Miami's History & Heritage

history heritage

Miami is known mostly as a new city, where the buildings are new and the history is young, but that’s not the whole story. Before Miami was the city that it is today, a young and new city that’s a center of international business and seaside playground, Miami was a riverside settlement and a native land.

For more than 10,000 years, South Florida has attracted people to its sunny shores. Lured by the warmth of the sun and the promise of a better day, they arrived from many places, forged a new way of living in our tropical paradise and left their mark.

The Miami River, throughout the course of several thousand years, hosted a large Tequesta Indian settlement; Spanish missions; slave plantations; army forts; the home of Julia Tuttle, modern Miami’s “mother”; and Henry M. Flagler’s magnificent Royal Palm Hotel. Flagler, after accepting attractive offers of land from Tuttle and the Brickell family, who lived across the river, brought his Florida East Coast Railway to Miami in 1896, jump-starting the transformation of a tiny river community into a connected city.

The first inhabitants of Miami, besides the plants and animals that have lived here far longer than any humans, were Paleo-Indians. Later, the Tequesta Indians made this area of South Florida, the area known today as Greater Miami, their home. There were about 350,000 of them until the Spanish arrived in 1513, a short 250 years later they were virtually extinct. The Spanish retained control over Florida for the next three hundreds years straight with just a small stint of British rule in the late eighteenth century.

The United States took control of Florida in 1821 when the Spanish sold it to them for five million dollars.

The Seminole Wars brought great devastation to the Florida area and severely dwindled the state’s population. By 1891, things starting changing, pioneers of today’s Florida like Julia Tuttle and William and Mary Brickell and moved here and built homes with their families. Henry M. Flagler and John D. Rockefeller extended their railroad into Florida and all the way down to Miami establishing cities and trade centers along the route.

It wasn’t until around WWI when Miami became a popular tourism destination. Visitors found the near perfect year around weather and the ample land opportunity to make Miami a home or second home. A bevy of mansions were built along Brickell Avenue that came to be known “Millionaire’s Row.” Built between 1914 and 1916, James Deering’s Villa Vizcaya, known today as Vizcaya Museums and Garden, was a jaw-dropping Renaissance-era palace imported from abroad. Vizcaya was so huge and had such an impact on the young Miami economy, that legend has it ten percent of Miami’s population was employed by the project.

When it comes to historic architecture, Miami boasts simple pioneer bungalows made of coral rock and Dade County pine, swimming pools resembling Venetian lagoons and Spanish Mediterranean mansions that defy imagination. A little known fact, the oldest structure in the Western Hemisphere is right here on Miami Beach.

By the 1920’s Miami was experiencing the boom that would lay the foundation for the structure of the city we know today. Municipalities like Coral Gables and Miami Shores quickly developed. Miami expanded by size nearly three times over.

World War II turned Miami into a military town. The Navy taught out of the Port of Miami, today’s PortMiami, and the Air Force took over the airport.

History buffs shouldn’t skip the Ancient Spanish Monastery, a building constructed in Spain in 1133 AD, then occupied by Cistercian monks, then bought by William Randolph Hearst and transplanted in pieces to Brooklyn and then Miami where services are still held there today.

Don’t forget that Miami’s History stretches back tens of thousands of years further than the deco designs that you’ll see on South Beach. Take some time during your trip and go back in time. Explore Miami and celebrate time, place and people. Begin your journey as nature did in the vastness of the sea and swamp ...

Our Tropical Paradise: "There is only one Everglades," the legendary Marjory Stoneman Douglas reminded us. Next, beautiful Biscayne National Park and South Miami-Dade's pioneer communities, encompassing tropical verdure and agricultural fields, offer a glimpse into another time and place.

Village By The Bay: Amid modern development, Coconut Grove, Miami's oldest community, holds fast to the scattered remnants of its frontier "Era of the Bay."

The Magic City: Downtown Miami is known for its incredible collection of both historic and modern buildings, and a history of connecting people to place amid a whirlwind of change.

Inspired by the past: Long before Miami had a large Hispanic population, it looked to the Mediterranean for inspiration. This romantic style, so beautifully articulated in the 1920's Boomtime suburbs, continues to be re-defined in modern buildings.

Thoroughly Modern Miami: Next, it is back to the future where one can be surrounded and thrilled with our singular collection of 1930's and 1940's Art Deco treasures and newly appreciated Miami Modern [MiMo] masterpieces.

An Enduring Spirit: South Florida's unique blend of Black neighborhoods - some more than 100 years old and some less than 30 - reflect Caribbean, West African and old southern roots.

Undeniably Latin: South Florida has always had a Latin presence but beginning with the arrival of the Cuban refugees in the early 1960's, the area has been transformed into an exciting multicultural city with a distinctly Latin flavor.

The New Pioneers: Old-time Miamians welcome the influx of new urban pioneers who are busily transforming once declining neighborhoods into arts oriented, trendy historic districts. Nearby, pioneers from the Caribbean have created a vibrant "Little Haiti," well worth a visit.

To learn more about Miami history and heritage, immerse yourself in our Heritage Guide, "Miami - A Sense of Place".

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