Miami: From Huts to Highrises

Florida in 1584

The miles of white sandy beaches lined with soaring glass condo towers and gleaming art-deco bars and hotels was, for more than 1,000 years, home to the Tequesta people. Juan Ponce de Leon entered Biscayne Bay in 1513, introducing European culture to the native peoples. By 1565, Jesuit missionaries had begun converting the Tequesta to Christianity, bringing some members of the tribe to Cuba and even Spain to be educated and indoctrinated. A missionary settlement was established on the Miami River just south of the main Tequesta village, but by 1700, the preferred tactic was to simply relocate as many members of the tribe to Cuba as possible to be converted to the Faith. But when almost all of them died soon after arrival, the survivors were dropped on the Florida Keys and the policy was abandoned. When Britain won Florida from the Spanish in the 1763 Peace of Paris, the remaining Tequesta people, now mostly Spanish-speaking and almost entirely Christian, were evacuated to Cuba. Little is known of their fate thereafter.

Seminole Indians in 1910

Spain regained control of Florida following Britain’s loss to the American colonies and the Treaty of Versailles in 1783. The Spanish government offered land grants to anyone willing to settle the colony, and many Americans flowed in from Georgia and other points north. After some purported attacks on Seminole villages in northern Florida by American settlers, Seminole warriors began raiding towns and farms in southern Georgia, causing the American military to make increasingly frequent pushes into the territory in what would eventually be known as the Seminole Wars. In 1819, in the Adams-Onis Treaty, America renounced any claims to Texas it had through the Louisiana Purchase in exchange for official control of Florida Territory.

An etching depicting an 1835 slaughter of white settlers by Seminole Indians and black freedmen.
(Library of Congress)

During the Second Seminole War, as the tribe was pushed further and further south by the American military, Fort Dallas was established on Biscayne Bay. The fort was abandoned following the Civil War and was turned over to private hands. Its owner William H. English named the new town Miami. He sold the land to Jane Tuttle, a financially-struggling widow from Ohio who had moved to Florida to begin life anew. She quickly began lobbying for a railroad to cut through the area.

Jane Tuttle ca 1900

In 1894 and 95, severe freezes destroyed nearly all of Florida’s orange trees, decimating economies throughout the state. But orchards around Miami were unaffected, and Jane contacted railroad executives, trying to woo them with the potential fortunes to be made in a new South Florida citrus empire. Her plan worked and in 1895, she was successful: the Florida East Coast Railway was extended south from West Palm Beach onto her land. The following year, Miami’s roughly 300 residents voted to incorporate as a city.

Downtown Miami ca 1925

As news of the railroad’s expansion into new, “freeze-proof” lands spread, settlers and workers poured into Miami. Many of the new arrivals were farmers from northern Florida who had been victims of the devastating freezes. Growth in the area was astronomical in its first decades and, by 1920, the tiny village of a few hundred as exploded into a city of almost 30,000. To accommodate such rapid growth, hundreds of acres of the Everglades were drained to provide new usable land. And in 1913, a bridge was built across Biscayne Bay to Miami Beach, allowing the town’s population to reach the beach.

Miami after the devastating 1926 Hurricane

By 1926, an enormous economic bubble had formed in Miami: construction materials couldn’t get into the city fast enough to meet demand, and costs skyrocketed beyond affordability. Just as the bubble was preparing to burst, an immense hurricane smashed into the city, flattening vast swathes of development and killing hundreds. Tens of thousands were left homeless, and the city had to quickly rebuild. Miami’s world-famous art-deco districts are a direct result of this rapid recovery.

The Allentown (PA) Chronicle and News, February 16, 1933

In 1933, President-elect Franklin Roosevelt was in Miami Beach to deliver a speech. Italian anarchist Giuseppe Zangara attempted to assassinate Roosevelt, firing five bullets at him. He instead hit and killed Mayor Anton Cermak of Chicago. He was tried, convicted, and executed in March of that year.

Flagler Street in downtown Miami on VJ Day, 1945

During World War II, German U-boats began prowling American shores, sinking ships. In response, the American military set up nearly half a dozen bases and forts in the Miami area, boosting the town’s wartime population and economic activity. In the war’s aftermath, many servicemen chose to return to the city and its sunny climate to raise families. By 1950, the city’s population was nearly 500,000.

A Cuban family arriving in Miami in the 1960s

In the years following Fidel Castro’s 1959 coup in Cuba, massive waves of immigrants began flowing into Miami, bringing little or no possessions with them in their haste and desperation. The city’s population swelled and its schools struggled to accommodate the thousands of new Spanish-speaking schools entering its classrooms. In 1965 alone, more than 100,000 Cubans fled from the island to Miami, settling mostly in the Riverside neighborhood which would come to be called “Little Havana.” By the end of the 1960s, more than 400,000 Cuban refugees lived in Dade County.

Anita Bryant, 1971

Miami made headlines in the 1977, when Dade County passed an ordinance forbidding discrimination based on a person’s sexual orientation. Former beauty queen Anita Bryant led a fight to repeal the ordinance and on June 7th of that year, was successful. Her vitriolic views of homosexuality would galvanize voters nationwide, causing gay-rights activists to boycott Florida orange juice (for which she was a spokeswoman), and leading to the development of the gay rights battle which continues to this day.

Cuban refugees awaiting processing in 1980

In 1980, Cuba suffered a devastating economic downturn. As a result, Fidel Castro announced that anyone who wished to leave Cuba could do so at will. Over the course of just six months, more than 150,000 mostly impoverished Cubans flooded into Miami on what became known as the Mariel Boatlift.

Cuban refugees in a camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba after being captured trying to enter the US in 1994

Decades of Cuban influx, the later portion of which was overwhelmingly poor, encouraged an increasingly high rate of “white flight.” In 1960, Miami was more than 90% caucasian. By 1990, that number had dropped to just 10%. In 1994, as another Cuban depression threatened to turn into another Mariel Boatlift, the Clinton administration controversially announced that any boatloads of Cuban or Haitian immigrants encountered at sea would not be taken to the United States, as had been the previous policy. Instead, refugees were brought to either Guantanamo Bay or Panama. In just 8 months, more than 50,000 people were placed into these camps. A later agreement with the Cuban government allowed for the repatriation of Cuban escapees to the island nation, with the promise that their government would not punish them for their actions.

Miami’s construction boom

In the 1990s and beginning of the 21st century, Miami developed a major transportation and tourism hub, owing largely to its exotic Latin cultural flair. Its popularity and convenient location has attracted thousands of jobs tied to these industries, causing a boom in real estate throughout the region. As condo towers spring up along the beaches and canals of what was once Jane Tuttle’s pig pens, Miami’s “manhattanization” is only the most visible testament to the city’s explosive growth, perseverance against economic and natural odds, and its potential for a new and ever-brighter future.

Miami’s sprawling skyline

About keithyorkcity

Name: Keith Age: 20-something Location: New York Passion: History You'll find a million blogs like mine, but mine is better.
This entry was posted in Florida, Places, Vacation and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Miami: From Huts to Highrises

  1. RatDoctor says:

    Everything has its beggining, but we keep forgetting about it. America’s cities are relatively young and hence we can follow the fascinating stories of their birth and development, almost eyewitness them by means of photos, newspapers etc. And thanks to people collecting them to tell others the tale to. Thanks 🙂

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