Early in the 16th century, uncertain times in Europe brought several explorers to the shores of the New World. The first of these was the Spanish explorers who landed in Florida in 1513. As a result, the history of Florida, including the history of Jacksonville, was forged by Spanish explorers such as Pedro Menéndez.
These early explorers had a major impact on the development of the region over time. Going through many different evolutions, modern-day Florida was forged by the trials and tribulations of these early European settlers. Laying the foundations for what we know as Florida today, Jacksonville’s history was heavily influenced by these early-day explorers and much of this influence can still be felt today.
French Colonization In Florida Fails
In 1562, French explorer Jean Ribault arrived off the coast of Florida, looking for a safe haven for 150 Huguenots who were being persecuted in France. Ribault ventured into the mouth of the St. Johns River before moving north. Two years later, another French explorer, René Goulaine de Laudonnière, launched a new expedition to establish a colony on the south bank of the St. Johns River and, in June of that year, Huguenot settlers established Fort Caroline on top of the St. Johns Bluff.
Ribault returned to France, intending to resupply Fort Caroline in early 1565. However, he was delayed due to tensions arising from the French Wars of Religion. As a result, the colony faced starvation, mutinies, and war with the Utina tribe.
Meanwhile, Spanish admiral Pedro Menéndez had established the St. Augustine colony 35 miles to the south. When Ribault arrived back, he was heading a naval expedition of 200 sailors and 400 soldiers to dislodge the Spanish from St. Augustine. But a storm at sea delayed them for several days and caused many deaths when some of his ships were wrecked.
Learning of the shipwrecked Frenchmen, Menéndez marched his men overland to Fort Caroline, defended by around 200 people. He slaughtered most of the population except for 50 women and children and 26 men who escaped. After the Spanish picked up the survivors of Ribault's fleet, they executed all but 20 of them.
Spain Reigns Supreme In Florida
The Spanish proceeded to capture Fort Caroline and rename it, San Matteo. In 1568, the French and Spanish clashed again when Dominique de Gourgues set fire to the fort. The Spanish rebuilt it but did not continue to use it after 1569.
Sometime around 1740, the Spanish built Fort San Nicolas further upriver to protect the rear flank of St. Augustine. San Nicolas also served as their name for the wider Jacksonville area. This place-name survives in the neighborhood of St. Nicholas to this very day. Abandoned in the late 17th century, the fort was located on the east side of the St. Johns River, where Bishop Kenny High School now stands.
For nearly 200 years, the Spanish were active in converting the native population to Catholicism while they learned to live off the land with their help. Finally, in 1763, Spain relinquished this vast territory to the British at the end of the Seven Years War in Europe. This enabled them to retain the city of Havana in Cuba, which was more critical to the development of their New World Empire.
British Influence Expands
Although the British were in control of the Florida colony for only 20 years, it was a productive period. During this time, the issuing of large land grants enabled the building of plantations on the banks of the St. Johns River. The British settlers grew rice, vegetables, cotton, and indigo and harvested lumber to build ships for the mighty British navy. In addition, they started work on the King's Road connecting St. Augustine to Georgia. They also divided Florida into two colonies; British East Florida and British West Florida.
The population grew, and commerce in and out of the port flourished. Spanish place names were changed to English names. Most notable was the renaming of a slender slice of land on the river, named Cowford to describe a place where cows could easily cross the water. During the American Revolution, many loyalists settled here. But in 1783, the British were forced to return control of the Florida colony to the Spanish.
The Spanish Make A Comeback
The second Spanish rule of Florida was not a success, with most of the loyalists departing for Canada or the Caribbean. At the same time, nearby Georgians, having just won their freedom from British rule, saw an immense opportunity to the south.
By this time, the Spanish Empire was in decline. Before Spain ceded its Florida holdings to the United States, several attempts were made to rid the Spanish from the Florida colony, including those made by Andrew Jackson.
Florida Joins The United States
The year 1821 marked Florida's entry into the U.S. Plantations along the St. Johns River became critical economic centers. In 1822, two settlers wanted to establish a "proper" town, so they donated land on the north bank of Cowford to do so. They renamed the site Jacksonville in honor of the territory's first provisional governor, Andrew Jackson. Although he never visited the town, he went on to become the seventh President of the U.S.
Jacksonville was now part of an established commercial network, exporting cotton, lumber, oranges, and vegetables in exchange for manufactured goods from the north. As a result, by the time it gained statehood in 1845, Jacksonville had become the center of commerce in Florida.
A Vital Center During The Civil War Years
Jacksonville aided the Confederate cause during the American Civil War, becoming a key supply point for hogs and cattle leaving Florida. Despite Florida seceding from the Union, there was support for both the Union and the Confederacy in Jacksonville. This port city played a significant role during the Union blockade, with Union troops occupying the city four times.
Jacksonville Recovers After The Civil War
As with many Southern cities, Jacksonville suffered both property damage and economic devastation due to the civil war. However, its location as a port city again proved to be valuable and a new incentive soon arrived in the city; tourists. By the late 1800s, the area was attracting 70,000 people per year as they sought respite from the cold northern climate. Downtown hotel buildings expanded, and communities along the beautiful beaches began to grow. As the railroad expanded south across the river, the tourists had a means for exploring other parts of Florida. At the same time, a yellow fever epidemic elsewhere spurred tourists southward.
A New Chapter In The History Of Jacksonville
The spark that started the devastating Great Fire of 1901, during which more than 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.
Andrew Carnegie donated a public library which was built in 1905. Prominent New York architect Henry Klutho brought the new Prairie-style building design to the city. The first paved road connecting the town to the beach was opened in 1910, and the fledgling industry of film production arrived in Jacksonville in the early 1900s.
Modern Developments In The City
Growth spread from the downtown center to outlying areas in the 1920s. After the first bridge was completed, fine homes and lovely parks were built along the river's north bank and expanded to the south bank. By 1923, electric trolley cars linked the two sides.
Jacksonville became a central 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. During World War II, the building of three military installations made Jacksonville the Navy's third-largest military complex in the country.
In 1968, the City of Jacksonville and Duval County merged into a single governmental unit to improve the delivery of services. This created an entity of almost 900 square miles, the largest city in land area in the contiguous United States.
By 1993, the city had realized a significant dream when it was awarded an NFL franchise, the Jacksonville Jaguars. And 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.
The Progress In Jacksonville Continues
Today, Jacksonville continues to add exciting new chapters to the history of Florida. As a dynamic economic center offering excellent quality of life for residents and serving as an exciting tourist destination, the city continues to go from strength to strength in virtually every manner possible.