The first Americans to spend much time in South Florida were the U.S. Army men who chased the Seminole Indians around the peninsula in the 1830s. And they hated it. Today, their letters read like Yelp reviews of an arsenic café, denouncing the region as a “hideous,” “loathsome,” “diabolical,” “God-abandoned” mosquito refuge.
“Florida is certainly the poorest country that ever two people quarreled for,” one Army surgeon wrote. “It was the most dreary and pandemonium-like region I ever visited, nothing but barren wastes.” An officer summarized it as “swampy, low, excessively hot, sickly and repulsive in all its features.” The future president Zachary Taylor, who commanded U.S. troops there for two years, groused that he wouldn’t trade a square foot of Michigan or Ohio for a square mile of Florida. The consensus among the soldiers was that the U.S. should just leave the area to the Indians and the mosquitoes; as one general put it, “I could not wish them all a worse place.” Or as one lieutenant complained: “Millions of money has been expended to gain this most barren, swampy, and good-for-nothing peninsula.”
Today, Florida’s southern thumb has been transformed into a subtropical paradise for millions of residents and tourists, a sprawling megalopolis dangling into the Gulf Stream that could sustain hundreds of billions of dollars in damage if Hurricane Irma makes a direct hit. So it’s easy to forget that South Florida was once America’s last frontier, generally dismissed as an uninhabitable and undesirable wasteland, almost completely unsettled well after the West was won. “How far, far out of the world it seems,” Iza Hardy wrote in an 1887 book called Oranges and Alligators: Sketches of South Florida. And Hardy ventured only as far south as Orlando, which is actually central Florida, nearly 250 miles north of Miami. Back then, only about 300 hardy pioneers lived in modern-day South Florida. Miami wasn’t even incorporated as a city until 1896. And even then an early visitor declared that if he owned Miami and hell, he would rent out Miami and live in hell.