Puzzling Out Jacksonville’s History Piece By Piece

Puzzling Out Jacksonville’s History Piece By Piece

by | Jul 1, 2021

Amid the July heat of Jacksonville’s 199th summer, we think yearningly of the beach, with occasional zephyrs of salt air wafting in from over the deep blue Atlantic Ocean, or temporary escape to cooler climes such as the Blue Ridge mountains. To the Cowfordians of 1821, such respites were scarcely available. Their sweltering, humid settlement along the St. Johns River endured whatever Florida’s climate had to offer. They also prepared to endure an uncertain future as part of the United States.

The transfer of La Florida from Spain to the United States unfolded gradually – it had been pending for two years, since the 1819 signing of a treaty between Secretary of State John Quincy Adams and Spanish diplomat Luis de Onís – thus, the “Adams-Onís Treaty.” Typical of Florida, it was a complicated real estate deal. Spain rid itself of a troublesome property that had never performed according to expectations, while the U.S. gained control of what had long been a thorn in its side – a sometimes lawless frontier refuge for escaped slaves, scoundrels, smugglers, and the complex pastiche of people loosely identified as the Seminoles. All were annoying to Southerners along the Georgia border. The treaty languished for two years because some in the U.S. Senate thought it a poor deal, insisting that Spain sweeten the terms by throwing in Texas. Ratification finally took place in February 1821, and on July 16, 1821 – two centuries ago this month – the U.S. flag was officially raised over the new Territory of Florida, at St. Augustine.

Interest in the new territory stimulated travel along the only overland route into East Florida, the Kings Road, which met the north bank of the St. Johns River at the place known as the Cow Ford. Visitors to the sparse hamlet on the river raised hopes for future prosperity, and before long, claims to real estate ownership began to occupy the residents of the Cow Ford, who were understandably worried about their property rights under a new national regime. Then as now, private property rights help to define the United States, but what that often means in practice is that Americans have the right to argue over who owns what. That meant steady work for Abraham Bellamy, Jacksonville’s first established lawyer, who represented landowners seeking to have their previous claims validated by the new U.S. territorial government.

Inconveniently, much of the original documentation of property transfers was lost, and we are continually puzzling out Jacksonville’s history, piece by piece, from a variety of sources. That was a challenge for Jacksonville historian T. Frederick Davis, author of two books that some view as definitive accounts of the city’s past – History of Early Jacksonville: Being an Authentic Record of Events from the Earliest Times to and Including the Civil War (published in 1911), and History of Jacksonville, Florida and Vicinity, 1513 to 1924 (published in 1925). In the Foreward to his 1925 work, Davis himself concedes his difficulties. “Two times there was a wholesale destruction of Jacksonville’s official records – in the War Between the States and by the fire of May 3, 1901 . . . [This] record is derived from many sources – long forgotten books and pamphlets; old letters and diaries that have been stored away as family memorials of the past; newspapers . . . unpublished statements of old residents . . . and from a multitude of other sources . . .” Davis added that his search took place in “spare moments” over a period of years, a “pastime hobby,” as he called it.

For any historian of Jacksonville, the work at times can be hard but it is steady. Regular readers of “Jacksonville History Matters” know that history is not what happened – it’s how we understand and explain what happened. We owe much to T. Frederick Davis, whose books, nearly a century old themselves, or older, are on the shelves of the research library here at the JHS. In the twenty-first century, however, Davis’s work is more artifact than resource. His account, probably of necessity, omits stories that were ongoing during the years of his research and writing. By the early 1920s, technological changes were already reshaping Jacksonville in ways that Davis could scarcely comprehend, while with respect to women, indigenous people or those of color, Davis reflects the assumptions of a white male of his time.

Looking back at 100 or 200 years of Jacksonville’s past calls us to look anew at our present moment. Next year’s Bicentennial will be our opportunity to think about how Jaxsons of the century ahead will view us, and what they will make of the city that we are leaving for them. Understanding that we live every new day with the legacies of those who came before us is why history matters, and why there is a Jacksonville Historical Society.

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

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