15.1.13

The Real Discoverer of Florida

Tuesday, 2 February 1892 - St. Augustine, Florida

I have gone from winter in St. Petersburg Russia to winter in St. Augustine, Florida. No snow here. Temperature is in the 60s (Fahrenheit) today.

St. Augustine as it looks in 1892
St. Augustine brags it is the oldest city in the United States. There are some Pueblo in New Mexico that would argue with that. It is however the oldest port in the United States. Founded in 1565 by Pedro Menendez de Aviles of Spain, St. Augustine predates the first English colony, Jamestown by 42 years!

Old City Gates of St. Augustine
In 1763, Spain traded Great Britain Florida for Havana. In 1783, after the United States took over the colonies, they gave Florida back to Spain for their support in the Revolution. Spain thanked them politely, then ignored Florida which was nothing but a burden to them. They eagerly gave Florida back in 1821.

Florida has a high rainfall. It is also mostly flat. Since there are so few valleys or dells for rain to run off to, it just spreads out and forms swamps. Most of the state is now wetlands full of alligators, snakes and mosquitoes. Is it any wonder no one was too excited about colonizing it?

The swamps also created a haven for runaways. When the US government began rounding up the peaceful Amerindians of the southeast to cart off to Indian Territory (Oklahoma) many fled to the Everglades. They joined what was left of the native population here and created the Seminole tribes. Runaway African slaves also came into the swamps and set up settlements next to the Seminole towns, paying a small tribute for the tribe’s protection. Many intermarried and became full-fledged Seminoles themselves. When the tribes began raiding farms in Georgia, the US Army rounded the renegades up and sent them to Indian Territory. Well, the ones they could catch anyway. Deep in the Everglades the Seminoles are still living and thriving. The government pretends they aren’t there.

freedom-loving Seminoles
Towns in Florida of any size were only in the northern most part of the state. The peninsula had just small communities along the east and west coasts. Florida wasn’t even made a state until 1845, making it the 27th to be admitted. Settlers have come, experimenting with cattle farming and crops like oranges and pineapples. So far the thing that grows best is alligators.

Florida Pineapple Plantation
Until recently St. Augustine was just a quaint little colonial town. Then Henry Flagler showed up. John D. Rockefeller may have started Standard Oil Company, but it was Henry Flagler that turned it into the largest oil company in the world. It currently has a monopoly on the American oil industry. Needless to say Flagler is rich. And he has a good nose for opportunity.

Flagler came to Jacksonville, Florida, a bit to the north, on the advice of his wife’s doctor. It didn’t cure Mary, and she died in 1881. Two years later Flagler married her nurse and he returned to Florida for their honeymoon. This time Flagler came to St. Augustine. He was charmed by the town, but found the hotels and transportation lacking. Rather than warning his friends to avoid the place, Flagler came back in 1885 and started building hotels and bought the local railroad which he is expanding south. Soon he extend it all the way to the hamlet of Miami.

Flagler has turned the sleepy town of St. Augustine into a boom town and can be called the founder of what will become Florida’s biggest industry--tourism!. Flagler has remade St. Augustine. He will soon become the founder of Palm Beach and one of the founding fathers of Miami. Flagler’s “discovery” of Florida is more crucial to the people here than Ponce de Leon’s! I heard someone quip they should rename St. Augustine St. Flagler.


I have come to witness the beginning of Florida’s tourist trade. Right now winter is the busiest time as wealthy folks from up north come to escape the snow. Summer is hot and humid and June to November marks both the rainy season and hurricane season. It will take Disney World in the late 20th century to lure tourists down to Florida in the sweltering months.

While other temporal anthropologists are working in factories or living in bronze-age mud hovels, I get to stay at a posh resort. I almost feel guilty.

The Ponce de Leon, Flagler's first hotel, built in 1888
I'm staying here, 2nd floor on the right
The Ponce de Leon Hotel's lobby

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