Map with Pin on Miami

Before Miami Beach. Before the nightlife, cocaine cowboys and Miami Vice. Before it became the magic city we know today, Miami was born from humble beginnings.

Intentionally designed to populate the state, the Homestead Act of 1822 allowed early Americans to have 160 acres if they moved to Florida and stayed there for 5 years. 

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Native Americans and Bahamians were the first modern inhabitants of the land we call Coconut Grove. Over the years it became a safe haven for runaway slaves traveling south on the Southern underground railroad. When people think of the underground railroad, they often imagine it going North. But there was an earlier and often more convenient path that flowed southward, towards the refuge of Florida. 

Migrants from the Keys also settled in early South Florida, primarily in the Coconut Grove area.

Development of the area boomed with the arrival of Henry Flagler’s famous railroads, and a lucrative hotel industry followed where the railroads lead. When his wife became ill, Flagler believed that the warm weather of South Florida would be good for her health, so he extended the railroad to the area we know today as Palm Beach.

Statue of Henry FlaglerFlagler had been John D. Rockefeller’s partner in Standard Oil until he sold his interests back to Rockefeller, earning him a 50 million dollar payout. His arrival in Florida coincided with the arrival of two other influential figures of Floridian history. 

The first of these was Henry Plant, a railroad baron who made a fortune developing railroads in the southeast United States. It was Plant that connected the railroad from Jacksonville to the isolated area of Tampa.

The other influential person was Julia Tuttle. Following the death of her husband and her father, she moved to Florida to take over her family's landholdings, which primarily consisted of orange groves.

Tuttle and Henry Flagler had become acquainted years before when both were residents of Cleveland, and she sought to convince him to extend his railroad further south. Both Flagler and Plant initially declined, not yet seeing the benefit of the Southern expansion of their railroads.

With the “great freeze” of 1885 causing massive crop death with the exception of the Miami area, Henry Flagler was forced to reconsider Tuttle’s offer. Legend has it that Julia Tuttle sharply illustrated the usefulness of South Florida to Henry Flagler by sending him a basket of fresh, undamaged oranges. Flagler got the message loud and clear.

In order to get the railroad to Miami, Tuttle convinced another landowner, William Brickel, to give up portions of his land to Flagler. Flagler finally completed the railroad using land provided by both Tuttle and Brickel. At that time, Julia Tuttle owned 640 acres of land. That land is where Miami resides today.

Officially incorporated on July 28, 1896, the city of Miami had a population of just over 500, with African-Americans making up a fifth of the population.  The infrastructure of Miami (including railroads, cities, and buildings) was mostly built by the hands of black men.

Photo of black Florida family from 1920sDue to restrictions in the deeds, black families were confined to living in a certain part of the city. This section of the city was named Colored Town, which later became the area we know today as Overtown. What was once a safe haven for the black community quickly became segregated.

From its humble beginnings of 500, the population increased to nearly 30,000 by the year 1920. And in that time of rapid expansion in population, the city soon required more land to build upon. The everglades expanded all the way to the east coast, stopping just shy of three miles from Miami. By digging canals, the people of Miami were able to reroute the water away from the city, creating an increase of habitable land.

This article will be continued in Part Two.

Watch the video below to see more information on the history of Miami and an exclusive interview with historian Dr. Marvin Dunn.