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The History of Jacksonville Florida is the past occurrences in Jacksonvillemarker, Floridamarker that shaped the way the city is today. The city began to grow in the late 18th century as Cowford, but it truly flourished in the time after American Civil War, becoming a winter vacation spot. Its development was halted at times by such tribulations as the Great Fire of 1901, the Florida Land Bust of the 1920s, and the economic woes of the 1960s and 70s, but the city has experienced steady growth in recent years.

Jacksonville has always been a home of the navy, serving the needs of several countries over the years. The city today is a thriving metropolis with over a million citizens, and due to its consolidated city-county government structure, it has the largest municipal population among Florida cities, as well as the largest land area of any city in the continental United States.

Jacksonville's Main Street, circa 1903

Early days


Archaeological evidence indicates 6,000 years of human habitation in the area. The Timucua Indians were the predominate local tribe when European explorers arrived. The largest Timucua town in the region was Ossachite, which stood approximately where the courthouse stands today; its name is the earliest recorded name for the area.

Colonial and territorial history

Fort Caroline shown in an old etching

In 1513, Spanishmarker explorers landed in Florida and claimed their discovery for Spain (see Spanish Florida). The first Europeans to visit the area were Spanish missionaries and explorers from this period. Then in February 1562, Frenchmarker naval officer Jean Ribault and a 150 settlers were sent out to find land for a safe haven for the French Huguenots. Ribault explored the mouth of the St. Johns River before moving north and establishing the colony of Charlesfort on Parris Islandmarker, South Carolinamarker. Ribault sailed back to France for supplies, but tensions from French Wars of Religion had broken out during his absence, delaying his return. Without leadership or provisions, the colonists abandoned Charlesfort and followed René Goulaine de Laudonnière south to the St. Johns River, where they established Fort Carolinemarker atop the St. Johns Bluff on June 22, 1564. The settlement trudged on for another year, when Ribault was dispatched to take command.

In the meantime, the Spanish admiral Pedro Menéndez de Avilés had established the colony of St. Augustinemarker just 35 miles to the south. Learning of this, Ribault launched a naval expedition of 200 sailors and 400 soldiers to dislodge the Spanish, but a storm at sea incapacitated them for several days. On September 20, 1565, Menéndez marched his men overland to Fort Caroline, now defended by only 200 or 250 people, and killed everyone except for about 50 women and children and 26 others who had managed to escape. With victory in hand, the Spanish set about picking up the survivors of Ribault's fleet, and summarily executed all but 20.

The Spanish continued to occupy Fort Caroline, which was the scene of one more battle between the French and Spanish in 1568, when Dominique de Gourgues burned it to the ground. The Spanish rebuilt the fort, but abandoned it in 1569. Afterwards, the Spanish build Fort San Nicolas further up the river to protect the rear flank of St. Augustine. "San Nicolas" served as their name for the Jacksonville area, a placename which survives in the neighborhood of St. Nicholas. The fort was located on the east side of the St. Johns where Bishop Kenny High Schoolmarker now stands, and was abandoned in the late 17th century.

Spain ceded Florida to the Britishmarker in 1763, who then gave control back to Spain in 1783. The first permanent settlement in modern Jacksonville was founded as "Cowford" in 1791, at a narrow point in the St. Johns River where cattlemen could ford their livestock across; this was some 3000 feet west of the location of Fort San Nicolas. The Florida Territory was sold to the United Statesmarker in 1821, and by 1822, Jacksonville's current name had come into use. It first appears on a petition sent on June 15, 1822 to U.S. Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, asking that Jacksonville be named a port of entry. The city is named for Andrew Jackson, military governor of the Florida Territory and eventual President of the United States. U.S. settlers led by Isaiah D. Hart authored a charter for a town government, which was approved by the Florida Legislative Council on February 9, 1832. Hart is remembered as the city's most important founding father, and is memorialized with the Isaiah D. Hart Bridge over the St. Johns.

