Jacksonville Area History
Learn how Jacksonville’s history and development are inked to its beautiful climate, abundant natural resources, and ocean and river trade access.
Long before Europeans first discovered the mouth of the St. Johns River where it meets the Atlantic Ocean, the Timucuan Indians lived in this densely wooded area. According to archaeologists, the Timucuan’s distinctive culture developed around 500 B.C., but it is unknown whether they were descended from earlier groups or arrived from elsewhere. Because they had no written language, early accounts of the natives came from the first Europeans.
Tumultuous times in Europe in the early 16th century brought explorers to the shores of the New World. In 1562, a small group of French Huguenots built a settlement, Fort Caroline, on the south bank of the St. Johns, just a few miles up river from where it empties into the Atlantic. The French experience in the New World was short-lived, however, when in 1565, their fort was destroyed by the Spanish.
Having previously claimed all of the Florida peninsula and vast areas to the north, the Spanish were prompted to actively defend their territory by the French intrusion. They established Fort San Mateo on the site of the former French Fort Caroline, and it became part of their mission system, which stretched from South Carolina to St. Augustine, Florida. For nearly 200 years the Spanish converted natives to the Catholic faith and lived off the land with the help of the natives. In 1763, at the end of the Seven Years War in Europe, Spain gave control of this vast territory to the British in order to keep the city of Havana, which was more important to their New World Empire. When the Spanish left, they took the few remaining Timucuan with them.
Though only 20 years passed before the British lost control of the Florida colony, it was an active time of development. Large land grants were issued and plantations were built along the St. Johns River to grow cotton, indigo, rice, and vegetables. Lumber was harvested to expand the mighty British navy and work began on the first road — the King’s Road — from Savannah to St. Augustine. Population grew and commerce in and out of the port expanded. Spanish place names were changed to English. Most notable was the renaming of a narrow plot of land on the river to Cowford, as a place where cows could easily “ford” across the river. Many loyalists settled here during the Revolutionary War, but by 1783, the British were forced to return control of the Florida Colony to the Spanish.
Return of the Spanish
The second time the Spanish ruled the Florida colony was not as successful as the first. Most of the loyalist population left for Canada or the Caribbean, and nearby Georgians having just won their freedom from British rule, saw great opportunity to the South. The Spanish Empire was in decline and after several attempts to oust the Spanish from the Florida colony, including intrusions by Andrew Jackson, Spain ceded its Florida holdings to the United States.
Welcome to the United States
The year 1821 marks Florida’s entry to be a U.S. territory. Plantations had become important economic centers along the St. Johns River. Two settlers donated land on the north bank of Cowford to establish a “proper” town in 1822 and the site was renamed Jacksonville, in honor of the territory’s first provisional governor, Andrew Jackson, who never set foot in the town, but went on to become the seventh U.S. President. Now part of an established commerce network of a new and growing country, Jacksonville exported cotton, lumber, oranges, and vegetables and received manufactured goods from the North. Jacksonville was the center of commercial activity in the territory by the time Florida gained statehood in 1845.
Civil War Years
This was a time of profound change for the fledging United States, especially in the South. Florida seceded from the Union, but there was support for both the Union and the Confederacy in Jacksonville. As a port city, Jacksonville played a major role in the Union blockade of the Confederacy and it was occupied by Union troops four times. The population grew with both freed and runaway slaves seeking safety and a new life.
Post War Recovery
As with many Southern cities, Jacksonville suffered both property damage and economic devastation due to the war. Its location as a port city again proved to be valuable, however. A new item was soon imported into the city — tourists. By the late 1800s, the area was drawing 70,000 people annually seeking a respite from the cold northern climes. Downtown hotel building expanded and communities along the beautiful beaches began to grow. As the railroad expanded south across the river, however, the tourists had a means for exploring other parts of Florida. At the same time, a yellow fever epidemic spurred tourists southward.
The spark that started a devastating downtown fire in 1901 in which over 2,300 buildings burned to the ground may have ignited the trend for transformation that Jacksonville needed. From the ruins of a colonial frontier past emerged a modern skyline of concrete and stone. A public library donated by Andrew Carnegie was built in 1905. Noted New York architect Henry Klutho brought the new Prairie-style to the city. The first paved road connecting the city to the beach was opened in 1910. The new industry of film production came to the city in the early 1900s and was an important part of the economy until World War I.
Growth spread from the downtown center to outlying areas in the 1920s. Fine homes and lovely parks were built along the river’s north bank and expanded to the south bank after the first bridge was completed. By 1923, electric trolley cars linked the two sides. The city became a major transportation hub for those investing in the Florida land boom. Development slowed during the Great Depression, but Jacksonville’s location was again responsible for its next economic boom. The buildup of three military installations during World War II made Jacksonville the Navy’s third largest military complex in the country.
In 1968, the City of Jacksonville and the county of Duval merged into a single governmental unit in order to improve how services were delivered. This created an entity that is nearly 900 square miles, the largest city in land area in the contiguous United States.
