On May 3, 1901, a devastating fire swept through downtown Jacksonville and destroyed much of the city. Jacksonville persevered, despite suffering from the largest urban fire in the 20th century United States, and its resilient citizens rebuilt downtown.
On April 30, 1562, French explorer Jean Ribault led an expedition ashore near the mouth of the St. Johns River. They continued north to what is now South Carolina before returning to Europe. Ribault returned to the Americas in 1564 and was among those killed during the Spanish – French struggle for control over La Florida.
Between the time he returned to Europe and before the second French expedition sailed in 1564, Ribault published an account of his journey titled The Whole & True Discouerye of Terra Florida. His brief account provides insight into his perception of the land and people he encountered. The below spellings retain those that appear in an early English-language printing of Ribault’s account.
“Vindictive, Unrelenting War”: The Burning of Jacksonville
One of the most enduring scenes from a movie depicting the Civil War remains the burning of Atlanta in Gone with the Wind (1939). Chaos, terror, and destruction surround Rhett and Scarlett as they flee the inferno. The scene’s fire portrays the actual fire set by retreating Confederates on September 1, 1864, as they pulled out of the city. On November 14, 1864, Union forces marching out of Atlanta set fire to hundreds of buildings. Atlanta remains the most famous example of the burning of a city during the Civil War; however, it was only one of many towns set to the torch during the struggle. Jacksonville, Florida, has the unfortunate distinction of being one of the first.
The initial war-related fire in Jacksonville occurred on March 11, 1862. That day, Federal gunboats approached the city in preparation for what would be the first of four Union occupations. The imminent arrival of Federal troops created panic. Loyal Confederates rushed to evacuate the city, and Confederate soldiers prepared to set fire to supplies they could not take away. Local mobs, angered by the presence of the city’s sizable pro-Union population, torched Northern-owned businesses and homes. Otis and Abby Keane watched as the mobs ransacked their hotel, the Judson House, before setting the building aflame. That night, those who had fled Jacksonville watched from across the St. Johns River as large sections of their city burned.
A year after the first fire, Jacksonville endured another inferno. This time the Federals were responsible for the destruction. On March 10, 1863, Union troops, spearheaded by two black regiments, the 1st and 2nd South Carolina Volunteer Infantry, arrived for what became the third Union occupation of Jacksonville. Facing little resistance, the regiments quickly gained control of the city. Signs of growing Confederate strength to the west, however, encouraged the Union to reinforce their position in Jacksonville with two additional infantry regiments, the 6th Connecticut and the 8th Maine, both all-white units.
Although the Federals were able to raid along the St. Johns River as far south as Palatka and maintain control of Jacksonville, Union preparations for renewed operations in South Carolina led to the decision to end the Jacksonville operation. On March 28, 1863, as Union troops prepared to leave the city by sea, fires broke out in the wake of the columns of the 6th Connecticut, whose soldiers had taken the opportunity to set fire to the city. As the Yankees left, rain and the quick arrival of Confederate troops combined to contain the fires; however, much of the city lay in ruins. One witness detailed the smoldering structures:
“The Episcopal and Catholic churches, the jail, Parkhurst Store, Miller’s Bar Room, Bisbee’s Store, and dwelling house, Dr. Baldwin’s house and that whole block. Mrs Foster’s house, Washington Hotel, one of Hoeg’s stores—nearest Millers—and every house from the Judson House above the Railroad to Mrs. Collins old house, (Lydia Foster’s House, Sadlers, etc. are among them).”
While the Union’s responsibility for the fire was clear enough, Confederate newspapers as well as Northern newspapers critical of the use of black troops denounced the black regiments as the agents of destruction. The majority of Northern papers placed the entire blame on the white soldiers of the 6th Connecticut and 8th Maine. As with most controversial historical incidents, however, the answer is not black or white. There seems little doubt that the two white regiments started the fires, but when it became clear that they were free to join in the torching, some black soldiers, according to witnesses, set fires as well. One Northern reporter who saw the burning city despaired that the war had taken a new and uglier turn from which there was no turning back, “Is this not war, vindictive, unrelenting war?”
The best history of the Union occupations of Jacksonville is Daniel L. Schafer, Thunder on the River: the Civil War in Northeast Florida (University Press of Florida, 2010). All quotations come from pages 159 and 161-162 of Schafer’s book.
