Miami: One Hundred Years of History

By Paul S. George, Ph.D.

Few cities of such youth can claim a history as eventful, significant, and tumultuous as that of Miami. From its beginnings as a tiny settlement along the Miami River to the robust international city of today, Miami has represented for multitudes of new residents a place to begin anew, a gateway to a better tomorrow. And at no time has this been more true than the present.

The Beginning

The story of Miami begins more than 10,000 years ago with a settlement of Paleo-Indians along the edge of south Biscayne Bay near today’s Charles Deering Estate. Many millennia later, Tequesta Indians entered the lush, subtropical area and built settlements stretching from the Florida Keys to Broward County, with the largest concentrations along the north bank of the Miami River and on Key Biscayne.

Like Florida’s other native inhabitants, who numbered more than 350,000 at the time of the Spanish entrada in 1513, the lifestyle of the Tequestas changed radically, and for the worse, following the Spanish arrival. Victims of disease, war and other dislocations, the Tequestas, along with Florida’s other native populations, had virtually vanished 250 years after the entry of the Spanish.

Beginning in 1565, Spain exercised control over Florida for nearly 250 years. Spain’s colonization effort is divided into two eras separated by a twenty-year British interregnum in the late eighteenth century.

During the Second Spanish Period, which stretched from 1784 to 1821, Spain liberalized her settlement policies in an effort to develop her colony, encouraging, in addition to her own countrymen, residents of other lands and faiths to settle in Florida. In the early 1800s, a few Bahamian families accepted Spanish land offers along the Miami River and on Biscayne Bay, and farmed in those lush areas.

In 1821, Spain sold Florida to the United States for five million dollars in Spanish damage claims against the American government. One year later, Florida became a territory, marking the beginning of its march toward statehood. In 1830, Richard Fitzpatrick, a prominent figure in the politics of Territorial Florida, purchased the Bahamian-held lands on the Miami River, and established a slave plantation over a portion of them. Sixty slaves cultivated Fitzpatrick’s land. Fitzpatrick, however, abandoned his plantation soon after the commencement of the Second Seminole War.

The Seminole Wars

The Second Seminole War, fought between 1835 and 1842, was the longest, bloodiest Indian war in American history (The First Seminole War was waged in several parts of northern Florida in 1818). The conflict erupted following efforts by the United States to relocate Seminole Indians west of the Mississippi River in Indian Country (today’s Oklahoma and a portion of Arkansas). The Seminoles were renegade members of the Creek nation who had left their ancestral home in Georgia in the previous century for Florida.

The Second Seminole War led to the rapid depopulation of Miami and other parts of southeast Florida. A small military force replaced the civilian population near the end of the 1830s, as the United States Army established Fort Dallas on a portion of Fitzpatrick’s abandoned slave plantation on the north bank of the stream. Soldiers from Fort Dallas periodically paddled upriver and into the nearby Everglades in an effort to engage the elusive Seminoles in combat.

The Second Seminole War ended in 1842. Shortly thereafter, Fitzpatrick’s nephew, William English, acquired the former’s Miami River possessions and reconstituted the slave plantation, adding new buildings to the complex. A man of large ambitions and vision, English platted the “Village of Miami” on the south bank of the river. He sold several lots in that development before leaving the area, at the beginning of the 1850s, for California and the gold rush.

The Third Seminole War (1855-1858) prompted the United States Army to reestablish Fort Dallas on the English property. Although it was fought on a far smaller scale than the previous conflict, this final Seminole War further discouraged settlement in Miami.

While the Indian problem had receded by the latter decades of the nineteenth century, the site of today’s Miami consisted of only a few families as late as the 1890s. Dade County, stretching from Indian Key to the Jupiter Inlet, contained less than 1,000 persons by the beginning of the century’s last decade. Undoubtedly, the area was among America’s last frontiers.

Miami Is Born

Miami Avenue, 1896But change was in the air. Small homesteading communities were arising along Biscayne Bay and many influential pioneers were among the incoming residents. Julia Tuttle moved to the area in 1891 and purchased the Fort Dallas land to build her home. A woman of great foresight, Tuttle prophesied that a great city would someday arise in the area, one that would become a center of trade with South America and a gateway to the Americas.

Across the river from Tuttle lived William and Mary Brickell and their large family. The Brickells arrived in Miami at the outset of the 1870s, and quickly established themselves as successful Indian traders as well as shrewd real estate investors.

