Written by Andrew K. Frank, author of Before the Pioneers: Indians, Settlers, Slaves, and the Founding of Miami
History is as much about remembering the past as it is about forgetting it. In this regard, Miamians have done more of the latter than the former, engaging in a peculiar form of historic amnesia that shortchanges Miami’s ancient roots.
Let me be clear. Many Miamians celebrate their history, but they largely limit their attention to the modern age. The city celebrates Julia Tuttle and Henry Flagler as its founders, and tourists and residents visit the early twentieth-century homes and buildings at Vizcaya, the Deering Estate, South Beach, or the Downtown Miami Historic District. In doing so the “Magic City” has forgotten the magic of its ancient past.
Unbeknownst to most, Miami’s downtown area has been continuously occupied for thousands of years. St. Augustine may proclaim itself the oldest city in America, yet by the time the Spanish community was established there in 1565, a thousand-year old community already existed at the mouth of the Miami River. Only blocks from today’s American Airlines Arena, this site now bursts with the activity born of a Marriott hotel, Whole Foods, and the construction of a mixed-use development known as Met Square Miami. Underneath these modern marvels of cement and steel lie the remains of a largely hidden story.
For around 4,000 years, the mouth of the Miami River has been a continuous meeting place and home for various peoples in the region. At first, indigenous Floridians came down the river to take advantage of the bay and to access trade routes that connected them to the Caribbean, Bahamas, Atlantic Ocean, and Gulf of Mexico. By the time Ponce de Léon visited the bay in 1513, the Tequesta Indians and their ancestors had permanently occupied the bank for more than a thousand years.
A few decades later, Franciscan missionaries established a church to convert the Tequesta to Catholicism and to incorporate them into the Spanish Empire. For many years the Indian community at the mouth of the river would embrace the survivors of slave raids and of the epidemics that periodically ravaged the peninsula. Most of these Native American residents would ultimately evacuate to Havana, but some remained behind and traded with Bahamian sailors and refugees from across the American South, Caribbean, and Atlantic world.
By the nineteenth century, Miami became part of the Southern slaveholding community. John Egan obtained a land grant to the site in 1806, evicted the squatters who occupied but technically did not own the land, and imported enslaved Africans to construct a home for him and cultivate the land. Richard Fitzpatrick later purchased the site from Egan and expanded on this plantation ideal, but in 1835 he fled because of the Second Seminole War. As soon as Fitzpatrick evacuated his 60 enslaved Africans from the property, the U.S. military took over his estate, occupied it, and renamed it Fort Dallas. From the new fort, Abner Doubleday—who would later gain fame as the founder of baseball—and others launched raids against the Seminoles who repeatedly came to the coasts to trade and harvest coontie.
By the time of the Civil War, a mixed group of draft dodgers and others made the location their home. This motley crew lived in buildings that were erected by Egan’s and Fitzpatrick’s enslaved workers. They harvested fruits from the trees that the planters and sailors had left behind, took advantage of a freshwater well the army had recently built, and otherwise lived off the bounty of the coastal estuaries and occasional shipwrecks.
After the Civil War, the land at the mouth of the river changed hands several times until 1891 when Julia Tuttle purchased the site. She moved into a home on the property that had been built by enslaved Africans and occupied by various wreckers, army officers, and Indians. She complained about the ragged shape of the preexisting buildings and about the unruly “wild lime trees” that the Bahamians had planted years earlier. Although she called the site Fort Dallas, she proclaimed that she was starting the community anew. Present day Miamians tend to agree with her.
Despite the existing buildings and cultivated land, she persisted in referring to the land as wild and untamed. “It may seem strange to you but it is the dream of my life to see this wilderness turned into a prosperous country,” Tuttle wrote. One day, she hoped to turn “this tangled mass of vine brush, trees and rocks” into “homes with modern improvements surrounded by beautiful grassy lawns, flowers, shrubs and shade trees.” Tuttle wanted to “settle” a place that had been settled for centuries.
Ultimately, Tuttle would lure Henry Flagler, who brought the East Coast Railroad and built the Royal Palm Hotel on her site, to Miami. Constructing the hotel ultimately resulted in the physical destruction of Miami’s ancient history. Construction crews razed Tequesta mounds and reused the debris as fill. They reburied skulls and bones in sinkholes. They carried away evidence of the missionaries, enslaved people, and others. Even the coral rock walls from the nineteenth century were destroyed.
Tuttle and Flagler refashioned the “infant” city of Miami as a place built from scratch, and they convinced nearly everyone that this was the case. The opulence of the hotel and the boosterism of its Gilded Age developers obscured its recent and not-so-recent past, allowing historians and others to imagine south Florida as largely “untouched by the hand of man.”
It is far too common to hear that Miami is too young to have a distinguished history. But in fact, the bulldozer has destroyed all but a few physical reminders of the past. Many Floridians bemoan the paving of paradise, and few would dare deny that we have routinely erased the old in deference to the new. South Florida seems to have an unusually strong devotion to building the modern on the ruins of the old. As a result, few imagine Miami having a history that competes with the longevity and prominence of Jamestown (1607), Boston (1630), or Charleston (1670). I beg to differ. Miamians may have historic amnesia but they do not lack for a past.
Andrew K. Frank is the Allen Morris Associate Professor of History at Florida State University. He is the author of Before the Pioneers: Indians, Settlers, Slaves, and the Founding of Miami. He is also the author of Creeks and Southerners: Biculturalism on the Early American Frontier as well as numerous other books and articles on the history of Florida and the southeastern Indians.