Tropical Dreams: A People’s History of South Florida

Historical Museum of Southern Florida. Ongoing.The Historical Museum of Southern Florida, located at 101 West Flagler Street in Miami, is currently presenting a permanent exhibition titled Tropical Dreams: A People’s History of South Florida. The show explores South Florida history through five periods: First Arrivals, International Rivalry, Southward, Expansion, New People – New Technology and Gateway of the Americas.

The history of South Florida is the story of humans in a unique environment. It began more than 10,000 years ago with the arrival of prehistoric Indians and continues to the multi-cultural metropolis of today. Throughout the ages, the story has been characterized by arrivals – the immigration of people from many different places and cultures into the region. These varied peoples brought their dreams with them, and remade South Florida over and over again to fulfill those dreams. They also adapted to the region's subtropical environment, interacted with other cultures in South Florida, and, in the process, changed into something new and unusual. This is their story.

First Arrivals

The first people to inhabit South Florida were here as early as ten thousand years ago. They were descendants of those who had migrated to America from northeastern Asia, traveling across a land bridge between Alaska and Siberia in pursuit of herds of mammoths, caribou, horse, bison, and other large animals. Crucial to their survival was the ability to adapt to the environmental conditions surrounding them. As people moved into Florida, they gradually changed their way of living to fit the resources and environs. The lifestyle of the aboriginal Indians of South Florida, including food, clothing, shelter, and even aspects of religious and social activities, was tied directly to the South Florida environment.

International Rivalry

The geographic location of South Florida, guardian of the trade routes and buffer zone between the English and French to the north and the Spanish to the south, determined its destiny for over 300 years following Ponce de Leon’s visit in 1513. It was a period of interaction between people and nations, of red men interacting with white, of white with black and of black with red. Although the international struggle for control of the Florida peninsula did not occur primarily in South Florida, that struggle and its outcome shaped the development of this region.

Southward Expansion

The period of International Rivalry ended when the United States gained possession of Florida. In the very southern end of the peninsula came the blossoming of the island town of Key West as the center for the “wrecking industry.” The important trade routes which pass close to the treacherous coral reefs caused the development of a regulated system of salvaging cargoes and saving lives. Navigational improvements gradually reduced the number of wrecks. Mainland settlement was encouraged with the passage of the Homestead Acts. To help make good lands available to settlers, the United States adopted a national policy of Indian removal. In Florida that meant treaties, reservations, and many years of war as the Seminoles resisted their forced removal from Florida.

New People – New Technology

The harnessing of steam power in the 19th century provided man with tools to shape the environment to fulfill his needs, plans, and desires. The beginning of this era in South Florida was marked by the 1896 arrival in Miami of Flagler's FEC railway. Soon additional lands for agriculture, tourism and settlement were being created by drainage and land fills. Roads, bridges, and airfields opened new avenues into South Florida.

Thousands came to the area during the real estate boom of the 1920s and the face of South Florida changed drastically as dream cities, tourist resorts, subdivisions and skyscrapers materialized. Although the 1926 bust shattered the dreams of many South Floridians, population growth and development continued through the Depression era. The military brought thousands to the area during World War II, when South Florida's mild climate and vacant tourist facilities were used as a major training center for soldiers.

Gateways of the Americas

South Florida, like much of the industrialized world, has experienced more changes during the past 50 years than during the previous five centuries. Southeast Florida has become complex and diverse, with many ethnic groups and cultures calling it home. Geography and cultural diversity have made it the gateway between the United States and the Caribbean and Latin America.

The general trend of people moving from rural to urban areas combined with job availability and technological advancements in transportation, construction, and other industries caused South Florida to experience a new surge of population growth following World War II. The annual number of tourists in South Florida also increased tremendously as people came to visit year round than just during the winter months. Thousands of refugees, beginning with the Cuban exodus in the early 1960s and continuing into the 1990s with the Haitians, have come to South Florida seeking a new life. South Florida has become a metropolitan community with increasing international significance in the Americas.

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