Meanwhile, Henry M. Flagler, a multi-millionaire from his partnership with John D. Rockefeller in Standard Oil, was extending his railroad south along Florida’s east coast, and developing cities and resorts along the way. In 1894, Flagler’s railway entered West Palm Beach.

During the following year, in the wake of two devastating freezes that wreaked havoc on Florida’s farm crops but failed to reach Miami, Flagler met with Julia Tuttle. He agreed to extend his railway to Miami in exchange for hundreds of acres of prime real estate from Tuttle and the Brickells.

Additionally, the great industrialist agreed to lay the foundations for a city on both sides of the Miami River and build a magnificent hotel near the confluence of the river and Biscayne Bay. Flagler had been quietly planning this extension long before his fateful meeting with Tuttle, since he wanted to bring his railroad all the way to Key West and link it with other parts of his vast system, which included a steamboat line and a resort in the Bahamas.

The first train entered Miami on April 13, 1896. By then a city was arising on both sides of the Miami River. The heart of the community was a retail district along Avenue D (today’s Miami Avenue) emerging north of the river, in an area of piney woods.

On July 28, 1896, 344 registered voters, a sizable percentage of whom were black laborers, packed into the Lobby, a wood frame building on Avenue D standing near the Miami River. They voted for the incorporation of the City of Miami, along with the Flagler slate of candidates.

By then, the trappings and institutions that accompany developing communities everywhere, such as a newspaper, bank, stores, and churches, had appeared. What separated Miami from other frontier communities was Henry M. Flagler’s magnificent Royal Palm Hotel.

Standing five stories tall (its rotunda in the center added another story to the structure), the yellow frame building was topped by a red mansard roof and counted among many prominent features a 578-foot long verandah. The building contained more than 400 rooms.

Soon after it opened in January 1897, the Royal Palm became a popular resort for America’s Gilded Age princes, including John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie and the Vanderbilt family.

Miami endured a series of traumas during its first years as a city. A fire destroyed much of the business district on the morning after Christmas 1896. Restless, troublesome and even violent troops among the 7,500 men bivouacked in Camp Miami during the Spanish-American War of 1898 threatened the residents of the small community. The following year a fearsome yellow fever epidemic forced many families out of their homes to seek temporary, safe housing until the disease subsided.

In spite of these perils, early Miami grew quickly and by the beginning of the new century, the fledgling city contained 1,681 residents. Tourism and agriculture represented its chief economic endeavors. New neighborhoods appeared on both sides of the river. Miami had shed its frontier ambiance for that of a small southern town.

Significant projects in the century’s first decade dictated future directions. Henry Flagler succeeded in securing federal funds for the construction of a deep water channel as well as for the dredging of the Government Cut, connecting Miami’s new bayfront port with the Atlantic Ocean lying several miles east of it. Flagler was also instrumental in connecting the Keys through the extension of the Florida East Coast Railway to Key West, some 120 miles south of Miami.

“Land by the Gallon”

The State of Florida embarked on an ambitious program of Everglades drainage in 1906. Its goal was to provide fertile new lands for agriculture. Two years later, a dredge started digging a drainage ditch near the headwaters of the Miami River, and by 1913, the Miami Canal connected the river with Lake Okeechobee, while the water from the swampland was carried out to sea along connecting waterways.

Everglades Reclamation (or drainage) led to the birth of a feverish real estate industry for Miami and much of southeast Florida as large speculators purchased millions of acres of reclaimed land from the State of Florida, then marketed it aggressively in many parts of the nation. The unsavory sales tactics of promoters who sold unwitting investors land that was underwater earned for Miami an enduring reputation for marketing “land by the gallon.”

By 1910, Miami’s population had soared to nearly 5,500, while the number of tourists and new business establishments rose sharply. Twelfth Street, today’s Flagler Street, had eclipsed Avenue D as Miami’s most important thoroughfare becoming the address for the city’s leading business establishments. Twelfth Street’s cachet continued to rise with the opening of the Burdine department store’s new five-story building, the city’s first “skyscraper,” in 1912.

Colored Town

Colored Town arose in the immediate aftermath of the city’s incorporation when land deeds to property within the municipal limits prohibited its sale to blacks everywhere except for that quarter. Despite deep pockets of poverty and a glaring absence of municipal amenities found elsewhere, this “suburb” hosted a rich array of enterprises, institutions and activities. The quarter’s main thoroughfare was Avenue G (Northwest Second Avenue), known as Little Broadway for its nightclubs and dance halls, as well as the sparkling roster of nationally renowned black entertainers who visited and performed in those attractions.

