Historic Miami


“Miami is the most maddening, stimulating, life-encouraging city in the world. Nothing human is foreign to it.” Marjory Stoneman Douglas as quoted by Avra Moore Parks. https://www.miamiandbeaches.com/things-to-do/history-and-heritage/a-look-back-at-miamis-pioneers

This walking lecture begins at the Government Center. Government Center is the seat of the Miami-Dade County local government, as well as the central transportation station for the South Florida east coast. The easiest and most affordable manner to access Downtown Miami is to take Metrorail to Government Center-the Metro, the Metromover, and busses regularly arrive and depart for all destinations in Miami-Dade County.

The Tequesta inhabited an area from present-day Palm Beach County to the Northern Keys from approximately 500 BCE to 1763. The main town of the Tequesta was at the mouth of the Miami River.

Miami 2022 of the FIu Honors College on Brickell Bridge. (Photo by Grace Mccullough/CC BY 4.0)

Historians generally agree that Spaniard Ponce de Leon entered Biscayne Bay on the 13 May 1513. This dates marks the initiation of the cultural and biological exchange between the Western Hemisphere and Europe, which already had deep influences from Africa and Asia. This Transatlantic Exchange is known at the Grand Exchange (previously referred to as the Columbian Exchange) and is one of the most significant events in world history. Read an early account of Ponce de Leon’s 1513 journey here.

In 1567, Florida Governor Pedro de Menendez established a mission at the mouth of the Miami River. Jesuit Brother Francisco de Villarreal managed it and wrote what is considered the first letter written in Miami. Read Francisco de Villarreal’s letter here.

The Tequesta form an alliance with the Spaniards, and remain in power in Miami until 1763, when Florida becomes part of the British Empire. Florida then returns to Spain in 1783, and then becomes a US state in 1820.

On 28 July 1896, 344 men voted to incorporate the City of Miami. Julia Tuttle, in 1894, developed the concept and initiative to incorporate the area around the Miami River. This makes Miami one of the only cities in the US to have been founded by a woman.

Julia Tuttle had offered parts of her property to a railroad company that would extend their line to Miami. In 1890, Tuttle was quoted as saying to James Ingraham “Some day somebody will build a railroad to Miami. I hope you will be interested in it, and when they do I will be willing to divide my properties there and give one-half to the company for a town site.”

When two devastating freezes descended on Florida in December 1894 and February 1895, the only geographic area to escape the crop loss was the “Biscayne Bay Area.” When Henry Flagler received a box of preserved fruits and vegetables from Julia Tuttle and Mary Brickell, he immediately decided to extend his railroad to the mouth of the Miami River.

The first registered citizen on the charter of City of Miami was Silas Austin, a man of color.

Read the National Register of Historic Places report on the Downtown Miami Historic District

This walk is not historically chronological, but rather based on geographic continuation. Due to Miami’s urban design and continuous need to reinvent itself, much of the traces of our ancestors are scattered, buried, lost, or…hidden.

With considerable walking and use of our imaginations, however, we will be able to connect with the Tequesta, Spanish, Seminoles, Bahamians, escaped slaves, and Northern Settlers.


Begin this walk outdoors at the central bus hub of Government Center. Notice that the current ambiance resembles nothing to the picture above which dates from the COVID-19 global pandemic in 2020. There plaza is thriving-different languages, music, street vendors, traffic in every direction. and…chickens. This is the thriving and immersive diverse nature of Miami. If you feel overwhelmed, find a ventanita and order a coffee. Ventanitas are the particular staple of Miami – a window (ventana in Spanish) attached to a restaurant that sells coffees and simple street food. Take it all in. Walk up, order a cafecito or cafe con leche and an empanada or guava pastry and embrace the movement that is Miami.

Walk west until you encounter the explosion that is…


Miami-Dade County has one of the most substantial and progressive public art programs in the USA. “Miami-Dade Art in Public Places was established in 1973 with the passage of an ordinance allocating 1.5% of construction cost of new county buildings for the purchase or commission of artworks.” https://miamidadepublicart.org/#about

The artwork for Government Center is by Pop Art collaborators Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen. Utilizing the most Florida of symbols (oranges and chaos), they describe their sculpture as such “At the time of its inauguration the Dropped Bowl with Scattered Slices and Peels could be seen to represent a city in the making, deriving its particular order out of the apparent disorder accompanying Miami’s expansion.”

Dropped Bowl with Scattered Slices and Peels by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen

Read the National Register of Historic Places report on the Lummus Park Historic District


This oldest of Miami structures holds an incredible history. Built in circa 1855, it was the home of the mixed race couple William Wagner, a German immigrant, and Eveline Aimar, a French-Creole immigrant. The home’s original location was further north. The Wagners ran a Coontie mill and lived off the land. Because of their color, their children faced discrimination, but they persisted in forming a home that would become incorporated in to the City of Miami. The Wagner’s befriended the Seminoles and often acted as arbiter between the Northern settlers and the Seminoles.

