Boca Raton History Part 1: Presettlement and The First Pioneers

boca raton presettlement era

The illustrious city of Boca Raton is a jewel on Florida's East Coast. What was once nothing but swampy hinterlands and untamed wilderness evolved over centuries to become the envy of the world - a place for celebrities, the ultra-wealthy, upstart businesspeople, and successful retirees to settle as their own. Yet, before the days of high-impact windows, central A/C, and the many guard-gated communities we feature as part of our landscape, a few brave settlers would attempt the earliest forays into the land we call Boca Raton. As part of our first chapter in profiling Boca Raton's historical chapters, and in concert with our friends at the Boca Raton Historical Society, we're excited to begin our series where it all began, at least for us. Our blog will illuminate the key figures, moments, and decisions that led from those first incursions to the glamorous present and future we live in today.

glades culture tribesmen

Early Florida Natives fashioning weaponry from the shell of the lightning whelk (Courtesy: Boca Raton Historical Society)

The Native Origins

The earliest vestiges of human habitation are evidenced in the area currently known as Gumbo Limbo Nature Center, just north of our beachfront office. Known as The Glades Culture, these early natives were here as early as 2,000 B.C. Though South Florida is primarily defined by its Seminole and Miccosukee cultures, these tribes were not native to the hammocks and coastal swamplands that they are identified with. During the earlier 1800s, America began to incorporate more states into its union and continued its mindset of manifest destiny, expanding ever-westward. The two South Floridian tribes are in fact, descended from Creek Indians, whose military engagements with the United States began during the War of 1812. The Upper Creeks sided with the British, later to become known as "Red Sticks," favored a traditionalist culture and resisted Euro-American expansion fervently.

In 1813, The Red Sticks sacked Fort Mims, approximately 35 miles north of present-day Mobile, Alabama. This massacre of over 500 militia, their wives, and children, firmly placed the Upper Creeks in the crosshairs of Andrew Jackson's Army. In March 1814, Jackson took a force of approximately 2,000 and their friendly native allies to Horseshoe Bend, where they would defeat a force of 900 Red Sticks decisively. It was during this time that Chief Osceola, perhaps the most famous of all Florida Native Americans, migrated to Seminole Territory alongside other Red Stick Refugees. In 1832, what became known as The Trail of Tears was foisted upon those remaining in Creek Territory. 

seminole war painting

Seminole Warriors hiding behind mangroves as U.S. soldiers approach over water (Courtesy: Boca Raton Historical Society)

The Seminole Wars

Concurrently, the Three Seminole Wars were fought between 1816 and 1858. The Seminoles gathered and coalesced in Spanish Northern Florida during the early 1700s. As the U.S. expanded, tensions arose with the tribe, especially as escaped slaves were fleeing south over the border with raiding parties in hot pursuit. These cross-border skirmishes eventually led to the First Seminole War, in which Andrew Jackson's forces destroyed several Seminole and Black Seminole towns, eventually forcing the withdrawal of the Seminoles from their lands in the Florida Panhandle. The Adams-Onis Treaty of 1819 officially ceded Florida from Spain to the United States. Ten years later, President Andrew Jackson demanded the Seminoles exit Florida altogether as part of the Indian Removal Act, but they refused. The Second and Third Seminole Wars drove the Seminoles deeper into Central and South Florida, culminating in the treacherous capture of Chief Osceola under the guise of peace.

Under the leadership of General Thomas Sidney Jesup, a campaign of property destruction, rather than direct elimination, flushed the Seminoles from their homes. By The Third Seminole War, a majority of remaining natives lived in Southwest and Central Florida and were driven further into the Everglades to land considered unsuitable by American settlers. These few hundred refer to themselves as "The Unconquered" and established the Miccosukee Tribe which today still reigns over the lands in the Everglades and Big Cypress regions. Though limited in scope, the native impact on Boca Raton was substantial, and the broader landscape of conflict, relocation, and eventual assimilation is part of South Florida's history through today.