A. Philip Randolph, the first president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, was born in Crescent City, Florida, and grew up in Jacksonville. The son of a Methodist minister, he attended the City College of New York, and later published The Messenger, a radical black magazine.
The 1937 contract between the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and the Pullman Company cut working hours, increased pay, and improved working conditions.
Randolph was also a major influence in ending discrimination in defense plants and segregation of the U.S. military. He was director of the August 28, 1963 March on Washington, D.C. — the largest civil rights demonstration in American history.
The membership of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters included the African-American porters and maids who worked on the railway trains. Randolph, Benjamin McLaurin, and Julius and Eliza Rosier Glass were natives of Jacksonville. Julius was a fireman on the Florida East Coast Line.
On the move in Jacksonville in the Roaring ’20s.
Found a great photo of Jacksonville in the 1920s that we missed? Share it with us in the comments!
In the late 1930s and early 1940s, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) undertook a survey of church and synagogue archives as part of the Historical Records Survey (HRS). In Florida, the WPA surveyed 5,500 churches and synagogues, and generated 20,000 pages of documentation on archival records held by these institutions. The entire WPA Church Records Collection is digitized and available on the Florida Memory website. This post highlights two Jacksonville churches included in the WPA’s Church Archives Inventory (CAI).
The surveys for the First Baptist and Bethel Baptist Institutional churches in Jacksonville serve as examples that illustrate the value of the Church Archives Inventory (CAI) for researchers. One of the oldest churches in the Jacksonville area, First Baptist was founded in 1838 as Bethel Baptist Church. The six charter members included Reverend James McDonald, Elias Jaudon, their wives, and two African-American slaves, referred to in an interview accompanying the survey as Peggy and Bacchus. In the beginning, Bethel Baptist had a biracial congregation, relatively common for antebellum Baptist churches. By the time of the Civil War in 1861, Bethel Baptist counted “forty white members and two hundred fifty colored members.” During the war, the church, at that time located on West Street, served as a military hospital. Following the battle of Olustee in February 1864, federal troops brought the wounded to the church for treatment.
The Civil War left the church in a “deplorable condition.” According to Church Secretary Mrs. J. M. Aldridge, “the window panes [were] broken out, the plaster off the walls, and filth and dirt everywhere.” The Civil War also divided the congregation. African-Americans formed the Bethel Baptist Institutional Church, while white members established Tabernacle Baptist Church. The 1901 fire in downtown Jacksonville destroyed much of First Baptist Church (changed from Tabernacle Baptist in 1892). Church members quickly raised $16,000 to rebuild and completed construction on a new building in 1904. The church still occupied the rebuilt structure when survey workers arrived in the late 1930s. Property owned by the church at the time of the CAI survey included a pipe organ valued at $35,000.
The African-American Bethel Baptist Institutional Church of Jacksonville held equally impressive property. The field worker who completed the survey of Bethel Baptist Institutional noted that the church building was “[e]laborately constructed…of Renaissance and Mission type,” containing “70 art glass windows.” “The Deacons,” the survey explained, “receive their communion from individual silver glasses especially reserved for them.” The file for Bethel Baptist Institutional in Jacksonville also contains a church flier of the building and the pastor at the time, Reverend J. E. Ford. Despite being torn apart by segregation and the racial tensions that characterized the Jim Crow South, both First Baptist and Bethel Baptist Institutional attained landmark status as historic churches in the Jacksonville community.
The surveys for the First Baptist and Bethel Baptist Institutional churches in Jacksonville are just two of thousands of similar documents included in the WPA’s Church Archives Inventory (CAI) files for Florida. Emerging from these seemingly mundane surveys, intended by the WPA to be collected in an assembly line fashion, are rich glimpses into the history of Florida communities and their places of worship. By digitizing the Florida CAI, the State Library and Archives of Florida hopes to facilitate public access to these valuable historical resources and further the study of Florida history.
On June 22, 1564, French explorer René de Laudonnière (ca. 1529-1574) landed in Florida. Days later he established the settlement of Fort Caroline. The fort was situated near the mouth of the St. Johns River, known to the French as the River May, north of present-day Jacksonville. The French had previously explored the region during the expedition headed by Jean Ribault (1520-1565) in 1562.
Upon learning of Spanish ships landing south of Fort Caroline, the French launched a military expedition on September 10, 1565. A hurricane battered the French ships before they reached the upstart Spanish settlement of St. Augustine. The survivors came ashore several dozen miles south of their intended target.
