Jacksonville at 199

by | May 1, 2021

June 15th will mark 199 years of Jacksonville’s existence as a place known by that name. As with most cities, Jacksonville’s founding moment was a casual affair. The city’s name appeared first on a petition dated June 15, 1822, addressed to then U.S. Secretary of State John Quincy Adams. Sixty-one local residents signed a request asking him to designate “Jacksonville,” in the new U.S. Territory of Florida, as a port of entry. Adams denied their petition, but after that, the name “Jacksonville” began to supplant previous references to “the cow-ford,” or “cowford.”

Apparently Cowfordians of 1822 thought to improve their chances with the national government by renaming their riverbank hamlet after the hero of the Battle of New Orleans, who the year previously served for just four months as governor of the territory. It seems to have availed them little however, and as far as anyone knows, Andrew Jackson never visited the Florida city that is his namesake. Indeed, he is only known to have visited Florida three times. At least his acolytes spelled his name correctly, and prudently so – Jackson was notoriously thin-skinned and bilious. Other cities’ namesakes were less fortunate – Cleveland, Ohio, for example, dropped the first “a” from its name after its founder, Moses Cleaveland, was long dead and in no position to object.

It took almost ten years, until February 1832, for the territorial legislature to grant a local government charter to Jacksonville. By then the tempermental Democrat from Tennessee had become president of the United States, and so choosing an alternative name may have seemed unwise. But the development of Jacksonville, by people using that name, began in June of 1822, so that is the date and evidence that historians cite as the city’s date of origin.

Nearly two centuries later we live in a city that puzzles outsiders. “Describe Jacksonville in a nutshell,” asked a reporter from the national press recently. “It’s complicated,” I answered. Indeed it is, and it got that way honestly, by growing its resources and accumulating the stories of nine generations of natives and immigrants. Whether you are descended from one of the original “Cowford 61” or you just unloaded your U-Haul trailer, you are a Jaxson with your own story of how you became part of this immense coastal city straddling a deep, wide river.

At the Jacksonville Historical Society, the city’s stories are our stock in trade. We never run out, and no two are exactly alike. As we approach Jacksonville’s Bicentennial, now just a year away, we are at work on collecting, preserving and sharing stories to help us all reflect, not just on the past two centuries, but also on the next 200 years. Understanding how we got to where we are is crucial to imagining where we want to go.

A city only gets one bicentennial, and Jacksonville deserves to pause and take a good look back as well as forward. The Bicentennial Task Force had its kickoff this month – for more info, connect with us at bicentennial@jaxhistory.org During the 12 months leading up to the June 2022 commemoration, the JHS will be sharing more of what makes Jacksonville interesting and complicated. Please help by sharing stories and artifacts of Jacksonville’s past with us. Finally, as we reflect on this big anniversary, help us think about what we hope history will say about us on the occasion of the city’s 400th anniversary!

Alan J. Bliss, Ph.D.
CEO, Jacksonville Historical Society

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