The Everglades are an extensive subtropical marshland extending southward from Lake Okeechobee to the southern tip of the Florida peninsula.
The alligator is the animal most commonly associated with the Everglades, but a variety of other animals live there, including deer, raccoons, bobcats and Florida panthers, which are endangered. The Everglades are also the home of thousands of birds, both native and migratory.
The first documented peoples in the Everglades were the Calusa. They were followed by the Florida Seminoles, who settled into South Florida during the Second and Third Seminole Wars. While most of the Seminoles were relocated to the West by the federal government in the mid-1800s, many stayed behind to make their home in the Everglades. Yeomen farmers, frequently referred to as "crackers," settled in and near the Everglades in the late 1800s, often taking advantage of the abundant grasses to raise cattle.
The question of whether and how to use the Everglades has been a hot topic in Florida for over a century. Prior to the late 1800s, the Everglades were considered a wasteland because of the mosquitoes, the lack of timber and the swampy flooded landscape. As technology and transportation improved, however, business and political leaders began considering the potential benefits of draining and developing this marshy terrain for agriculture and settlement. Government and private sector entities cooperated to build canals, dikes and roads to open up the land for settlement.
Concerns about the environmental impact of this activity date back to the beginning of the 20th century. Conservationists warned that developing the Everglades would disrupt South Florida ecosystems and destroy invaluable natural forest resources. Activists like May Mann Jennings and Marjorie Stoneman Douglas led efforts to reserve parts of the Everglades from development and enact sensible conservation policies. Over time, state and federal government authorities became more active protectors of the Everglades and their natural resources.
These documents reflect changing attitudes over time about the importance of the Everglades as a natural resource. In the relevant portion of his message to the Florida Legislature, Governor William Jennings emphasizes the Everglades’ economic value to Floridians. When Jennings wrote this message in 1903, environmental concerns were secondary to the desire to use Florida’s natural resources to support a growing local economy. Everglades developers believed draining the region would uncover thousands of acres of rich farmland, which could then be made to produce crops at a considerable profit. Local farmers’ prosperity would in turn energize the overall Florida economy.
May Mann Jennings’ letter to the Florida Federation of Women’s Clubs demonstrates that even as early as the 1920s, many Floridians were eager to preserve at least some part of the Everglades in their natural state. Furthermore, her letter helps illustrate how women contributed to this effort by establishing park and preserve facilities, raising money and collaborating with politicians.
Governor Reubin Askew’s 1971 address to the Governor's Conference on Water Management in South Florida demonstrates how much the state government’s position on the Everglades had changed since the days of William Jennings. Askew draws clear connections between the development of the Everglades and environmental challenges like water pollution and water shortages.
These documents are excellent for starting a discussion about the impact of humans on the environment and how that has affected Florida’s history. The Jennings and Askew speeches in particular illustrate how policymakers have at various times had differing views on what constitutes responsible use of natural resources. The question of whether Governor Jennings’ views on the Everglades were irresponsible (given the time period and context) may make for a useful classroom debate.