Civil War

During the American Civil War, Jacksonville was a key supply point for hogs and cattle leaving Florida and aiding the Confederate cause. Throughout most of the war, the US Navy maintained a blockade around Florida's ports, including Jacksonville. In October 1862 Union forces captured a Confederate battery at St. Johns Bluff and occupied Jacksonville. Throughout the war Jacksonville would change hands several times, though never with a battle. On February 20, 1864, Union soldiers from Jacksonville marched inland and confronted the Confederate Army at the Battle of Olustee which resulted in a Confederate victory. By the end of the war in 1865, a Union commander commented that Jacksonville had become "pathetically dilapidated, a mere skeleton of its former self, a victim of war."

Post Civil War

Winter resort era

Following the Civil War, during Reconstruction and afterward, Jacksonville and nearby St. Augustinemarker became popular winter resorts for the rich and famous of the Gilded Age. Visitors arrived by steamboat and (beginning in the 1880s) by railroad, and wintered at dozens of hotels and boarding houses. The area declined in importance as a resort destination when Henry Flagler extended the Florida East Coast Railroad to the south, arriving in Palm Beach in 1894 and in the Miami area in 1896. Not even hosting the Subtropical Exposition, a Florida-style world's fair attended by President Grover Cleveland in 1888, served to provide a lasting boost for tourism in Jacksonville.

Yellow fever epidemics

Jacksonville's prominence as a winter resort was dealt another blow by major yellow fever outbreaks in 1886 and 1888, during the latter of which nearly ten percent of the more than 4,000 victims, including the city's mayor, died. In the absence of scientific knowledge concerning the cause of yellow fever, nearly half of the city's panicked residents fled despite the imposition of quarantines and the ineffectual fumigation of inbound and outbound mail. Not surprisingly, Jacksonville's reputation as a healthful tourist destination suffered.

Spanish-American War

During the Spanish-American War, gunrunners helping the Cubanmarker rebels used Jacksonville as the center for smuggling illegal arms and supplies to the island. Duval Countymarker sheriff and future state governor, Napoleon Bonaparte Broward, was one of the many gunrunners operating out of the city. Author Stephen Crane travelled to Jacksonville to cover the war.


Great Fire of 1901

On May 3, 1901, downtown Jacksonville was ravaged by the Great Fire -- the largest-ever urban fire in the Southeast, which started when hot ash from a shantyhouse's chimney landed on the drying moss at Cleaveland's Fiber Factory. At half past noon most of the Cleaveland workers were at lunch, but by the time they returned the entire city block was engulfed in flames. The fire destroyed the business district and rendered 10,000 residents homeless in the course of eight hours. Florida Governor William S. Jennings declared a state of martial law in Jacksonville and dispatched several state militia units to help. Reconstruction started immediately, and the city was returned to civil authority on May 17. Despite the widespread damage, only seven deaths were reported.

Young architect Henry John Klutho had just returned to New York from a year in Europe when he read about the Jacksonville fire and, seeing a rare opportunity, he headed south. Klutho and other architects, enamored by the "Prairie Style" of architecture then being popularized by architect Frank Lloyd Wright in Chicagomarker and other Midwestern cities, designed exuberant local buildings with a Florida flair. While many of Klutho's buildings were demolished by the 1980s, a number of his creations remain, including the St. James Building from 1911 (a former department store that is now Jacksonville's City Hall) and the Morocco Temple from 1910. The Klutho Apartments, in Springfieldmarker, were recently restored and converted into office space by local charity Fresh Ministries. Despite the losses of the last several decades, Jacksonville still has one of the largest collections of Prairie Style buildings (particularly residences) outside the Midwest.

Motion picture industry

Motion picture scene at Gaumont Studios, circa 1910s.
In the early 20th century, before Hollywoodmarker, the motion picture industry was based in New York Citymarker. In need of a winter headquarters, moviemakers were attracted to Jacksonville due to its warm climate, exotic locations, excellent rail access, and cheaper labor, earning the city the title of "The Winter Film Capital of the World". New York-based Kalem Studios was the first to open a permanent studio in Jacksonville in 1908. Over the course of the next decade, more than 30 silent film companies established studios in town, including Metro Pictures (later MGM), Edison Studios, Majestic Films, King Bee Film Company, Vim Comedy Company, Norman Studios, Gaumont Studios and Lubin Studios. Comedic actor and Georgia native Oliver "Babe" Hardy began his motion picture career here in 1914. He starred in over 36 short silent films his first year acting. With the closing of Lubin studios in early 1915, Oliver moved to New York then New Jersey to find film jobs. Acquiring a job with the Vim Company in early 1915, he returned to Jacksonvillemarker in the spring of 1917 before relocating to Los Angeles in October 1917. The first motion picture made in Technicolor and the first feature-length color movie produced in the United States, The Gulf Between, was also filmed on location in Jacksonville in 1917.