Black Miami grew quickly, comprising twenty-five to forty percent of Miami’s population in its first generation of existence. Later called Overtown, this region would grow rapidly before experiencing a period of steep decline beginning in the 1960s for a host of reasons, including the construction of an extensive expressway system that ripped through the heart of the quarter and led to the displacement of 20,000 residents (about one-half of its population).

Miami’s First Flight

Miami’s boisterous 15th birthday celebration in 1911 featured an aerialist soaring in a Wright Brothers airplane over a Flagler-built golf course west of Colored Town. For most Miamians this event marked their first glimpse of an airplane. The experience served as a harbinger for the city’s emergence as one of the nation’s early aviation centers, since Miami’s climate, level topography, and close proximity to water made it ideally suited for aviation activity.

Soon after the inaugural aerial display, Glenn Curtiss, a famed aviator, arrived and established a flight school. By the time America entered World War I in 1917, Miami and the surrounding area hosted several flying schools, including a facility near the Miami Canal that Curtiss operated for future combat pilots in the Great War.

Beauty of Miami

Tourism boomed before and after World War I primarily through the efforts of Everest G. Sewell, a self-taught public relations whiz who headed the Miami Chamber of Commerce’s tourist promotional campaign. Many prominent visitors built large, stately homes along beautiful Brickell Avenue, creating a “Millionaire’s Row.” The thoroughfare’s most prominent resident was William Jennings Bryan, presidential candidate and a sterling orator, who regaled crowds in Miami’s Royal Palm Park with his Sunday Bible addresses.

Bryan’s beautiful Villa Serena was overshadowed, however, by James Deering’s Villa Vizcaya, a multi-million dollar Renaissance-era palazzo with extensive gardens overlooking Biscayne Bay. Built between 1914 and 1916, Vizcaya employed ten percent of Miami’s population in its construction.

Miami was already booming when the Roaring Twenties began. The city’s population had climbed to nearly 30,000, a 440 percent increase over the figure for 1910. It represented the largest per capita increase of any municipality in the nation. Its expanding borders now extended several miles in each direction beyond the original parameters. At the outset of the 1920s, the Miami Herald marveled at the “astounding growth of Miami as a tourist center.”
Increasing numbers of tourists remained in the area after the winter season had ended, many becoming permanent residents. But this growth would pale by comparison with what lay ahead—the onset of the great real estate boom of the mid-1920s.

The Land Boom

Venetian Pool, 1924Speculation brought people from all parts of the nation to Florida in quest of quick wealth in the overheated Florida real estate market and Miami was its storm center. In the late summer of 1925, as the boom neared its zenith, nearly 1,000 subdivisions were under construction in Miami and its environs. Speculators were selling lots several miles from the city’s center for fantastic profits. Beautiful developments bearing a Spanish eclectic or Mediterranean Revival style of architecture arose in areas that had only recently been farms or woodland. Most prominent here were the sparkling new municipalities of Coral Gables and Miami Shores.

The annexation of Lemon City, Coconut Grove, and other historic communities and neighborhoods in 1925 led to the expansion of the city of Miami from 13 to 43 square miles. This event, together with a population that unofficially stood in excess of 100,000 by 1925, was indicative of Miami’s emerging status as a metropolitan area.

The boom was accompanied by a breakdown in law and order. Bootleggers sold liquor obtained from the nearby Bahama Islands or from local moonshine stills to thirsty “boomers” and natives oblivious to Prohibition and its enforcement. Owing in part to the wrenching changes that accompanied the boom, the rate of violent deaths (homicides, suicides, and accidents) for Miami and Dade County in the middle years of the 1920s, was greater than at anytime since the state of Florida began record keeping.

And the Bust

The boom began dissipating in 1926. Wary speculators backed off from further investment in light of inflation, and a series of setbacks brought construction to a standstill. The spring and summer of 1926 witnessed a mass exodus of speculators. The boom was over.

In September, a hurricane with winds of 125 miles per hour smashed into the Miami area, with a portion of the eye passing over downtown. More than 100 Miamians and Dade Countians lost their lives in the storm. Thousands of homes were destroyed. Unfinished subdivisions were leveled. The entire region was plunged into a severe economic depression three years before the rest of the nation.

