Nothing Gets More Miami than a Good Real Estate Story
Distilling downtown's history through real estate transactions required a point of departure, early private property documentation. But what should have been the most readily available information, Julia Tuttle’s real estate transaction, was the most elusive.
The Tequesta have been in the area for 10 thousand years or more, Spanish conquistadores claimed Biscayne Bay Country (an early name for Miami) for the Crown in the 16th century. Spanish rule was briefly interrupted between 1763 and 1783 — Great Britain, having captured Cuba, forced Spain to trade Florida for the Island, plus 4 million pounds in cash. It was during Spain’s second reign that three thousand acres out of the vast South Florida territory went to private hands in the form of land grants.
The year 1810, one hundred acres north of the Miami River were granted to John Egan. On that land, the original city of Miami was built — the current downtown.
Spanish conqueror Juan Ponce de Leon allegedly discovered the Florida peninsula on Easter the year 1513. Spanish for Easter is Pascua Florida — there the State’s etymology. He reached Biscayne Bay and discovered the Tequesta Miami mound town at the mouth of the Miami River. Ponce de Leon couldn’t find gold, and off he sailed looking for the second best alternative, the spring containing the magic substance for eternal youth. Centuries later, marketers labeled it The Fountain of Youth and battled its waters for tourists. A poisoned arrow to Ponce de Leon’s neck killed him, unfortunately, before he conquered eternity.
Why were conquistadors obsessed with gold? Exploratory voyages and the subsequent conquest were children of private enterprise. The Crown gave explores the right to claim for Spain what they found, and send back the Royal Fifth, but provided little in advance.
Another Spaniard, Menendez de Aviles, claimed the human settlement right where the Miami River empties into the Bay. Spaniards called the former Calusa Tribe Chequesta. Historians believe this settlement was the capital of the Tequesta.
The Tequesta received the bearded foreigners with lobster, mussels, crocodile leather hides, and the Chieftain even offered Menendez de Aviles, a staunch Catholic, his sister in marriage. Better than gold, he said through an interpreter (according to a novelized account.)
Snapshot of the Tequesta
Thirteen-year-old Hernando de Escalante Fontaneda survived a shipwreck. He washed out to Biscayne Bay shore. Tequesta King Carlos enslaved him for 17 years. A benevolent king, Carlos allowed his young captive to roam free, and his domain extended all the way to the Keys. Escalante Fontaneda lived to become Menendez de Aviles’ interpreter, and returning to Spain published a memoir. He pinned the following portrait of his captors:
“These Indians have no gold, less silver, and less clothing… Women are well proportioned and have good countenance… The common foods are fish, turtle, snails, and whale, which is according to what I saw while I was among these Indians. Some eat sea-wolves, not all of them, for there is a distinction between the higher and the lower classes, but the principal persons eat them. There is another fish which we here call langosta (lobster)…”
In chapter three, Hernando de Escalante Fontaneda elaborates on the life-and-death importance of interpreters, and makes the following observation: “The province of Tegesta is situated to the west of the Caloosa, and embraced a string of villages stretching from Cape Canaveral to the southern extremity of Florida.”
Regaining control of Florida in 1783, Spain encouraged nationals and nationalized squatters, mainly treasure hunters and beachcombers from the Bahamas, to settle permanently. Four of the five grants made were to Bahamians. In addition to the land north of the Miami River that went to John Egan, the Spanish Crown granted lands south of the river to John’s mother, Rebecca Egan, and to Jonathan Lewis and Polly Lewis. The earliest grant was made to Pedro Fornells, 1790, for 175 acres on Key Biscayo. These grants mark the beginning of private property in Biscayne Bay Country and the beginning of the real estate industry.
Historian Arva Moore Parks indicates in her classic Miami, The Magic City, that Miami is “an Indian name, big water or sweet water, given to Lake Okeechobee.” A Spanish map of 1565, Mapa de la Florida y Laguna de Miami, first documents it. The river was named Miami on the false assumption it originated on the lake, but it originates on the Everglades.
Florida Becomes US Territory
Spain conveyed Florida to the United States in 1821 for five million dollars. Florida became a territory, not a state. The San Indelfonso Treaty, under which the transaction was made, provided the acceptance of land grants made by the Spanish King. The United States Congress formed a Commission for “ascertaining claims and title to land in the Territory of Florida”. John Egan’s son, James, had his Grant confirmed in 1825. The Commission also ratified the Grants to Egan’s mother, and Molly Harris and John Harris, each for 640 acres.