Boca (Mistakenly) Gets Its Name

Some like to chuckle when they hear the name "Boca Raton," which roughly translates to "rats mouth" or "mouth of the rat." The use of the Spanish word "Boca," in this case refers to an inlet, while the "Raton" or "Ratones" in the name refers to a jaggy inlet. The original location of "Boca de Ratones" was Biscayne Bay. In 1823, the first map associating "Boca Raton" with its current location is drafted, The name was mistakenly given to Lake Boca, which remained closed until the latter part of the 19th century. The booklet of Harley D. Gates, an early pioneer of Boca Raton (more on him later), postulates that the first white man to see Boca Raton was Pedro Menendez de Arvila, the first Spanish Governor of Florida. In 1565, his son Juan boarded a vessel from Cuba to St. Augustine. However, after a hurricane struck, Juan was lost. Menendez searched fervently from his provincial seat as far south as Biscayne Bay, surely passing through Boca Raton. For much of the 16th and 17th centuries, Boca Raton was a refuge for pirates who would rest within the natural inlet, hiding from pursuit and storms alike. When the Seminoles arrived, they named the area Estahakee, or "beautiful scene." Each Summer the natives would camp two miles from the beach where they would hunt and fish. Though there are no ruins or archaeological sites dedicated to Spanish involvement in Boca Raton, their influence in its early upbringing along with the current architectural expression is evidence of their indelible mark on Boca Raton.

pioneer era palmetto scrub expanse

The Pioneer Era Begins 

From 1875 until the eventual completion of Henry Flagler's Florida East Coast Railway, only two mail offices sat in South Florida. At the time, the only burgeoning towns were Miami and Palm Beach, with the northerly postal run beginning in Lake Worth. During this time, the "Barefoot Mailmen," most notably Ed Hamilton, carried the mail by land and over water, mainly walking along the beachfront hence their name. Hamilton tragically disappeared, but his possessions were found on the north bank of the Hillsboro Inlet, where the usual boat he used to cross was also gone. Many believe he drowned or was killed by a shark or alligator attempting to retrieve his boat. These Barefoot Mailmen precede much of Boca Raton's modern history and are a testament to the doggedness shown by the early pioneers determined to create a new frontier to America's far Southeast.

rare photo of barefoot mailman

Rare photo of one of the legendary Barefoot Mailman (Courtesy: Boca Raton Historical Society)

One of the first notable citizens of Boca Raton was the Honorable Joshua A. Bowen, who was given particular attention in the Gates' booklet. Bowen lived in a shack on the north bank of the Hillsboro River. Bowen kept to himself and was rarely disturbed, but one day received a letter that he had been nominated by the local Republicans to serve as a state legislator.  At the time, most of the settlers were northern migrants, thus no Democrat challenger was offered, ensuring a win for Bowen. At the time, Boca Raton was such a hinterland community that a legislator could be just as easily seen barefoot foraging seagrapes and dozing off in his hammock as he would in his suit at the state capitol. The nominating party arranged for a clean pair of shoes, pants, and a shirt for Bowen to fulfill his duties. Bowen served with distinction, establishing enough financial footing to raise hogs on the land he once peacefully occupied before his foray into politics. 

In 1897, Surveyor Thomas Moore "T.M." Rickards was hired by legendary entrepreneur Henry Flagler, who would become Boca Raton's first credited pioneer, surveying and plotting the first maps for development. Though he had been purchasing land since 1892, it wasn't until Flagler took a keen interest in Boca Raton Real Estate and development that things truly began to change. In the few years that followed, Rickards would serve as a superb land agent for Flagler, laying the framework for eventual settlement and the true beginnings of the Pioneer Era. With Flagler, Rickards, and more names to follow, it is here we close our chapter and look ahead to the next crucial era of study in Boca Raton's rich history.

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#1 By chrisTopher at 6/9/2023 5:46 AM

There is nothing more powerful than the history of where we now dwell. Great article!

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