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.
Local Experts | All Blogs
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 Gary Sass
October 10, 2014 2:56 pm EDT
The most spectacular annual air show is right here in Jacksonville.
August 13, 2014 11:05 am EDT
“On location in Jacksonville”, has been part of movie production history for over one hundred years. From the silent movie era to today’s modern films, it is entertaining to watch scenes with Jacksonville in the background.
July 16, 2014 5:24 pm EDT
Where can you find the best volunteer lifeguards in the world? Just go to Jacksonville Beach and look for the iconic white tower (a.k.a. “The Peg”) along the ocean. This is home for the American Red Cross Life Saving Corps.
May 02, 2014 9:17 am EDT
May is a month teeming with excitement in Jacksonville. There are many historical events which happened in May and the weather is optimal for the outdoor celebrations.
April 04, 2014 2:19 pm EDT
One Spark, the World’s Crowdfunding festival, kicks off this year on Wednesday, April 9 for a five-day event. Within the participating 20 square blocks of Downtown, many One Spark venues are historic treasures. Here’s a few to enjoy as you support your favorite creators.
Blogs by Captain Dave Sipler
August 05, 2014 1:58 pm EDT
July was, and August will be too..... Teeth Month, aboard Capt Dave's Jettywolf. From Barracuda's to Sharks, it's all about "Sport Fishing" for the BIG ONES!
July 10, 2014 3:31 pm EDT
Hello Anglers! Summer has been here for quit a while in N.E. Florida. Most of you don't really care what month the calendar says. As a fisherman, I call it summer when the Spanish Mackerel show up at the inlet. And that happened back in May!
May 29, 2014 5:01 pm EDT
Hello Folks, Captain Dave Sipler here.....I'm going to tell you all about Jacksonville's fishing opportunities every month for the next six months.
Blogs by Denise M. Reagan
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.
September 22, 2014 1:58 pm EDT
Jacksonville artist Jason John sets up a working studio at MOCA Jacksonville
Blogs by Void Magazine
September 12, 2014 3:08 pm EDT
According to critics, the most problematic feature of our region is the geographic size of Jacksonville. It’s just a really big city. If you drove from Baldwin in West Jacksonville, all the way to where Atlantic Boulevard dumps you on the ocean, it would take you almost an hour – and you would have never left the city limits of Jacksonville.
September 12, 2014 2:49 pm EDT
Over the past two years, Shad Khan and the leadership of the Jacksonville Jaguars have made extensive efforts to transform the team from relative obscurity (for those outside Duval) into one of the most visible franchises in the league.
July 10, 2014 4:55 pm EDT
Out with the old, in with the bold! Bold Bean Coffee Roasters has just opened its second location in South Jacksonville Beach, ironically where the old Starbucks was located. Bold Bean specializes in handmade, single-origin coffee, espresso beverages, craft beer and a community-orientated atmosphere.
June 10, 2014 5:31 pm EDT
What makes a restaurant romantic? If you’re not sure, you probably ought to ask someone female. When I asked my husband for his suggestions for this article, he said, “Is Guzzle Pipes and Gutty Works open yet?” Having an excellent beer list is not usually high on the list of most women’s romance requirements.
June 02, 2014 12:02 pm EDT
We all love a nice summer night with friends and a cool beer in our hand. This list will be your locally-brewed beer guide for the summer, no matter the occasion.