“The oldest known house standing in Miami today dates from the mid- 1850s. It was built by William Wagner, a discharged Mexican War veteran who followed his former army troop to South Florida at the end of the Seminole Wars…William Wagner remained in Miami until his death in 1901.” Margaret Ammidown, “The Wagner Family: Pioneer Life on the Miami River”

Wagner Family Homestead Lecture Notes

“This native oolitic limestone building was constructed around 1844 as slave quarters on William English’s plantation located near the mouth of the Miami River. The building served as a U.S. Army barracks after Fort Dallas was re-established here in 1849 and 1855 during the Second and Third Seminole Wars. Moved to Lummus Park in 1925, Fort Dallas is one of only two surviving buildings from Miami’s pioneer era, the other being the William Wagner House, also located in Lummus Park.” (http://www.historicpreservationmiami.com/ftdallas.html)

Fort Dallas/William English Plantation Slave Quarters Lecture Notes


From Sarah Eaton and Vicki L. Welcher’s National Register of Historic Places Inventory—Nomination Form
“The Dade County Courthouse is significant in the history of government, community development, and architecture in Miami. Built between 1925 and 1928, the courthouse building has continuously served as Dade County’s seat of government. The Courthouse was also designed to serve as the Miami City Hall, and facilities included the necessary courtrooms, record storage, judicial chambers, law library, administrative offices, and jails for both government entities. The Dade County Courthouse is also significant as an outstanding example of Neo-classical style architecture.
When the county seat of Dade County was moved form Juno to Miami in 1899, judicial affairs were conducted from a wood frame building on the Miami River just east of the old Miami Avenue bridge. A new courthouse was built on the site of the present courthouse in 1904. That building was designed to meet the needs of Dade County for 50 years.”

Read the National Register of Historic Places report on the Miami-Dade Courthouse


Henry Flagler is both a central and complicated figure in the history of Miami. Born in 1830 in Hopewell, New York, Flagler made his fortune in partnership with John D. Rockefeller in Standard Oil. Flagler first came to Florida in 1878 and in 1896 brought the railroad to Miami. It was at the initiative of Flagler that the City of Miami was incorporated. Miami would not be what it is today without Flagler. While recognizing Flagler’s contributions, however, his negative impact must be acknowledged as well. After relying on Black laborers to build his railroad and hotel, Flagler initiated the segregation of Miami with the creation of Colored Town. Flagler knowingly demolished a Tequesta burial mound at the mouth of the Miami River and made no consideration of the disposal of the human remains. Lastly, by having the raw sewage of the Royal Palm Hotel discharge directly into the Miami River, and thus into Biscayne Bay, he initiated the environmental degradation of Miami’s environment.


Ever wonder where the “Dade” in “Miami-Dade” comes from? Here is the origin story. During the Indian Wars of genocide against the indigenous people of this land, the Seminoles refused to surrender. The Seminoles encountered success to the point at which the Federal government sent reinforcements to defeat them in 1835. Major Francis Langhorne Dade commanded these troops. Arrogant and unfamiliar with the landscape, Major Dade led his troops into an ambush. Underestimating the Seminoles, Major Dade had recalled his scouts in order to move faster. All except three perished. His last words before the attack, according to Clarke were “We have now got through all the danger – keep up good heart, and when we get to Fort King, I’ll give you three days for Christmas.”

Not only is it unusual to name a county after a military leader that led his troops into defeat, it also highly unusual to name a battle after the defeated senior commander. The “Battle of Okahumky” or Battle of Pelaklekaha” would be more appropriate as these were the Seminole names of locations in proximity to the battle.

Accounts of the Dade Battle by Ransom Clarke, Pacheco, and Halpatter Tustenuggee 


There is no marker here, no sign, no nothing…but this is a very special spot for Miamians. The center of the intersection of Miami Avenue and Flagler Street is the center of all the roads of Miami-Dade County-the Magic City’s Kilometer Zero. In this intersection, there is no southwest, northwest, northeast, or southeast, but the sidewalks on each corner mark the start of each of these divisions of Miami.

“In October 1920, the “Chaille Plan” of renaming streets was adopted. Chaille, a member of the Miami City Council, proposed a system that would divide Miami into four quadrants. The dividing line separating north from south was Flagler Street (formerly 12th Street), and Miami Avenue (formerly Avenue “D”) separated the east from west quadrants.” Ellen Uguccioni/Amy Streelman/Elaine Lund/Carl Shiver

Miami 2022 of the FIU Honors College stands at the intersection of Miami Avenue and Flagler Street. (Photo by JW Bailly/CC BY 4.0)

And remember this CRAP tip to not get lost in Miami. Court Road Avenue Place all run north south.


Before the incorporation of the City of Miami in 1896 and the opening of Henry Flagler’s Royal Palm Hotel in 1897, the Miami River provided pristine, clear fresh water from the Everglades to the people of this land. The joining of the Everglades water and the Atlantic water created a thriving ecosystem, abundant in life. The Royal Palm Hotel discharged raw sewage directly into the river and thus initiated a degradation of the Miami River that continues to this day. The pollution and overdevelopment of the Miami River is one of the continuing tragedies of Miami’s urban development. Efforts are being made to restore the River, and a positive sign is the public walkway along the river.

