of land for those who would settle in the abandoned properties of Fort Dallas.

So she sold her Cleveland home and in 1891 marched to Florida with her two sons, Harry and Fanny, taking over the ownership of a former slave warehouse popularly known as The Barracks because it later served to house the soldiers, which she rehabilitated by making it her new home. It was the last remnant of that fort and would survive until 1924, when it was dismantled to make an apartment block, moving it piece by piece to Lummus Park, on the other side of the river.

Life there was more or less quiet, as befitted an eminently rural and sparsely populated place. However, at that time, progress was conceived in urban terms and people had to be convinced to move to Fort Dallas, which was difficult because there was nothing really attractive. The first thing that Julia considered necessary was to solve the isolation, for which the best thing was to get the railway to get there, just as it had happened in the West.

The Barracks, at Lummus Park / Image: Ebyabe on Wikimedia Commons

Thus, in 1895 she contacted a neighbor whom she had known since childhood, the aforementioned William Brickell, who by that time already owned a huge tract of land stretching from Coconut Grove to the Miami River. Together they turned to Henry Morrison Flagler, a New York tycoon who had been enriched by the oil business (in partnership with the Rockefellers he was the founder of Standard Oil) and whom they both knew because, by the mid-1860s, Cleveland had become the center of that industry along with Pittsburgh, northwestern Pennsylvania and New York itself.

Henry Morrison Flagler / Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

Flagler knew Florida because he had lived for a couple of years in Jacksonville and St. Augustine trying to alleviate his wife’s illness. It was in vain and when she died he married her nurse, deciding to make a different investment than usual to improve communications in that idyllic place. That’s how he built the Ponce de León Hotel and, seeing that in order to raise more and attract guests, good transportation was needed, he also started to build a railway line that was renamed the Florida East Coast Railway, which Julia Tuttle and William Brickell wanted to extend to Fort Dallas.

Flagler was receptive because he had a hotel network and Tuttle, who met with him personally in St. Augustine, offered him part of his land to build another hotel. However, the decision was not made until Mother Nature – another motherhood – intervened decisively: in the winter of 1894-1895, the so-called Great Freeze occurred in Florida, a series of consecutive frosts with temperatures of up to 17º F that not only destroyed the citrus crops and caused losses in the millions, causing many planters to abandon the business, but also killed the trees themselves.

But surprisingly, Biscayne Bay was not affected. Julia herself sent Flagler a bouquet of flowers and oranges inviting him to see it personally. He picked up the glove and went there, finding that the weather was indeed enviable. That definitely persuaded him to make the investment. In February 1896, the construction teams arrived with the mission of erecting the luxurious Royal Palm Hotel on a plot of land ceded by Tuttle, in whose surroundings a train station was also built because two months later the railway line arrived there.

Route of the Florida East Coast Railway / Image: Kmusser on Wikimedia Commons

That summer, some four hundred residents gathered in the Lobby Pool Room and voted to turn that modest town into a city, taking the necessary steps to encourage the arrival of new inhabitants. Canals were dredged, streets and water channels were built, various services appeared (schools, hospitals, churches) that Flagler himself sponsored, to the point that they proposed giving his name to the city. He rejected it and, in return, suggested putting in place that of an ancient local indigenous people with a development similar to that of the Calusas.

They were the Mayaimi or maimi. Hernando de Escalante Fontaneda had lived with them for some time (or with their Calusian neighbors, it is not very clear), after surviving a shipwreck, leaving testimony in 1575 -referred two centuries later by Spanish missionaries- that they built large mounds of land, like the Mississippi Culture. The Maya were evacuated to Cuba when Florida fell into British hands, but in those last years of the 19th century their former territory began to boil over again as thousands of immigrants from all over the world arrived. Some came from the United States, others from the Caribbean, configuring what is perhaps the most visible characteristic of Miami’s population (obviously, they listened to Flagler about the name): its multiethnic composition.

Florida tribes and their environment in the 16th century; the Mayaimi (in dark green) lived around the lake of the same name / Image: Nikater on Wikimedia Commons

As we told at the beginning, Julia Tuttle hardly had time to enjoy it because she died in 1898 at the age of forty-nine, falling into oblivion because she was half ruined after giving her land to Flagler, although the injustice has been rectified nowadays. As for William Brickell, he did enjoy the benefits and lived to see the place prosper, dying in 1908. Flagler made it to 1913. The three are considered the founders of Miami; a mother and two fathers.


Sources: Miami. The Magic City ( Seth H. Bramson) / The Cleveland Connection: Revelations from the John D. Rockefeller – Julia Tuttle Correspondences (Edward N. Akin) / Before the Pioneers: Indians, Settlers, Slaves, and the Founding of Miami (Andrew K. Frank) / Key Biscayne: A History of Miami’s Tropical Island and the Cape Florida (Joan Gill Blank) / More Than Petticoats. Remarkable Florida Women (Wynne Brown) / The birth of the city of Miami (Larry Wiggins) /Wikipedia