Southeast Florida history has been shaped by many cultures and characters.
Thousands of years ago, the Tequesta tribe of Indians lived on Biscayne Bay in what are now Miami-Dade County and south Broward County.
A few of the original Tequesta Indians were in Southeast Florida including some populations along the Florida Keys. Most of these ancient tribes disappeared by the middle of the 1700's. After that, Bahamians were among the earliest settlers in Southeast Florida. Many of them became the first citizens of what is now Coconut Grove in Miami. The Indians and Bahamians contributed to what is now Southeast Florida heritage.
If the north Florida regions are also known as Florabama and Florgia, then Southeast Florida could be called lower New York or northern Havana or Floracuba. Modern immigrants from the New England states and Latin and Central America give the region its diverse flavor. You can enjoy a New York Pizza, an Argentinian steak, and a Jamaican beef patty and never leave your friendly neighborhood shopping center. This makes Southeast Florida heritage among the most diverse in the country.
Without the Standard Oil Company, Southeast Florida heritage and history would be entirely different. Henry Morrison Flaglerwas John D. Rockefeller's partner in that giant firm. Flagler sold out to Rockefeller and moved to Florida in 1885. He was rich, but like Colonel Sanders he wasn't the kind of man who considered retirement.
His first Florida venture was to build the giant 540 room Ponce de Leon Hotel in St. Augustine. This magnificent building is now the home of Flagler College. The hotel opened in 1888 and was a huge success. Flagler saw the potential in developing the entire Florida coast south of St. Augustine. He went to work creating what he would refer to as the "American Riviera".
The development of Southeast Florida began in earnest when Flagler began to push his Florida East Coast Railway to the south from St. Augustine. His railroad created Florida history town by town as it marched south. Each town has its share of Southeast Florida heritage brought to it by Henry Flagler.
Before the railroad pushed southward, Southeast Florida was as remote as any place in the United States. Transportation between the coastal communities was by shallow draft boats and paddle wheel steamers. Flagler's destination was Palm Beach. That's where he planned to end his railroad.
When the railroad made it to Palm Beach in 1894, he built the 1100 room Royal Poinciana Hotel and a couple of years later the Breakers Hotel. The Royal Poinciana was the largest hotel in Florida history at the time. At the same time, he developed West Palm Beach as a community where the hotel workers could live.
Flagler might have been content to stop the railroad in West Palm Beach. He didn't have a high opinion of Florida south of Palm Beach. An unusual weather event made him change his mind. In 1894 and 1895 the Palm Beach area suffered severe freezes. The area down south that now includes Miami did not get the freeze. Julia Tuttle owned a trading post on the Miami River. The town of Miami didn't even exist yet.
Tuttle had been trying to convince Flagler to run the railroad south to her area. An old Florida history book says that Julia sent Henry an orange blossom to show him that Miami did not suffer a freeze. Whether the story is true or not, something convinced Mr. Flagler to extend his railroad to Miami. And the rest is Southeast Florida heritage and history.
Later, when he was in his eighties, he pushed on across the Florida Keys and terminated his venture in Key West. Development followed the railroad, and Southeast Florida history was transformed.
Palm Beach became the playground of the rich and famous. Fort Lauderdale and Miami expanded west and created some of the first large planned communities. Miami grew from Julia Tuttle's trading post at the mouth of the Miami River to become the virtual business center for Latin America.
Northerners from New England followed US-1 down the east coast of Florida. Many fell in love with the palm studded coast and decided to stay. During World War Two, Miami Beach hotels were converted to military barracks. Many of the soldiers and sailors who trained in Miami Beach came back to paradise after the war ended.
Fidel Castro and his communist revolution succeeded in Cuba, and huge waves of Cuban refugees escaped to Miami in the early 1960's. They transformed Miami into a great Latin City. Castro's loss is Miami's gain. The Latin flair is evident today in the music, festivals and cuisine that are Miami's trademarks.
The people in the Florida Keys march to their own drummer. Maybe that's because it was a series of isolated islands until Henry Flagler changed it all. Flagler's Florida Overseas Railroad road had been an engineering marvel. The railroad tied the Keys to the mainland for the first time when it was completed in 1912.
Flagler did not live long enough to see his masterpiece completely destroyed by the Labor Day hurricane of 1935. After the hurricane, the old railroad bridges and track beds became US-1, known in the Keys as the Overseas Highway. Key West still remained, literally, the end of the road.
Early natives of the Florida Keys were originally descended from the Loyalist pioneers of the Bahamas. Many of the family names in Key West and Monroe County are the same as the ones in Abaco, Bahamas.
Before the railroad, keys residents made their livings fishing and "wrecking". Wrecking involved salvaging ships and materials that grounded on the rocky waters around the Keys.
The natives of the lower Keys were always known as conchs, named after the mollusk that was abundant in the waters of Florida and The Bahamas. That's pronounced "konk", like a konk in the head. Not "conch" like a fat man's paunch.
The Conchs tried to secede from the United States in 1982. They did not succeed in seceding. Many Conchs in recent years have migrated north to Ocala, Gainesville and other rural Florida areas.
There are many back roads in Southeast Florida that are worth traveling. Although most of them are in urban areas, some of them haven't changed much in the past century.