In 1829, Egan placed the following ad in the Key West Register offering his property for sale:
A VALUABLE TRACT OF LAND NEAR CAPE FLORIDA
Situate on the Miami River, the land is very good, , and will produce Sugar Cane or Sea Island Cotton, equal, if no superior to any other part of the territory. There is a present a number of bearing Banana and Lime Trees, and the fruit is inferior to none raised in the Island of Cuba.The forest growth consists primarily of Live Oak, Red Hay and Dog Wood. Any person desirous of purchasing a valuable plantation will do well to visit the land.
The Village of Miami
Richard Fitzpatrick purchased Egan’s “Valuable Tract of Land” in 1830 for $400. He also bought the other grants south of the river, consolidating them into one plantation for a grand total of $2,340 — that is, from the Miami River to Coconut Grove. His slaves cleared three miles of jungle along the bayfront. He planted cotton, limes, coconut, guava, and sugarcane.
The Second Seminole War, the longest Indian war in American history, 1835-1842, truncated Fitzpatrick’s grand enterprise. Fearing his slaves would join the renegades, Fitzpatrick removed them to Key West, and joining them, he left a pearl of wisdom: “The best part of valor is saving one’s ass.”
In Key West, Richard Fitzpatrick engaged in various commercial and shipping enterprises, but financial burden forced him to sell his plantation in Biscayne Bay Country to his nephew William English in 1843. According to an article in Tequesta, a scholarly journal of the Historical Association of Southern Florida, Arva Moore Parks puts the sum of the transaction in $16,000.
But the property was heavily mortgaged to Fitzpatrick's sister, Harriet English, a refined lady from North Carolina. William English borrowed slaves and money from his mother and set out to succeed where his uncle had failed, planting more cotton and exotic fruit.
He also platted the Village of Miami south of the River, selling one-acre lots for as little as $1 (one dollar.) The one condition for buyers was to build well-structured houses, complying with his vision of a picturesque subtropical empire.
The State of Florida
When Florida became the 27th state in 1845, a slave state, with more than half the population of African extraction, the southern tip, Biscayne Bay Country, was nothing to brag about. The place was unsuited for conventional agriculture. The shallow soil covered a dense shelf of oolitic limestone and the highest spots were covered by pine woodlands and palmetto shrubs with mangrove hammocks close to the shore. Not to mention the armies of mosquitoes. “And to make things worse, no roads connected South Florida with the rest of the state. Travelers arrived by sailboat from Key West — 140 nautical miles away,” adds Arva Moore Park. “Key West was Miami’s lifeline. A boat made one round-trip a month, bringing the mail, freight, and the occasional visitor.”
One etymological curiosity, the “West” in Key West does not assign a geographical point but is the corruption of the Spanish word for bone, hueso. Spaniards named the key Cayo Hueso for the human bones a particular harsh hurricane spread.
An official assessment corroborates the state of Biscayne Bay Country: “It’s a place of half-deluged plains, deep morasses, and almost inaccessible forests, a home or shelter only for beasts, or for men little elevated above beasts.”
A Novelesque Death
William English’s enthusiasm faced various obstacles. 1. The property had been destroyed by the war. 2. The land was too sandy for growing many of the fruits he had in mind. 3. Peace with the Seminoles had not yet been solidified, and skirmishes flared up here and there. 4. More important, in retrospect, the California Gold-Rush virus infected the American manly ideal.
English joined the avalanche of fortune seekers. Instead of gold, as it happens in sad novels, he found death in California. He survived a most difficult trip around Cape Horne in the Antarctic, and a storm that shipwrecked him to Mexico, and finally when he got to California, when he was ready to dig from the soil the necessary funding to bring his tropical empire to fruition, he fell from his horse and accidentally shot himself dead. The accident occurred in Grasse Valley, California, in 1855.
With no wife or children, the abandoned property went to his mother and brother. A Louisianan doctor, J.V. Harris, bought some of the land north of the Miami River from English’s mother, and some from the other heirs (this will obfuscate history as we will see in due time.) Speaking of Louisiana, we have all heard of the fantastic real estate deal President Jefferson made by purchasing Louisiana from Napoleon for three million dollars, but less known are the good deals made in the southern wilderness of Florida. Dr. Harris paid for a good part of the territory where the future city of Miami was to be built the exorbitant sum of $1,450.