Jacksonville was especially important to the African American film industry. One notable individual in this regard is the European American producer Richard Norman, who created a string of films starring black actors in the vein of Oscar Micheaux and the Lincoln Motion Picture Company. In contrast to the degrading parts offered in certain white films such as The Birth of a Nation, Norman and his contemporaries sought to create positive stories featuring African Americans in what he termed "splendidly assuming different roles".

Jacksonville's mostly conservative residents, however, objected to the hallmarks of the early movie industry, such as car chases in the streets, simulated bank robberies and fire alarms in public places, and even the occasional riot. In 1917, conservative Democrat John W. Martin was elected mayor on the platform of taming the city's movie industry. By that time, southern Californiamarker was emerging as the major movie production center, thanks in large part to the move of film pioneers like William Selig and D.W. Griffith to the area. These factors quickly sealed the demise of Jacksonville as a major film destination.

"Gateway to Florida"

The 1920s brought significant real estate development and speculation to the city during the great Florida land boom (and bust). Hordes of train passengers passed through Jacksonville on their way south to the new tourist destinations of South Florida, as most of the passenger trains arriving from the population centers of the North were routed through Jacksonville. Completion of the Dixie Highway (portions of which became U.S. 1) in the 1920s began to draw significant automobile traffic as well. An important entry point to the state since the 1870s, Jacksonville now justifiably billed itself as the "Gateway to Florida."

US Navy

A significant part of Jacksonville's growth in the 20th century came from the presence of navy bases in the region. October 15, 1940, Naval Air Station Jacksonvillemarker ("NAS Jax") on the westside became the first navy installation in the city. This base was a major training center during World War II, with over 20,000 pilots and aircrewmen being trained there. After the war, the Navy's elite Blue Angels were established at NAS Jax. Today NAS Jax is the third largest navy installation in the country and employs over 23,000 civilian and active-duty personnel.

In June 1941, land in the westernmost side of Duval County was earmarked for a second naval air facility. This became NAS Cecil Field, which during the Cold War was designated a Master Jet Base, the only one in the South. RF-8 Crusaders out of Cecil Field detected missiles in Cuba, precipitating the Cuban Missile Crisis. In 1993, the Navy decided to close NAS Cecil Field, and this was completed in 1999. The land once occupied by this installation is now known as the "Cecil Commerce Center" and contains one of the campuses of Florida Community College which now offers civil aeronautics classes.

December 1942 saw the addition of a third naval installation to Jacksonville: Naval Station Mayportmarker at the mouth of the St. Johns River. This port developed through World War II and today is the home port for many types of navy ships, most notably the aircraft carrier USS John F. Kennedy from 1995 to 26 July 2007, when Big John was towed away, eventually to be mothballed in Philadelphia (see more at NS Mayport current employs about 14,000 personnel.

Jacksonville is also not far from Naval Submarine Base Kings Baymarker in St. Marys, Georgiamarker, which is home to part of the US Navy's nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) fleet.

The naval base became a key training ground in the 1950s and 1960s and as such, the population of the city rose dramatically. More than half of the residents in Jacksonville had some tie to the naval base, whether it be a relative stationed there, or due to employment opportunities, by 1970, necessitating the opening of an international airportmarker in the area.

Hotel Roosevelt fire

On December 29, 1963, a fire gutted the first couple of stories of the Hotel Roosevelt on Adams Street, killing 22 people, setting a record for the highest one-day death toll in Jacksonville history. The hotel was later abandoned, with most businesses inside moving to the nearby Hotel George Washington.

