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Context Florida: Ed Moore: Celebrating an important birthday: Florida’s!

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

First in an occasional series about Florida history.

As the Legislature convenes in Tallahassee, it’s a good time to reflect on how we got to where we are as a state and how it all began.

On March 3, 1845, Florida joined the Union as the 27th state.

Hanging in my office is a map of the United States drawn by famed English mapmaker James Wyld. It’s dated 1845 and shows Florida, perhaps for the first time, in the same color as the rest of the states in the Union.

The map shows the Southwest as territory belonging to Mexico. The day after Florida became a state, James Knox Polk became the 11th President of the United States.

During his term, the second largest expansion of the United States took place. When Mexico balked at the annexation of Texas into the U.S., he declared war on Mexico. The U.S. won handily and as a result, California, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, Nevada and Wyoming were added as territories and Manifest Destiny was made complete.

During the early 1800s, much of what is now the U.S., including Florida, was coveted by European countries, many seeking colonial expansion, ports for trade, natural resources and land to grow food for the home countries.

Our own state has flown under a succession of flags. The state was bartered and traded, won and lost in wars, and in part simply acquired through the migration of settlers. Much of the United States was built upon the blood of soldiers.

In 1835, my ancestors, Archibald Kirkland Mixson and Rachel Calhoun Mixson, settled in North Central Florida near the shores of what was once a lake and is now Payne’s Prairie in a settlement called Wacahoota Hammock.

At the time there were about 40,000 people living in Florida. Imagine the ruggedness of Florida then. How inhospitable were the swamps, the bayous and the coastlines? Picture the heat of the summer bearing down upon you as you struggled by hand to clear dense semi-tropical landscapes, plagued by insects and a host of tropical diseases.

These were the people who laid the foundation for statehood. These were the farmers, merchants and the Crackers in the deep woods cutting timber and tapping trees for sap, which was used for many things back when stores were not easy to reach.

Florida had an abundance of pines. The sap from them could be tapped and used as a paste for teeth cleaning, a gum for chewing, a balm for toothaches. The sap was used to patch buildings, boats, and even leaky boots.

By the time Florida entered the Union, there were more than 65,000 people in Florida, mostly in the pinelands and hills along the north and in Jacksonville, Pensacola, Tampa and Key West.

Key West was the state’s largest city into the 1900s. It prospered from shipping, seafood, the digging of the Panama Canal, and the Spanish-American War.

Florida soon will surpass New York as the nation’s third largest state. We have changed dramatically as a state since the 1950s when Florida was the smallest of the Southern states.

Our growth, strong economy and mix of cultures place us in a unique position for national leadership on so many issues. The successes of Florida show the rest of the U.S. how growth can be properly managed and how diversity should be a valuable tool in economic expansion.

We are Florida! As we celebrate our 169th birthday, it is good to look back upon our past and use the lessons learned from both our successes and our failures to chart our course for this new century. The promise of Florida is great!

Ed H. Moore, President of the Independent Colleges and Universities of Florida, writes and lives in Tallahassee.

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