Where are the Votes?
As sometimes happens in Miami with real estate deals, trouble lurked ahead for Dr. Harris. The culprit, William Gleason, a Republican New Yorker who had taken possession of Fort Dallas. Gleason had come first to South Florida in an official capacity, looking to make South Florida home to thousands of freed African slaves, but he liked what he saw edging beautiful Biscayne Bay and wanted it for himself. He returned with the family, accolades, oxen, and goats, and settled in the abandoned Fort Dallas that Dr. Harris had just purchased.
The goateed Dr. Harris had a short temper and cane dexterity. He demanded that Gleason vacate the premises. Gleason’s dexterity was the tongue, and the lawyer that he was, he understood that at the juncture, the tongue was no match for an infuriated Dr. Harris and his cane. Gleason left, but the affair was hardly over. He found a John Egan in Key West, and falsifying a deed, making him the legitimate heir to the original Spanish Grant, Gleason had his wife purchase Dr. Hariss’ land north of the Miami River for $700.
Chance brought the two men face to face, and this time Gleason had nowhere to run. Dr. Harris gave him the beating of his life. Limping away, he decided to make his mark in politics, where he made it all the way to the Lieutenant Governor of Florida. Not satisfied, he sought to oust the governor on a technicality and established in a hotel room across from the governorship an alternate governorship. But what gained him national fame was his role in hiding Miami-Dade votes in the 1878 presidential election, holding, in effect, the national election hostage. People in America asked: Where the hell is Miami-Dade?
Julia Tuttle Enters the Scene
Miami was still considered America’s last frontier. But change was on the way. Julia Tuttle purchased Fort Dallas and adjacent land to build a home. A woman of great foresight, Tuttle prophesied that a great city would someday arise in the area, one that would become a center of trade with South America and a gateway to the Americas.
The purchase of her famous 640 acres got complex. Dr. Harris had sold his property to the Biscayne Bay Company for $7,000. In 1891, Julia Tuttle bought from the Biscayne Bay Company half of the 640 acres north of the River. The other half she bought from other heirs of William English’s brother.
How much did Julia Tuttle pay for the land she used to allure railway tycoon Henry Flagler? Dr. Paul George, another distinguished Miami historian, has examined Julia Tuttle's probate file but has not seen the sum of the purchase. I checked with Arva Moore Park, trying to verify an amount that an imaginative realtor had volunteered. She promptly replied: “I don’t know where you are getting your facts, but unfortunately, that is incorrect. Check the Centennial Edition of Miami, Magic City.”
I did, and emailed back to the eminent historian:
How delightful it was to spend hours revisiting your book, the Centennial Edition. I did not find, however, the sum Julia Tuttle paid for the land north of the Miami River.
I think your book “Miami: The Magic City” should be required reading for anyone moving to Miami.
I confronted the imaginative realtor. He defended himself with the all too common legal argument of faulty memory. “I don’t recall where I saw the $2,400 sum of the purchase,” and added for effect and to change the subject that adjusted to today’ dollars, that sum would amount to $60,000 — not enough for a downpayment on a modest downtown apartment.
Julia Tuttle lured tycoon Henry Flagler to accept half her domain for extending his railway from Palm Beach. The other condition was to plat out a city. The train arrived in April 1896. On July 28, the City of Miami was incorporated. Since Miami didn’t have the required three hundred signatories to be incorporated as a city, a number of the signatories were Henry Flagler’s black laborers. Flagler’s black laborers helped incorporate the city, helped construct the city, but couldn’t live in the city. They were relegated past the western border to Colored-Town, now Overtown.
What about the sum of the purchase?
Amateur historian Casey Piket, the man behind Miami-History Blog and the Miami History Channel, emailed me a figure he had just gotten from the noted researcher and journalist Larry Wiggins. A linguistic clarification regarding Mr. Piket: the word amateur denotes loving what one does, from the Latin amator, lover. Mr. Wiggins had a figure: Julia Tuttle purchased half of the 640 acres north of the Miami River from the Biscayne Bay Company in 1891 for the sum of $6,000. The other half she bought from William English’s other heirs for a stubbornly elusive figure.
[Exerpted from Curiosity/Curuosidad, a bilingual collection of essays on language, science and culture, and three fictions, by Raul Guerrero. It will be published on April 2019.]