In 1993, a major dream was realized when the city was awarded an NFL franchise, the Jacksonville Jaguars. In 2005, Jacksonville emerged into the international spotlight as home to Super Bowl XXXIX with a matchup of the Philadelphia Eagles versus the New England Patriots. Today, Jacksonville is a dynamic economic center offering a quality life style for residents and an exciting destination for visitors.
Blogs by First Coast Magazine
March 30, 2015 1:49 pm EDT
Take a leisurely stroll down St. Johns Avenue in Avondale, and you’re bound to find yourself peeking through the plate glass of Biscottis.
March 16, 2015 3:00 pm EDT
While growing up in Chicago, Chef DeJuan Roy knew what he wanted to do with his life. He spent his teens working in the kitchens of various restaurants, and joined the Army as a cook.
March 12, 2015 2:22 pm EDT
Local speakeasy features old-school spirits and sounds.
January 22, 2015 10:05 am EST
Scott Meyer operates the nation’s smallest rice farm. It’s the only one in Jacksonville. And he’s fairly certain it’s the only one in Florida.
July 21, 2014 9:32 pm EDT
Almost 100 years ago in a community rich with potato farming tradition, but light on technology, Danny Johns’ great-grandfather pioneered the first horseless farm in Hastings.
Blogs by Denise M. Reagan
July 06, 2015 12:00 pm EDT
A terrarium is an apt metaphor for what’s happening in Hemming Park.
June 24, 2015 9:55 am EDT
Sometimes art wants to be set free. That’s the idea behind the worldwide Outings project, initiated by French visual artist and filmmaker Julien de Casabianca.
June 15, 2015 10:32 am EDT
Visit MOCA Jacksonville for a self-curated exhibition “Southern Exposure: Portraits of a Changing Landscape”.
June 01, 2015 9:55 am EDT
When you think about what’s happening under a bridge, storybook scenes of trolls might come to mind—or perhaps more sobering visions of seedier activity.
December 12, 2014 4:18 pm EST
Angela Strassheim creates images that are more like paintings than photographs. “I don’t take pictures. I make photographs,” Strassheim said. “Everything in a photograph is there because I decided it would be there.”
Blogs by Gary Sass
June 25, 2015 2:57 pm EDT
This year’s Downtown Fourth of July celebration and fireworks display is on the actual anniversary, Saturday July 4, 2015.
June 16, 2015 11:49 am EDT
Walk into Downtown Jacksonville’s Merrill House and step back in time to the year 1903
April 09, 2015 3:47 pm EDT
If the Riverside neighborhood of Jacksonville had a greeting card, the Riverdale Inn would be on the cover
December 01, 2014 11:47 am EST
The local historical societies celebrate the holidays and offer fun activities. It is also a chance to buy unique gifts for history buffs.
November 05, 2014 3:12 pm EST
We call it the “First Coast”, home of the first European settlements and a region steeped in history.
Blogs by Sarah
July 28, 2015 1:54 pm EDT
Jacksonville’s hotels are staying fresh with updates and renovations, see who's making a statement below.
June 30, 2015 9:36 am EDT
Will you be in Jax to celebrate Independence Day this year? There are a ton of fireworks displays and Fourth of July events happening around town.
June 01, 2015 1:35 pm EDT
We are super excited (pun intended!) about the 2015 lineup for Florida Country Superfest.
October 30, 2014 12:36 pm EDT
Take your pick between dozens of world-class golf courses throughout the Jacksonville area. Visit the Jacksonville Beach Golf Club or Windsor Parke, or venture out to the The Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach. Learn more about all the great places to golf near Jacksonville.
October 06, 2014 12:17 pm EDT
Fall is the perfect time for a Jacksonville, Florida inshore fishing trip. Read Captain Dave Sipler's tips for a fun and successful fall fishing trip!
Blogs by Patty
July 27, 2015 4:39 pm EDT
Jacksonville is the perfect destination to have an authentic Florida experience, and there is no better way to explore it than to enjoy the tastes, the flavors and the sites that the locals love.
March 27, 2015 1:22 pm EDT
Whether you’re looking for a family friendly spring-break destination, or the ideal spot for a quick fun getaway, Jacksonville has the perfect mix of Florida Flair, Southern Hospitality, and exciting festivals to put a spring in your step this new season!
March 10, 2015 1:22 pm EDT
Running. You either love it or you hate it, but sometimes you hate a little less and get the inspiration you need from a city and its running paths.
February 06, 2015 7:01 pm EST
Every day can be Valentine's Day, create your perfect romantic getaway to Jacksonville, the “River City by the Sea.” Whether you’re looking for romantic strolls on the beach, candlelit dinners, or an eco-adventure for two, couples can craft a picture-perfect time together in Jax!
October 20, 2014 10:17 am EDT
Unless you’re an expert on our fine city (and who knows, you might be - it is pretty awesome here) here are some things you probably didn’t know about Jacksonville, Florida.