History Of Miami: What Has It Always Been Known For?

Discover the hidden roots of this year-round paradise.

history of miami
Biscayne Boulevard (1967.) Facebook Historic Miami

The history of Miami can be seen in the diversity of every neighborhood. The Coral Gables area shows the imprint of Spanish control and its influence on architecture. The streets of Little Havana displays the impact of Communism during Fidel Castro’s rise of power that led to a surge of Cuban immigrants since 1959. Later in 1977, Little Haiti’s roads depict signs of poverty and repression due to Haitian immigrants who fled for salvation. There is more to uncover on Miami’s mysterious past, but here is what is known so far:

1800s

Since the founding of Miami in 1896, this coastal city has attracted people from around the globe to its sunny shores. Lured by the warmth of the sun and the promise of a better day, immigrants arrived primarily from Europe, to forge a new way of living and have since then left their mark.

The Tequesta Indians were Miami’s first settlers and made South Florida their home for a few thousand years before the Spanish conquered the area. The estimated population was around 350,000, but they were virtually extinct 250 years later. For the next three hundred years, Spain maintained control of Florida with a swift British takeover in the late eighteenth century.

Flagler St 1934
Photo by Flagler St 1934 Historic Miami Facebook

The Seminole Wars lasted for more than 25 years, from 1816 to 1858, which caused significant damage to Florida, and greatly reduced the state’s population.

In 1821, the United States purchased Florida from the Spanish for five million dollars. A transition began in 1891 with Julia Tuttle, William and Mary Brickell moving to Miami and building houses for their families.

Henry M. Flagler and John D. Rockefeller built railroads into Florida, reaching Miami, and established trade centers along the way. The city received its name from a neighboring tribe called Mayaimi. Julia Tuttle became recognized as “the mother of Miami” for owning the land where the city was founded.

The Miami River has been home to a Tequesta Indian settlement, Spanish missions, slave plantations, forts for the United States army, Julia Tuttle’s mansion, and Henry M. Flagler’s magnificent Royal Palm Hotel for several thousand years.

In 1896, after Flagler accepted tempting offers of property from Tuttle and the Brickell family, he began construction on his Florida East Coast Railway in Miami, which kick-started the transformation of a tiny river settlement into a connected city.

1900s

Macarthur Causeway 1920's
Photo by Macarthur Causeway 1920’s Historic Miami Facebook

Miami’s prosperity peaked in the 1920s, but it began to deteriorate when the real estate bubble burst in 1925, which was shortly followed by a devastating hurricane in 1926 and the Great Depression.

Miami was an important location during World War II due to its advantageous placement on the south coast of Florida, which aided in the fight against German submarines. The war helped to boost the city’s population by over 500,000 people.

Beginning in 1906, canals were constructed to drain water from the Everglades so that it could be used for housing and agriculture. In 1913, a two-mile wooden bridge built by John Collins was completed in Miami Beach.

During the early 1920s, a flood of new people and developers triggered the Florida real estate boom, when land speculation drove up prices. After completion, several early buildings were demolished to make room for larger structures.

Between 1920 and 1923, the population tripled. The first suburbs began to form: Lemon City, Coconut Grove, and Allapattah in the fall of 1925. The metropolitan region of the city was formed in the late 1920s when surrounding areas were annexed. In the mid-1930s, Miami Beach’s Art Deco district began to take form.

Miami River 1962
Photo by Miami River 1962 Historic Miami Facebook

Many immigrants chose to settle in Little Havana as a result of this immigration from Cuba. The Mariel Boatlift in 1980 brought over 150,000 Cuban refugees who had been imprisoned or institutionalized to South Florida.

Miami became known as one of the United States’ major transshipment points for cocaine from Colombia, Bolivia, and Peru during the 1980s. The drug industry brought billions of dollars into the magic city, which were swiftly dispersed throughout the local economy.

The city’s crime rate began plummeting as the economy improved. Luxury car dealerships, five-star hotels, condominium projects, stylish nightclubs, major commercial developments, and other indicators of prosperity began to show up all over town.

As the cash came in, so did the violent crime wave that lasted until the early 1990s. Miami Vice, a popular television program that focuses on illicit narcotics and Miami’s upper class, ultimately contributes to the city’s reputation as one of America’s most glamorous tropical paradises.

Vizcaya Circa 1900
Photo of Vizcaya circa 1900 floridamemory.com

Miami wasn’t widely recognized as a popular tourist destination until World War I. The perfect year-round climate and abundant land for sale attracted people looking to make Miami their home.

A strip of mansions was built along Brickell Avenue that came to be known as “Millionaire’s Row.” Between 1914 and 1916, James Deering’s Villa Vizcaya, better known as Vizcaya Museums and Garden, was constructed and is a stunning Renaissance-era palace. The Vizcaya project was so massive and had such an influence on the developing economy that it is said that ten percent of Miami’s population worked to build it.

Present

Present Day Miami
Photo by Antonio Cuellar

Since 2000, the downtown and Miami beach area has undergone back-to-back construction for high-rise buildings. Miami’s long and rich history is fascinating to explore. The city has been through tremendous changes over the years, but it has always managed to remain a vibrant and exciting place.

Over time, Miami has become the hot spot for all things fashion, art, and luxury. To learn more about the history of the magic city, you can start by visiting the History Miami Museum, which is dedicated to preserving and sharing the city’s past.

Natalia Guerra

Contributing Editor

Natalia Guerra was born in Miami and comes from a Cuban background. Aside from her passion for travel writing and culinary arts, she also loves to step out of her comfort zone to live life to the fullest. Her lifestyle is being a digital nomad, working remotely as she travels the world one city at a time. Her favorite country has been Spain for its beautiful architecture and food, which reminds her of her Cuban culture.

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