Overlooked No More: Julia Tuttle, the ‘Mother of Miami’

She worked tirelessly to revitalize the area now known as Miami, and is widely recognized as the only woman to have founded a major American city.,

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This article is part of Overlooked, a series of obituaries about remarkable people whose deaths, beginning in 1851, went unreported in The Times.

In the 1890s, the area where Biscayne Bay and the Miami River meet — today considered the heart of Downtown Miami — was desolate, swampy and isolated. But one of its few residents, Julia Tuttle, saw great potential for the land.

“It may seem strange to you,” she wrote to a friend, “but it is the dream of my life to see this wilderness turned into a prosperous country. Where this tangled mass of vine, brush, trees and rocks now are to see homes with modern improvements surrounded by beautiful grassy lawns, flowers, shrubs and shade trees.”

One way to make this a reality, she realized, was by building a railroad that would give people access. The oil tycoon and industrialist Henry Flagler had already built hotels in other parts of Florida, as well as a railroad that extended to West Palm Beach. Tuttle was sure that if the tracks stretched to her sleepy outpost, a city would blossom.

She had spent years trying to get Flagler’s attention, but her letters went unanswered, according to “Tequesta: The Journal of the Historical Association of Southern Florida (1995).

“Some day somebody will build a railroad to Miami,” she lamented to her friend James E. Ingraham, an engineer who was working for Henry B. Plant to build a railroad on Florida’s west coast.

“And when they do,” she added, “I will be willing to divide my properties there and give one-half to the company for a town site.”

Then came the great freeze of 1894. Frigid temperatures badly damaged the citrus groves that fueled Florida’s rapid economic growth, yet somehow Tuttle’s slice of paradise was spared. Six weeks later, the freezing temperatures returned, and the results were just as devastating — except, once again, in Biscayne Bay country.

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In 1894, frigid temperatures damaged the citrus groves that had been fueling Florida’s economic growth, but the area that became known as Miami was spared.Credit…John P. Merwin/State Library and Archives of Florida

As one story goes, Tuttle took the opportunity to try reaching Flagler again. She sent him flowering orange blossoms from her very own yard beside Biscayne Bay to show that they were, as some called it, “freeze proof.” The land, she made clear, was filled with warm weather possibilities for agriculture and tourism.

In another version of the tale, it was Ingraham who finally appealed to Flagler on Tuttle’s behalf. By this time he was said to be working for Flagler, and he visited Biscayne Bay to find that it was unscathed.

There were, he told the Miami Women’s Club in 1920, “orange trees, lemon trees and lime trees blooming or about to bloom without a leaf hurt, vegetables growing in a small way untouched. There had been no frost there.”

“I gathered up a lot of blooms from these various trees, put them in damp cotton and after an interview with Mrs. Tuttle and Mr. and Mrs. Brickell of Miami, I hurried to St. Augustine, where I called on Mr. Flagler and showed him the orange blossoms,” he added, referring to William Brickell, another prominent landowner who, with his wife, Mary, wanted to see the area developed.

Ingraham also brought proposals from Tuttle and Brickell offering Flagler portions of their land if the railway were to be constructed.

Flagler finally decided to visit the fastest way he could: He took a train to West Palm Beach and a boat to Fort Lauderdale, where he was picked up by Tuttle, who took him to her home in a wagon. There, Tuttle, Brickell and Flagler came to an agreement: Tuttle and Brickell would each donate large portions of their land if Flagler would build a railroad, provide waterworks and pay for a survey and the clearing of the streets.

By April 1896, Flagler’s first train arrived in Miami, and by July 1896 the city was incorporated. Tuttle, being a woman, was not permitted to cast a vote, but today she is widely recognized as the only woman to have founded a major American city.

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Tuttle, left, with her mother and her daughter, Fannie, at their estate in Ohio, where Tuttle was raised. Tuttle moved to Florida permanently after businessman husband died. Credit…State Library and Archives of Florida

Julia DeForest Sturtevant was born on Jan. 22, 1849, in Cleveland. She married the iron businessman Frederick Tuttle on her 19th birthday, and the couple had two children, Fannie and Henry. Tuttle spent considerable time in Florida to visit her father, Ephraim Sturtevant, a homesteader in Biscayne Bay. When her husband’s health began to fail from tuberculosis, Tuttle managed his business responsibilities. After he died, she decided to leave Ohio permanently and make Florida her home.

Tuttle purchased 640 acres on the north side of the Miami River in an area then known as Fort Dallas, a military outpost that was established during the Seminole Wars, which resulted in the ousting of the Native American tribes that lived there, most notably the Tequesta.

“At this time the land surrounding old Fort Dallas was an impenetrable thicket,” The Miami Herald wrote in 1925. “Where the city of Miami now stands was a pathless forest.”

Tuttle got to work revitalizing the area. She became “known far and wide, up and down the East Coast, as one of the most energetic and progressive citizens of the Biscayne region,” wrote Dr. Walter S. Graham, a newspaperman, in one of his many articles about Tuttle. He referred to her as the “Mother of Miami.”

After Miami was incorporated, Tuttle continued to work tirelessly to develop the city. She is credited with opening its first laundry, its first bakery and its first dairy, and she helped establish the area’s first Episcopal church. Even before Flagler opened his famed Royal Palm Hotel, Tuttle had her own, the Hotel Miami. She was also elected one of the first directors of the Bank of Bay Biscayne, but resigned after residents expressed hesitance that a woman was handling their finances.

“She has proven the Mascotte of the Bay,” The Miami Metropolis wrote in 1896. “Since her coming it has taken on a wonderful development and largely through her well-directed efforts and wonderful energy.”

Tuttle died on Sept. 14, 1898. She was 49. An obituary in The Metropolis listed the cause as a sudden violent headache, an “inflammation of the brain,” though other reports said that she had been sick and had wanted the matter to remain private.

She did not live long enough to see the return on her investments. She died in debt.

But a statue of Tuttle, unveiled in 2010 in Bayfront Park, immortalizes her story in bronze: Her left arm holds a basket of oranges, while her right extends a handful of blossoms.

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