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History of Miami
 
 
 

Early History

The earliest evidence of Native American settlement in the Miami region came from about 10,000 years ago. The region was filled with pine and hardwood forests and was home to plenty of deer, bear and wild fowl. The first inhabitants settled on the banks of the Miami River. The main villages were on the northern banks of the river. The early Native Americans created a variety of weapons and tools from shells.

The inhabitants of the Miami area when the first Europeans visited were the Tequesta people, who controlled an area covering much of southeastern Florida, including what is now Miami-Dade County, Broward County, and the southern parts of Palm Beach County. The Tequesta Indians fished, hunted, and gathered the fruit and roots of plants for food, but did not practice any form of agriculture. They buried the small bones of the deceased, but put the larger bones in a box for the village people to see. The Tequesta are credited with making the Miami Circle.

Spanish Settlement

In 1513, Juan Ponce de León was the first European man to see the Miami area by sailing into Biscayne Bay. He wrote in his journal that he reached Chequescha, which was Miami's first recorded name. It is unknown whether or not he came ashore and made contact with the Indians. Pedro Menéndez de Avilés and his men made the first recorded landing when they visited the Tequesta settlement in 1566 while looking for Avilés' missing son, who was shipwrecked a year earlier. Spanish soldiers led by Father Francisco Villiareal built a Jesuit mission at the mouth of the Miami River a year later but it was short-lived.

By 1570, the Jesuits decided to look for more willing subjects outside of Florida. After the Spaniards left, the Tequesta Indians were left to fend themselves from European introduced diseases like smallpox. Wars with other tribes greatly weakened their population, and they were easily defeated by the Creek Indians in battles. By 1711, the Tequesta sent a couple of local chiefs to Havana, Cuba to ask if they could migrate there. The Cubans sent two ships to help them, but Spanish illnesses struck and most of the Indians died. The Spaniards sent another mission to Biscayne Bay in 1743, where they built a fort and church. The missionary priests proposed a permanent settlement, where the Spanish settlers would raise food for the soldiers and American Indians. However, the proposal was rejected as impractical and the mission was withdrawn before the end of the year.

Non-Spanish Settlement

Samuel Touchett received a land grant from the British government of 20,000 acres (80 km²) in the Miami area in 1766. The grant was surveyed by Bernard Romans in 1772. A condition for making the grant permanent was that at least one white settler had to live on the grant for every 100 acres (0.4 km2) of land. While Touchett wanted to place a plantation on the grant, he was having financial problems and never was able to develop it.

The first permanent white settlers in the Miami area arrived in the early 1800s. Pedro Fornells, a Minorcan survivor of the New Smyrna colony, moved to Key Biscayne to meet the terms of his Royal Grant for the island. Although he returned with his family to St. Augustine after six months, he left a caretaker behind on the island. On a trip to the island in 1803, Fornells had noted the presence of squatters on the mainland across Biscayne Bay from the island. In 1825, US Marshal Waters Smith visited the Cape Florida Settlement (which was on the mainland) and conferred with squatters who wanted to obtain title to the land they were occupying.

People came from the Bahamas and the Keys to South Florida to hunt for treasure from the ships that ran aground on the treacherous Great Florida reef. Some accepted Spanish land offers along the Miami River. At about the same time, the Seminole Indians arrived along with a group of runaway slaves. In 1825, the Cape Florida lighthouse was built on nearby Key Biscayne to warn passing ships of the dangerous reefs.

In the 1830s, Richard Fitzpatrick bought land on the Miami River from the Bahamians, becoming one of the first and most successful of the permanent white settlers. He operated a successful plantation with slave labour where he cultivated sugar cane, bananas, corn and tropical fruit. Fort Dallas was located on Fitzpatrick’s plantation on the north bank of the river.

The area was affected by the Second Seminole War, where Major William S. Harney led several raids against the Indians. Most non-Indian residents were soldiers stationed at Fort Dallas. It was the most devastating Indian war in American history, causing almost a total loss of population in the Miami area. The Cape Florida lighthouse was burned by Seminoles in 1836 and was not repaired until 1846.

After the Second Seminole War ended in 1842, Fitzpatrick’s nephew, William English, re-established the plantation in Miami. He charted the "Village of Miami" on the south bank of the Miami River and sold several plots of land. In 1844, Miami became the county seat, and six years later a census reported that there were 96 residents living in the area. The Third Seminole War (1855-1858) was not as destructive as the second one. Even so, it slowed down the settlement of southeast Florida. At the end of the war, a few of the soldiers stayed. Some of the Seminoles remained in the Everglades. However, as late as the 1890s, only a handful of families made their homes in Miami. Many of the settlers were homesteaders, attracted to the area by offers of 160 acres (0.6 km2) of free land by the US federal government. Among the homesteaders was William Brickell, known as the Father of Miami, who came from Cleveland, Ohio in 1871. He held a trading post and post office at the mouth of the Miami River and bought some land there.


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