“The Flagler Worker’s House, also known as Palm Cottage, is the last known building in Miami directly associated with railroad magnate and developer Henry M. Flagler. It is also one of the city’s few surviving examples of Folk Victorian architecture. Built around 1897, this house was one of at least 30 rental houses that Flagler constructed as homes for the workers building his Royal Palm Hotel. The building was moved to Fort Dallas Park in 1980, and listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1989.” City of Miami Historic Sites and Districts

“The Brickell Mausoleum is significant in relation to one of the most important families in the history of Miami. The mausoleum is the only surviving structure that is associated with the Brickell family and is situated on land they once owned. At one time, the Brickell Mausoleum held the remains of William Brickell, his wife Mary Brickell, and daughter Edith Brickell. The Brickell Mausoleum is, today, a monument to the Brickell Family, although its original intent was to house the graves of historical figures.” Sarah Eaton and Vicki L. Welcher in the National Register of Historic Places Inventory-Nomination Form, 1988


From the National Park Service

The site contains early and late components of the primary village of the Tequesta people, who were one of the first Native North American groups encountered by Juan Ponce de Leon in 1513 (Davis 1935). Considerable research has been conducted at the site since the discovery of intact deposits and features in 1998. The site’s significance lies in well-preserved evidence of American Indian architecture, considerable materials related to patterns of regional and long-distance exchange, elements of ceremonialism involving animal interments, and association with the Tequesta people, who are significant because of their cultural persistence following European Contact and their association with the unique environment of the Everglades.

The Miami Circle was discovered during archeological salvage excavations at the Brickell Point site (8DA12) in 1998 (Carr and Ricisak 2000). The Miami Circle is comprised of holes and basins carved into the shallow Miami Oolite limestone formation. Stratified accretionary midden deposits occur over and in the holes that make up the Circle. The midden is comprised of organically stained soil, dense deposits of faunal bone, and occasional lenses of marine bivalve shells. Artifacts found during excavations are typical of the Glades Area, including sand-tempered ceramics and some early decorated Glades series sherds, as well as bone and shell implements. Exotic items, like basaltic stone Celts, galena, pumice, and chipped stone artifacts, also have been recovered.

Read the National Register of Historic Places report on the Miami Circle


“Located in downtown Miami, this imposing Mediterranean Revival style church houses the city’s oldest Roman Catholic parish. The cornerstone for the building was laid in 1920 on land donated by railroad magnate Henry M. Flagler, but construction did not begin until two years later. The new church was dedicated in 1925. Now restored to its original appearance, the design includes a massive arched portico under a landmark tower. Gesu Church and Rectory were listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1974.” City of Miami Historic Sites and Districts

Read the National Register of Historic Places report on the Gesu Church


“Built at the height of the Great Depression, this three-story building exemplifies the adaptation of the Neo-Classical style to the area’s climate. The ornamentation includes Corinthian capitals and column bases as well as door and window surrounds of Florida buff marble. This is also the largest building in Miami constructed of Florida keystone, a soft limestone that hardens when exposed to the air. The U.S. Post Office and Courthouse was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1983.” Miami Historic Sites and Districts


“The Berlin Wall enclosed West Berlin from August 13, 1961 to November 9, 1989, cutting a line through the entire city center. It was supposed to prevent East Berliners and citizens of East Germany from fleeing to the West, but the Wall was unable to entirely stop the mass of people from fleeing. Consequently, in 1961, the SED, the ruling Communist Party in East Germany, began adding more border fortifications to the Wall, creating a broad, many-layered system of barriers. In the West people referred to the border strip as the “death strip” because so many people were killed there while trying to flee. With the downfall of East Germany in 1989, the Berlin Wall that the SED had for so long tried to use to maintain its power, also fell. The fall of the Wall marked the definitive end of its dictatorship.” https://www.berliner-mauer-gedenkstaette.de/en/the-berlin-wall-10.html


“Originally known as the Miami Daily News Tower, this 17-story building is one of the most impressive landmarks on the city’s skyline. Designed by the nationally known firm of Schultze and Weaver, its Mediterranean Revival architecture was inspired by the Giralda Tower in Seville, Spain. The building was renamed Freedom Tower during the 1960s, when it served as the Cuban Refugee Emergency Center and became a symbol of liberty for Cuban immigrants.” City of Miami Historic Sites and Districts

“For the Cuban refugees in Miami and other parts of the United States, the “Freedom Tower” has become a symbol of this flight to freedom and welcome by the American people and has much the same symbolic meaning provided by the Statue ” of Liberty and Ellis Island for the immigrants of the 19th and early 20th centuries.” NRHP

Read the National Register of Historic Places report on the Freedom Tower

John William Bailly  28 August 2022

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