Some Irreverent and True Early Conceptions of Florida As Under-explained Reasons For Why This Part of the World is Consistently and Continually Absurd
—AIMÉ CÉSAIRE, “Calling the Magician: A Few Words for a Caribbean Civilization” (1944)
Can you name five people that lived in Florida from 1513–1765, and any that aren’t Spaniards?
—J. MICHAEL FRANCIS, Professor of Florida History, University of South Florida
In 1776, Biscayne Bay and the surrounding environs were most likely completely uninhabited. There is no archaeological evidence from the time of any human presence in the area. This means that when these United States of America were formed, conceptually, legally, and through the vicious blood of virtuous insurrection, there wasn’t a goddamned soul living in Miami.
The document that ceded Florida to the United States of America in 1819 from Spain was called the Adams–Onís Treaty, so named for the two representatives and signers: from the United States, John Quincy Adams, Secretary of State, and from Spain, Lord Don Luis de Onís, Gonsalez, Lopez y Vara, Lord of the Town of Rayaces, Perpetual Regidor of the Corporation of the City of Salamanca, Knight Grand Cross of the Royal American Order of Isabella, the Catholic, decorated with the Lys of La Vendee, Knight Pensioner of the Royal and distinguished Spanish Order of Charles the Third, Member of the Supreme Assembly of the said Royal Order; of the Council of His Catholic Majesty; his Secretary with Exercise of Decrees, and his Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary near the United States of America.
This is an incredibly stupid title. The Spanish were really ridiculous. And to further that point, you should know that they were mostly convinced that La Florida was inhabited by unicorns.
In one of the most bizarre skirmishes in American history, the United States Army attacked Fort Gadsden, the so-called Negro Fort, of East Florida, one of the first freed black settlements, in July 1816. It only took one shot to bring the entire fort down. The heated cannonball auspiciously hit the fort’s magazine and arms store, completely obliterating the building. In addition to twenty Choctaw Indians, nearly all the three hundred freed black men, women, and children were killed by the massive blast.
A little-known fact is that Florida was also home to the definitive first free black settlement in these United States, Fort Mose, full name Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mosé, established nearly eighty years earlier, in 1738.
It is very much like Florida to be so progressive as to have the first freed black settlement, but juxtaposed with the history of a different early freed black fort blowing up with one shot, it’s like a heartbreaking cartoon leading to the horrific massacre of blacks and Natives.
André de Thévet, the French monk and cosmographer who was mostly wrong, thought Florida was the home of a mythical beast called the succarath. In his La cosmographie universelle (1575), the animal was said to inhabit the banks of rivers and had a massive plumed tail that guarded its young. For more than one hundred years, countless other histories of the New World included the succarath or su, despite the animal being completely imagined. Its reputation changed from simply peculiar to vicious over various editions by other mapmakers and intellectuals, creating a natural history based on nothing.
Thévet also understood Florida to be so large that it was bordered to the north by Canada.
Always remember that Florida was only subject to British rule for twenty years (1763–83). It was barely a colony, as the history books teach it.
Britain was somewhat responsible for the final removal and effective eradication of the remaining Florida Indians, though. When the British took control, the Spanish population left, and shipped the last few hundred indigenous people to Cuba.
According to historian Jerald T. Milanich’s research, the Timucua tribe in northern Florida lost 75 percent of its population due to disease brought on by the Spanish in the sixteenth century. He describes the seventeenth century as “positively horrendous,” with a 98 percent reduction, from 50,000 people to 1,000.
In 1763, when Florida was traded to the British, only a single Timucua Indian was sent to Cuba.
Most evidence points to the first piece of fiction written about Florida to be François-René de Chateaubriand’s Atala (1801). Though “Florida” is mentioned several times throughout the text, many scholars emphasize Chateaubriand’s general misunderstanding of the local flora. The book, now canonized by the West, was mostly a literary conduit for the further oppression of American Indians and the promotion of Christianity. Chateaubriand’s work was set up in direct contrast to the popularized concept of the “noble savage.” It seems Florida was an idyllic locale for both the physical eradication of Indians, and the symbolic.
Again and again we bring into use our field glass, but alas, the same unbroken level plain meets our view, the same brown color unrelieved by even a patch of green or depression or rising in the surface. We are unable to distinguish where the marsh grass ends and the sawgrass begins, for it is all alike, all the same color, the same height, and what is worse still, all the same difficulties and perhaps greater for the next ten miles in our front, on our left and on our right.
—MAJOR ARCHIE P. WILLIAMS, account of an expedition to the Everglades, 1883
Yeah dude, it’s flat here. And super wet. Good luck with those ten miles.
Florida, for whatever reason, has always seemed to be a place for the slightly deranged. According to Hernando de Escalante de Fontaneda, when the Calusa (a large South Florida tribe) captured the shipwrecked Spanish in the late sixteenth century, they yelled at them, demanding of them to sing and dance for entertainment. When the befuddled Spanish explorers did nothing because of the obvious language barrier, they were killed. Florida was built on confusion. We must sing and dance in order to live in the face of constant misunderstanding. Nothing is certain except the presence of water. But believe in Florida nonetheless.
Nathaniel Sandler is the founder of Bookleggers and the Florida editor of the Miami Rail.