Throughout September and October 1565, Spaniards under the command of Pedro Menéndez de Avilés (1519-1574) attacked French survivors returning to Fort Caroline. The Spanish assaults occurred near an inlet 15 miles south of St. Augustine, later named Matanzas (massacre in Spanish). The Fort Caroline Massacre, as the attack has come to be known, halted French colonization of Florida and ushered in a period of Spanish control over the peninsula that lasted until 1763.
The city of Jacksonville was founded on June 15, 1822. Known to the British as Cow Ford, Jacksonville got its start near a site where cattle were ferried across the St. Johns River. Cow Ford is an English translation of the Muscogee word wacca pilatka, meaning cow crossing.
Jacksonville became the largest city in northeastern Florida and a major seaport along the Atlantic coast of the United States. The Spottswood Collection, a component of the Florida Photographic Collection, contains over 2,500 images of people and businesses in the Jacksonville area from 1916-1967.
Found a great photo of Jacksonville that we missed? Share it with us in the comments.
Artist and cartographer Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues (1533-1588) accompanied René de Laudonnière (ca. 1529-1574) to Florida in 1564. Laudonnière hoped to established a French settlement in the vicinity of the River May (St. Johns River), first explored by Jean Ribault (1520-1565) in April 1562. By June of 1564, the French had constructed Fort Caroline near the mouth of the St. Johns River.
In September 1565, Spanish soldiers led by Pedro Menéndez de Avilés (1519-1574) attacked the French. Le Moyne, charged with illustrating French progress, lost most of his work during the siege.
Following the rout of the French by the Spaniards, Le Moyne returned to Europe where he reproduced sketches of Florida from memory. In 1591, the Flemish engraver Theodor de Bry (1528-1598) published 42 engravings based on Le Moyne’s work.
De Bry’s renditions of Le Moyne’s sketches are both historically significant and highly controversial. Scholars contend that Le Moyne included features that do not match later depictions of the local Timucua Indians, and also that de Bry may have altered many of the images prior to publication. Artistic license is evident in several of the images included here. For example, in the above scene depicting the Timucua greeting the French, mountains are visible in what is supposed to be northeastern Florida.
Other elements provide clues into Timucuan culture. The Chief in the image above (“Grieving widows approach the Chief” ) is adorned with numerous tattoos. Because Europeans were largely unfamiliar with tattooing for decorative purposes, it appears unlikely that either Le Moyne or de Bry fabricated Timucuan body art. Later ethnographic information gathered by Europeans supports the notion that tattooing was quite common among the southeastern Indians.
Regardless of their authenticity, the images created by Le Moyne and published by de Bry constitute the earliest known visual representations of Florida and its indigenous people. Although the illustrations provide only a small window into the lives of the Timucua, they reveal a wealth of information about the goals and aspirations of the French and their efforts to promote the colonization of Florida.
Images such as “Chief Saturiba goes to war,” above, were meant to promote French colonization. This particular image conveyed the notion that the Timucua obeyed authority, were organized and fit for war, and could perhaps aid the French against their Spanish foes. The images depicted the Timucua as less sophisticated than Europeans, both in terms of dress and weaponry, and therefore they were potential candidates for accepting French religion and civilization.
On April 30, 1562, an expedition under the command of French explorer Jean Ribault (1520-1565) arrived at the mouth of the St. Johns River north of present-day Jacksonville. Ribault and his Huguenot (Protestant Calvinists) companions hoped to find religious freedom and to start a prosperous colony in the Americas.
After briefly exploring the St. Johns, which Ribault dubbed the River May, and erecting a stone pillar to mark their arrival, the French contingent continued northward along the Atlantic coast. They eventually landed near Royal Sound in what is now South Carolina and constructed a fortification named Charlesfort, in honor of the French monarch King Charles IX.
Ribault returned to Europe from Charlesfort, trying to garner support for further Protestant colonization in La Florida. He hoped to gain the patronage of Queen Elizabeth I of England, but was confined to the Tower of London under suspicion of espionage instead.
The French abandoned Charlesfort about one year after its founding, but returned to La Florida two years later in 1564 and established the short-lived settlement of Fort Caroline. An attack on Fort Caroline by the Spanish in September 1565 ended France’s efforts to colonize Florida.