Racial tension

Ax Handle Saturday

Jacksonville has a history of racial segregation and violence. Because of its high visibility and patronage, the Hemming Parkmarker and surrounding stores were the site of numerous Civil rights demonstrations in the 1960s. Black Sit-ins began on August 13, 1960 when students asked to be served at the segregated lunch counter at Woolworths, Morrison's Cafeteria and other eateries. The were denied service and frequently kicked, spit at and addressed with racial slurs. This came to a head on "Ax Handle Saturday", August 27, 1960. A group of 200 middle aged and older white men (allegedly some were also members of the Ku Klux Klan) gathered in Hemming Park armed with baseball bats and ax handles. They attacked the protesters conducting sit-ins. The violence spread, and the white mob started attacking all African-Americans in sight. Rumors were rampant on both sides that the unrest was spreading around the county (in reality, the violence stayed in relatively the same location, and did not spill over into the mostly-white, upper-class Cedar Hills neighborhood, for example).A black street gang called the "Boomerangs" attempted to protect the demonstrators. Police, who had not intervened when the protesters were attacked, now became involved, arresting members of the Boomerangs and other black residents who attempted to stop the beatings.

Nat Glover, who worked in Jacksonville law enforcement for 37 years, including 8 years as Sheriff, recalled stumbling into the riot. Glover said he ran to the police, expecting them to arrest the thugs, but was told to leave town or risk being killed.

Several whites had joined the black protesters on that day. Richard Charles Parker, a 25-year old student attending Florida State Universitymarker was among them. White protesters were the object of particular dislike by racists, so when the fracas began, Parker was hustled out of the area for his own protection. The police had been watching him and arrested him as an instigator, charging him with vagrancy, disorderly conduct and inciting a riot. After Parker stated that he was proud to be a member of the NAACP, Judge John Santora sentenced him to 90 days in jail.


Before the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, African-Americans in Jacksonville were denied health care services at every hospital except the negro Brewster Hospitalmarker, even when their condition was critical or life-threatening. In the aftermath of the Civil Rights Act and Ax Handle Saturday, the previously segregated black and white communities worked together in open dialog, integration, and participatory government. Despite the progress, racial tension was very evident when the public schools in Jacksonville were fully integrated in 1971. Black students attending integrated schools endured racial epithets, being spit on and, in some extreme cases, being stoned by their white classmates.

On June 1, 2003, John Peyton became Mayor of Jacksonville after defeating African-American Sheriff Nat Glover. Matt Carlucci, a white Republican endorsed Glover (a Democrat) after being defeated in the open primary. Afterwards, Carlucci's business was vandalized with the words "NIGGER LOVER", and Glover's campaign headquarters was vandalized with "NO NIGGER MAYOR". In appreciation of Carlucci's support of Glover, the Local Democratic Party sent precinct member James "Jim" Minion, a Democrat and sign contractor to repair and replace the damaged property. As a gesture of humor, Jim Minion added "brass balls" to Mr. Carlucci's sign, signifying the local Democratic Party's respect and admiration for his support of Mr. Glover.

It should be noted that Nat Glover was the first (and only) African American sheriff in the state of Florida since Reconstruction, winning two elections before running for mayor. Before he joined the police force, he was one of the youths who were involved in the axe handle riots.


Jacksonville is one of the few cities on the Eastern coast that have been spared from the wrath of hurricanes. The only recorded hurricane to ever hit the First Coast directly was Dora, which made landfall on St. Johns Countymarker just after midnight on September 10, 1964. The eye crossed St. Augustinemarker with winds that had just barely diminished to 110 mph, making it a strong Category 2 on the Saffir-Simpson Scale. The storm caused $280 million ($1.5 billion in 2000 dollars) in damage and knocked out power for six days.

Despite the damage and destruction that Hurricane Dora caused in Jacksonville, the very next day, September 11, 1964, over 20,000 fans attended a LIVE CONCERT at the "Gator Bowl" (Jacksonville Memorial Municipal Stadium) by the British rock-and-roll band, "The Beatles." The winds were blowing so hard that Ringo Starr's drumset had to be nailed down to the stage.

