From the Beginning
Since the French Huguenots arrived in 1564, Jacksonville’s history and present has been shaped by the mixture of cultures that have called the city home.
- Long before Europeans came upon the mouth of the St. Johns River emptying into the Atlantic Ocean, the Timucuan Indians lived in this densely wooded area. Their distinctive culture developed around 500 B.C. according to archaeologists, but it is not known whether they were descended from earlier groups or came here 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, Jean Ribault landed in Jacksonville and claimed the land for France. In 1564, Rene de Ladonniere and a small group of French Huguenots built a settlement and established, La Caroline (Fort Caroline), on the south bank of the St. Johns, just a few miles up river from where it empties into the Atlantic. This was the first European settlement in Northeast Florida, the first settlement for religious freedom and the first Thanksgiving between Native Americans and Europeans. The French experience in the New World was short-lived, however, when in 1565, their fort was destroyed by the Spanish. The original site of Fort Caroline has never been found; nowadays visitors can tour a replica fort located near the original site.
- Having previously claimed all of the Florida peninsula and vast areas north of it, the Spanish were prompted by the French intrusion to actively defend their territory. They established Fort San Mateo, site of the former Fort Caroline, on the former French site and it became part of their mission system which stretched from South Carolina to St. Augustine, Florida. For nearly 200 years, converting natives to the Catholic faith and living off the land with the help of the natives kept the few Spanish settlers and soldiers busy.
- 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 Timucua with them.
Welcome to the United States
- The year 1821 marks Florida’s entry to be a U.S. territory. Plantations became 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 and 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 movie 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 build up 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.
For more information on the History of Jacksonville, click here.