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 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.
July 21, 2014 9:30 pm EDT
Summer is a season for light eating. Dining out, it can be a challenge to find dishes that are both refreshing and satisfying.
Blogs by Kacie Couch
July 30, 2014 5:02 pm EDT
When you think of a pink bird, what is the first thing that comes to your mind? For most people, it would be a flamingo. The flamingo is a very beautiful (and very pink) bird, but it is not a local species to say the least. Lucky for us, we have our own species of pink bird wading in our North Florida waters!
May 29, 2014 4:56 pm EDT
“What a strange looking bird!” exclaimed the bearded man as we looked up at the helicopter flying overhead. It was a beautiful day in July and we were standing outside. I was wearing a sundress that came down to my knees and he was decked out in a woolen long-sleeved uniform. In JULY… In Florida. This was right after he called me a “jezebel,” no less.
Blogs by Becky
March 02, 2015 12:21 pm EST
Two of the greatest things about Jacksonville? Our weather and our food.
February 03, 2015 9:47 pm EST
It’s easy to see why Jacksonville is a top destination for arts and culture. Everywhere you look you see art, museums, music venues.
February 02, 2015 9:08 am EST
Renovation, Reuse and Revitalization – those are the words to define Jacksonville’s up and coming restaurant scene.
Blogs by Denise M. Reagan
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.”
October 22, 2014 12:32 pm EDT
Artists have been working in the realist style for centuries. In this age of technology, what would inspire contemporary painters to embark on the painstaking process of creating art in this style?
October 16, 2014 1:45 pm EDT
A small theater in the heart of the Five Points neighborhood has made a big impact on Jacksonville’s movie tastes.
September 30, 2014 12:05 pm EDT
MOCA Jacksonville ‘Project Atrium’ artist explores the mind’s circuitry in a monumental textile installation
September 22, 2014 2:05 pm EDT
Pick a day and a neighborhood and you’ll find a place to absorb local art.
Blogs by Local Expert Guest
March 23, 2015 8:41 am EDT
Enjoy an evening exploring Jacksonville's hottest restaurants, by Sarah Sekula.
March 19, 2015 9:33 am EDT
Local Speakers Share Recommendations for the Best of Jacksonville for Visitors & Attendees
March 16, 2015 5:16 pm EDT
Reconnecting with nature in Jacksonville.
January 15, 2015 11:36 am EST
Jacksonville, situated on the Atlantic coast of northeast Florida is the largest city in area in the continental United States with 840 square miles.
December 19, 2014 12:36 pm EST
Soaking up the craft beer scene in Jacksonville, Florida.