Though Dora was the only storm to affect Jacksonville with hurricane force winds, the city has been affected by weaker storms as well as hurricanes that lost intensity before reaching the area. In September 1999, after Hurricane Floyd struck the Bahamasmarker, over one million Floridians were evacuated from coastal areas, many of them from Jacksonville. Mayor John Delaney announced the mandatory evacuation of the Jacksonville Beaches and other low lying neighborhoods early on September 14; in total, nearly 80,000 Jacksonville residents left their homes. Ultimately the storm turned northward 125 miles off the coast, causing only minor damage in Jacksonville and the southeastern US before making ground in North Carolinamarker.


Through the 1960s Jacksonville, like most other large cities in the US, suffered from the effects of urban sprawl. To compensate for the loss of population & tax revenue and endwaste & corruption, voters elected to consolidate the government of Jacksonville with the government of Duval Countymarker. The move was carried out on October 1, 1968, and Hans Tanzler, elected mayor of Jacksonville the year before, became the first mayor of the consolidated government. Jacksonville became the largest city in Florida and the 13th largest in the United States, and has a greater land area than any other American city outside Alaskamarker and Hawaiimarker. All areas of Duval County are considered part of Jacksonville besides the four independent municipalities of Jacksonville Beachmarker, Atlantic Beachmarker, Neptune Beachmarker, and Baldwinmarker, although residents of these towns vote in city elections and are eligible for services provided by Jacksonville.

Claude Yates began the "quiet revolution" with the Yates Manifesto and J.J. Daniel was chairman of the Local Government Study Commission. Lex Hester was Executive Director of the commission and the key architect of Jacksonville's consolidated government, transition coordinator and chief administrative officer following consolidation.

Current issues

Some issues the city deals with today include: how to fix the school system (including violence on school buses), and solving transportation problems created by the explosive growth Jacksonville has undergone since the 1990s. A $2.2 Billion initiative called The Better Jacksonville Plan was developed by the administration of mayor John Delaney and was approved by voters to address issues brought about by this rapid growth, and drive to host the Super Bowl. Jacksonville also faces a double-edged sword of development. While the population increases, the city is forced to deal with maintaining an infrastructure that keeps up with this growth. Roads are increasingly clogged with more cars and public schools are crowded with more students. The city is struggling to keep a balance between traditionally lower taxes and accommodating its rising population. This initiative also is taking aim at Urban Revitalization. Jacksonville, like many other U.S. cities, is trying very hard to turn back the tide of inner city slums. Jacksonville is spending millions of dollars in an effort to restore inner city neighborhoods such as Springfieldmarker and the Greater Eastside Community to their past glamour and glory by encouraging economic development.

Super Bowl XXXIX, which Jacksonville hosted in 2005, presented many opportunities and challenges for the Jacksonville area. Many services, such as the monorail system known as the JTA Skywaymarker, have been underutilized for many years. The Skyway specifically has been criticized in that it goes from "nowhere to nowhere" in its limited route, which encompasses only downtown.

Jacksonville Mayor John Peyton has also spearheaded two new initiatives. The Blue Print to Prosperity is designed to muster the community to identify innovative ways to increase Jacksonville's per capita income, and the other is RALLY Jacksonville!, a campaign designed to raise the city's literacy rate by promoting early literacy. Like many Southern cities, Jacksonville suffers from a lower literacy rate than the national average.


  1. Crackers and Carpetbaggers: Moments in the History of Jacksonville, Florida by John Wilson Cowart
  2. Heroes all: a history of firefighting in Jacksonville by John Wilson Cowart
  3. Florida Times-Union: August 24, 2000: Discrimination in all its forms must be axed
  4. Florida Times-Union: February 21, 1999-Civil rights by Alton Yates
  5. Dr. Bronson Tours: St. Augustine Civil Rights 1960-1965 by Gil Wilson
  6. Florida Times-Union: August 25, 2000-40 years ago this weekend, Jacksonville gave itself a national reputation for violence by Alliniece T. Andino
  7. Pemberton, John: [1] Florida Times-Union, February 22, 1998, "Focus on: Nat Glover"
  8. Weathersbee, Tonyaa: [2] Florida Times-Union, February 4, 2008, "The story of a white man who joined the '60s sit-ins"
  9. Florida Times-Union: December 18, 2000-x

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