Miami weathered the Great Depression of the 1930s better than many other communities. This was due in part to the advent of commercial aviation—Pan American Airways and Eastern Airlines established headquarters in the Magic City—and a resurgent tourism in the second half of the decade. Tourism was pegged to special events and activities such as the Orange Bowl Festival, which began in the mid-1930s, and became a popular tourist draw.

New Deal programs put more than 16,000 Miamians to work, building fire stations, schools, and post offices. The federal government was also responsible, in this era for the creation of Liberty Square, one of the nation’s first black public housing projects. It arose in Liberty City, a new African-American community in the city’s northwest sector.

World War II

America’s entry into World War II in 1941, led to a radical shift in Miami’s fortunes, as the city and other parts of Dade County became a huge training base for hundreds of thousands of member of the armed services. Dimouts and blackouts were the rule in the early part of the conflict due to the German submarines in nearby waters.

The United States Navy operated a submarine chaser school, also known as the “Donald Duck Navy,” from the busy port of Miami. The headquarters for the Navy’s Gulf Sea Frontier, which oversaw naval operations in this region, was located in the Alfred I. DuPont Building. The Army Air Force Transport Command took control of the municipal airport at N. W. 36th Street.

Local businesses, such as shipbuilding and upholstering, worked double shifts on government contracted projects. Miami enthusiastically met its war bond quotas helped by weekly patriotic parades along downtown’s Flagler Street.

The Magic City was even involved in the Japanese surrender. Paul Tibbits, a Miamian, commanded the Enola Gay, a B-29 airplane named for his mother, herself a resident of Miami’s Riverside neighborhood. The Enola Gay dropped the first atomic bomb over Hiroshima in August 1945. One week later the Japanese surrendered, ending the most destructive war in the history of humankind.

“Sand in their Shoes”

Postwar Miami bustled as never before. Many veterans who had trained here during the war had acquired “sand in their shoes,” and returned as permanent residents. The new Miamians represented one ingredient in a new boom whose impact was evidenced by soaring enrollments at the University of Miami, a suburban building explosion, and record numbers of winter visitors, especially on Miami Beach.

Change was everywhere, most notably in such vital sectors of the economy as aviation. The creation of the Dade County Port Authority resulted in the purchase of Pan Am Field, and its merger with the Army Air Transport Field led to create Miami International Airport.

Increasingly, Dade county was assuming a more important role over the destiny of its citizens. Miami delegated some of its powers to that entity, as in the case of city-operated Jackson Memorial Hospital, which became a county facility in this period. At the beginning of the 1950s, the Port of Miami came under the joint management of the governments of Dade County and the City of Miami, preparatory to the construction of a new port on Dodge Island.

The county’s growing powers culminated in the creation of a Metropolitan form of government, which provided for the consolidation of many of the functions and services, formerly provided by Dade’s separate municipalities, within one entity.

By 1950, the City of Miami contained 172,000 residents, or little more than one-third of the county’s population. Miami remained a Southern city but one with a prominent Jewish community and a large annual tourist population. The races were segregated, and would remain so until desegregation brought vast changes in society in the 1960s. Miamians called their city “Miamah,” as earlier residents had, with more than a trace of a Southern accent.

A New Ellis Island

One of the city’s most defining moments came in 1959 with Fidel Castro’s takeover of Cuba. Castro’s transformation of the island nation into a Marxist state led to a vast exodus of Cubans to Miami. Many of the first wave of refugees were highly educated persons who left behind successful careers and businesses.

Their presence in older Miami neighborhoods helped revitalize areas that had been suffering from an exodus of middle class residents to the new suburbs ringing the city. Moreover, the business acumen of many exiles was a boon to the city and region’s economy while their vibrant culture brought new life to their new home.

At the same time, Miami and south Florida became a center for intrigue as America’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) prepared a force of exiles for an armed overthrow of Castro’s government. But the failure of the CIA-sponsored Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, and an agreement between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, providing that the former would refrain from invading Cuba, left a bitter taste in the mouths of many Cubans toward the government of their adopted country.

Nineteen sixty-five marked the beginning of the U. S. sponsored “Freedom Flights,” a massive airlift of Cubans to Miami. By the time of their termination in 1973, more than 3,000 “Freedom Flights” had delivered 150,000 Cubans to America, primarily to Miami and its environs, and in the process had instituted the radical transformation of the city into a Latin American capital.

