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Miami History

Beneath the robust atmosphere of modern Miami, rumbles a history that goes back ten thousand years, when a settlement of Paleo-Indians first discovered the lush, tropical region. The population had already begun flourishing at the southern edge of the Biscayne Bay by the time the Spaniards arrived in 1513, with numerous settlements throughout Florida. It is estimated that as many as ten thousand Tequesta lived along the bay, while the total population from surrounding tribes added up to over 350,000 inhabitants.

image : (c) istock/thinkstock

European Contact

The Tequesta were a peaceful tribe of hunters and gatherers, with a strong reliance on fish and berries for their diet. Juan Ponce de Leon was the first explorer to set foot on Tequesta soil. His stop was merely a notation and a description of his surroundings, which he called Chequesta. In 1565, one of the ships in Pedro Mendendez de Aviles’ fleet sought refuge in what is now known as the Biscayne Bay and encountered the gentle coastal dwellers.

Mendendez was well received by the Tequesta. Touched by friendly reception, the Jesuits that had accompanied him, took the Tequesta chief’s nephew with them to be educated in Havana, Cuba, and brought the chief’s brother to Spain. Mendenez also left a regiment of thirty soldiers to convert the Tequesta to Christianity. A mission was built and it seemed relationships were going well until the soldiers executed one of the chief’s uncles. The missionaries were forced out and unable to return until the chief’s brother came back to Tequesta, urging leniency. The mission however, was abandoned. The majority of the Tequesta tribe rejected the new religion and the Jesuits decided to look for more willing converts outside the Biscayne Bay region.

Although their intentions had been peaceful, what they left behind proved fatal. Smallpox and other European introduced diseases decimated the population. When wars with other Native American tribes broke out, the weakened Tequesta were easily defeated. Two hundred fifty years after their introduction to Spain, the Tequesta, along with other coastal tribes, were virtually extinct.

New Ownership

The southern coast of Florida did not remain unoccupied long. By the turn of the eighteenth century, various bands of roving Native American tribes had travelled through the unsettled tropical region and decided to make the beautiful bay area their home. These tribes included the Alabama’s, the Choctaws, Yamasees, Yuchi’s and the Creek people. The Creeks, among the most war-like of the tribes, were called “Cimarrones” by the Spanish, which roughly meant “wild ones” or “run-away’s”. The name was eventually ascribed to other Florida groups, although they maintained they were separate tribes.

The relationship between the coastal tribes and the Spanish were apparently fairly compatible. Spain had liberalized its settlement policies in an effort to encourage more colonization of their southern Florida land claim. The colonists introduced farming practices and new technologies for improving the wilderness life-styles. The comparative peace during the 1700's however, was about to change with the American Revolution. The newly formed United States of the late 1700's was about to flex its muscles.

The Treaty of Paris ended the Revolutionary War and ceded control of East and West Florida to Spanish control. The US, however, disputed the decision, claiming the Spanish authorities were harbouring run-away slaves and allowing the Native American tribes to raid colonies within the United States. Much of the blame was placed on treasure hunters from the Bahamas and the Keys who had also moved into the area in search of ships that had wrecked off the treacherous Great Florida Reef.

Florida was a problem child for Spain. It was a land of murky secrets, with suspicions of lawlessness and piracy. War broke out between the tribes, now called the Seminoles, and the US military that attempted to recapture run-away slaves from the tribal villages. The military was led by General Andrew Jackson, whose ruthlessness against the Biscayne residents was unrelenting. They scattered the villagers, burned down the towns and seized Spanish-held Pensacola and St. Marks.

In 1821, Spain sold Florida to the United States for five million dollars. One year later, it was declared a territory of the United States with the potential to gain statehood. A lighthouse was built in 1825 to warn ships of the dangerous reefs, and industry slowly began to move in.

In 1830, Richard Fitzpatrick, a prominent figure in Colonial politics, purchased the Bahaman-held lands along the Miami River and Biscayne Bay. The wealthy statesman built a plantation, where he cultivated sugar cane, bananas, maize and tropical fruit. He imported sixty slaves to work on his plantation. Six years later, with the Second Seminole War, he abandoned it.

The Bloodiest War

The Second Seminole War is considered the bloodiest and longest war fought between the United States and Native American Tribes. The seven years of conflict caused enormous losses to both sides. During that time period, the United States spent $20 million fighting against the Seminoles, with casualties on both sides estimated in the thousands. It caused nearly a total loss of the native population within the Miami area. At its end, most of the Native American tribes within the Florida area had been relocated to reservations and Miami was left with no more than four hundred inhabitants. The Cape Florida lighthouse had been burned by the Seminoles and was not repaired until 1846.

The Second Seminole War did not end conflict between the United States and the Florida tribes, but instead bred distrust and bitterness. A third war broke out in 1855, but was neither as long nor as devastating. Using guerrilla war tactics, conflict was defined as a series of skirmishes, with the US ultimately removing 150 more Seminoles to reservations, although many continued to remain in the Everglades. As long as they did not attack the settlements, they were left alone, but the damage to relationships would never be fully repaired and continued for the next one hundred years. The polarization between the Seminoles and the United States lasted until the 1960's, when the passage of the Federal Civil Rights Act provided enforcement of citizen’s rights.

Blossoming Miami

Miami’s slow start began changing radically during the late nineteenth century. It started with one woman, Julia Tuttle, who despite financial difficulties purchased 640 acres on the bank of Miami River in present day Miami. Her fortune began with the misfortune of northern Florida. An unusual freeze had wiped out most of the citrus crops in the north, and over half throughout the state, but Miami had been unaffected. Tuttle sent railroad magnate, Henry Flagler a box of orange blossoms as proof they had escaped the frost and invited him to visit Miami. After concluding his visit, he decided the area was ripe for extending the Florida East Coast Railway Service. The terms of the contract allowed him to help with the city planning and to build a resort hotel.

With a railroad service, Miami’s growth was rapid. At the time Julia Tuttle was cultivating citrus trees, the sleepy little town contained just fewer than 1,700 inhabitants. By 1920, there were 29, 549 people. With lax prohibition laws and permissive attitudes toward gambling, as well as an attractive climate, new residents began flooding in, turning Miami into a modern city with high-rise buildings, resorts and parks. The arts began to flourish, with the deco-art architecture built in the 1930's.

Little Havana

When Fidel Castro took power in Cuba, most of the Cubans living in Miami returned to Cuba. It was a two-way exodus, however. Many of Cuba’s middle and upper class citizens began migrating en masse into Miami, often leaving behind all their possessions. Throughout the 1960's and 1970's refugees were allowed to leave Cuba and settle in the Miami-Dade County. Over four hundred thousand refugees had migrated by 1970. In 1980, the Mario Boatlift transported 150,000 Cubans to Miami, the largest transport in civilian history.

Many of the refugees settled in the district that is now known as Little Havana. Retaining its distinct Central American atmosphere, it has become a centre for social, cultural and political activities in Miami. It is characterized by a robust street life, excellent restaurants, live music, a number of mom and pop enterprises and a warm, passionate people.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.

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Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.