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Florida Guide > Other Florida

A Brief History of Miami - Part 1

A Brief History of Miami – Part 1 – The Early Days

The word ‘Miami’ comes from the Seminole Indian for ‘big water’ and probably refers to the Miami River. The city is a melting pot of cultures, and a vibrant and colourful place to visit. Half the population of Miami is Hispanic, which means you can’t help but experience Latin American food, music and, of course, language. It is one of the southernmost cities of the USA, and in the summer it gets hot, hot, hot. It is no wonder that it is a popular area for snowbirds, who escape the freezing temperatures of the more northern states. In fact, Miami has often been called ‘God’s Waiting Room’, a reference to the large number of elderly people who spend their final days here, basking in the sunshine.

With its warm, truly tropical climate, visitors can expect highs of 90 or more in the summer, and lows of 80 in the winter. Occasionally, in the winter, a cold front will come through which will lower the temperatures, but these rarely last for long, and the weather in winter is usually significantly warmer than Orlando – 20 degrees or more! The average monthly temperatures have never been less than 63 degrees, so it enjoys a truly tropical climate, mainly due to the warm Gulf Stream. The rainy season is from May to September, with the dry season being mainly in the winter.

If you visit Miami you can’t help but see the names Flagler, Tuttle, Brickell, and Collins remembered for perpetuity in street names and causeways. These people shaped the history of Miami, and their legacy is still visible today.

William Brickell and his family moved to Miami in 1871 from Cleveland, Ohio. They opened a trading post and post office, and soon owned large tracts of land from the Miami River to Coconut Grove. Some of this land was used by the railroad company. Brickell Avenue was designed and paid for by Mary Brickell. Their friends, the Tuttles, also from Cleveland, purchased 640 acres of land on the North bank of the Miami River, and became the second largest landowners. Julia Tuttle was a woman of great vision, and bought 640 acres of orange groves. She believed that a great city would be built one day, and it would become the gateway to the Americas.

Henry Flagler was an oil magnate, who, together with John D Rockefeller created a vast empire. Another great visionary, he began developing the east coast of Florida, purchasing land and building hotels in St Augustine, north of Miami. He famously started the railroad system, and by 1894 his railway had reached Palm Beach. When Julia Tuttle suggested he extend this to the Miami area he was, at first, not interested. However, a trip to Miami soon changed his mind, when he saw the potential for this area. Following the devastating effect of two great freezes on other parts of Florida, he became aware that Miami had not been similarly affected, and was the only place where the citrus trees had survived. He agreed to extend the railway in return for hundreds of acres of prime real estate. Julia Tuttle gave him the land to build a magnificent hotel near the confluence of the river and Biscayne Bay, as well as a railway station. The first train entered Miami on 13th April 1896, and by this time the city of Miami was already being built on both sides of the river. His magnificent hotel, the Royal Palm Hotel, was completed in 1897, and stood 5 storeys high, and had a 578 ft long veranda, and more than 400 rooms.

Sadly, Julia Tuttle’s generosity left her heavily in debt, and on her death her children had to sell the remnants of her land to pay them off. She is often referred to as the ‘Mother of Miami’ and Henry Flagler as the ‘Father of Miami. ’ In 1960 her great contribution was recognised when the causeway I-195 over Biscayne Bay, was named in her honour. Many of us will drive over this causeway on our way to Miami Beach, or the Port of Miami. She was interred in the City of Miami Cemetery, in 1898, and was buried with great honour.

If you have ever visited South Beach you cannot have failed to have walked along Collins Avenue. John Collins was another visionary, who, together with Carl Fisher, purchased much land in the mangrove swamps. People laughed at him, and thought he was mad, but he transformed the swamp into habitable land and laughed all the way to the bank, when he completed the present day Miami Beach.

Carl Fisher, an American entrepreneur who conceived the Lincoln Highway, the first road to cross America, also created the Dixie Highway, which runs all the way from Michigan to south Florida. He built several luxury hotels, including the famous Flamingo Hotel. Fisher Island, south of Miami Beach, and named after Carl Fisher, is one of the wealthiest and most exclusive residential areas in the US, much favoured by film stars and pop singers for their homes. By 1926 he was worth an estimated $100 million, but lost his fortune in the 1929 Stock Market crash, and ended his days in a modest cottage in Miami Beach.

However, the history of Miami goes back much further, when more than 10, 000 years ago the Paleo Indians settled along the edge of south Biscayne Bay. The Tequesta Indians were not farmers, but lived by hunting, fishing and gathering fruits and roots. Following the arrival of the Spaniards in 1513, Florida’s native population was almost completely wiped out by diseases such as smallpox, and war. Spain controlled Florida from 1585 for nearly 250 years, but sold it to the United States in 1821 for the princely sum of $5 million. The Seminole Indians came to Florida from Georgia and Alabama, in the 1700’s, and lived closely with another group of Indians who spoke the Mikasuki language. They often gave protection to escaped black slaves, and survived by fishing and hunting, whilst living in simple shelters with thatched roofs. As Florida developed, they lost hunting land to settlers and tourists. The Seminole wars, which erupted over the efforts by the US to relocate Seminole Indians west of the Mississippi river, were long and bloody, and resulted in the depopulation of the Miami area. Near the end of the 1830’s the United States Army established Fort Dallas on an abandoned slave plantation. However, as late as the 1890’s only a few families lived in Miami.

In fact it was Julia Tuttle who purchased the Fort Dallas land to build her home. However, the birth of Miami was not without its traumas, notably a fire which destroyed much of the business district on the morning after Christmas, 1896, and a yellow fever epidemic, which led to many people fleeing the area.

Who could have imagined that such a dynamic and constantly changing city would grow out of the mangrove swamps?

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Page added on: 14 May 2007
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