By the 1980s, the large Cuban refugee population, whose countywide numbers by the end of the decade exceeded 600,000, was actively engaged in the political process, dominating the government of the City of Miami, as well as those of neighboring communities. Through its fervent anti-Communism stance it added a more conservative bent to the city’s politics. Little Havana, the initial entry point for early waves of Cubans, had additionally become, by the 1980s, the destination for refugees from other countries in the hemisphere, especially Nicaragua.

In Miami’s northern sector, refugees from Haiti, the poorest nation in the hemisphere, were pouring into Lemon City and transforming that bastion of old Miami into a vibrant black Caribbean community. By the 1980s, that neighborhood had come to be known as Little Haiti.

Clearly, Miami could claim for itself in the century’s final decades the persona of a new Ellis Island for persons fleeing troubled countries in the Caribbean and Latin America. Miami’s place as a refugee haven, however, placed tremendous financial burdens upon it, and left it one of the poorest cities in the United States by the 1990s.

The influx of refugees who vied with blacks for many entry level jobs--and were perceived by the latter as receiving special governmental benefits denied them--led to simmering tensions between them and resentful residents of Liberty City, Brownsville, and other native black communities.

Black Miamians were also instrumental in affecting another major transformation of the city, as they began, in the 1960s, to spread beyond their cramped confines into adjacent white neighborhoods in Miami’s northern sectors, dramatically changing their demographics.

Despite gains realized by Miami’s African Americans in the aftermath of desegregation, poverty and crime remained disproportionately high among the race, while black anger over the perceived inequities and biases of the criminal justice system led to a series of searing riots, beginning in the summer of 1968, at the time of the Republican Party’s Presidential nominating convention on Miami Beach.

Another riot in May 1980, following the acquittal of several white policemen by an all white jury in the brutal killing of Arthur McDuffie, a black businessman, resulted in the loss of eighteen lives and property damages in excess of $50 million. It was the worst race riot up to that time in American history.

Adding to Miami’s woes in recent decades has been the city’s notoriety as a haven for drugs, especially cocaine, brought in from Latin America, and the pervasive problem of crime. Drugs, along with its propensity for political intrigue, has given Miami an image of a subtropical Casablanca. This image was burnished by “Miami Vice,” a popular television program of the 1980s, well as numerous movies playing to this theme.

For all of its problems, Miami could point to a lengthy list of accomplishments. In 1960, Dade County Junior College, today’s Miami Dade Community College, opened its doors for the first time in the Magic City. The largest community college in the world, Miami-Dade was, by the mid-1990s, preparing nearly 125,000 full and part-time students for more productive, fulfilling lives.

Florida International University, which opened in 1972, has already carved an enviable place for itself among America’s institutions of higher learning. Since the 1960s, Miami has become one of the nation’s most important centers for high school, college and professional athletics, with championship teams represented at each level. This achievement has knitted together periodically—and temporarily—the disparate denizens of Greater Miami.

The passage, in the early 1970s, of the county’s “Decade of Progress” bond issue led to the opening of several important cultural and educational institutions in downtown Miami. Downtown underwent a significant renaissance in the century’s final decades with the appearance of glistening new downtown skyscrapers, scenic retail facilities, and a vital educational complex within close proximity to the Port of Miami, home to the greatest collection of cruise ships and the largest number of vacationers of any port in the world.

Nearby Brickell Avenue has emerged as a center of commerce, with its shimmering glass skyscrapers, home to untold numbers of foreign banks and other financial institutions. Coconut Grove remains one of the city’s most picturesque and exciting neighborhoods.

Today Miami contains approximately 375,000 residents. One hundred fifty-thousand of them are Cuban; other Hispanics number about 100,000. More than one-half of Dade County’s two million residents are Hispanic, making it the largest county in the nation with a Hispanic majority. With their wide array of cultures, languages, lifestyles, and festivals, multicultural Miami and Dade County represent one of America’s most vibrant, colorful communities.

Miami has made extraordinary progress in its brief century as an incorporated entity. All indicators point to its growing importance as a nexus of trade and finance for the Americas, and as a hallowed sanctuary for peoples fleeing tyranny in our hemisphere in the twenty-first century. A major ingredient for its continued success over unprecedented challenges and obstacles will come from its willingness to draw comfort, direction, and inspiration from its proud past.

This article appeared in South Florida History, Volume 24, No 2, Summer 1996.