Julia DeForrest Tuttle, the “Mother of Miami,” is the only woman to have ever founded a major U.S. city.
March is Women’s History Month and there’s no shortage of female icons in the 305 to celebrate. But we certainly could not go without paying homage to the woman without whom our city wouldn’t even exist — Julia Tuttle.
Widely recognized as the only female founder of a major American city, this trailblazing woman from Ohio had a dream to see her land north of the Miami River (now Downtown Miami) flourish into a prosperous city. But how did a widow from Cleveland become the founder of the Magic City? Well, let me tell you the story of Julia DeForrest Sturtevant Tuttle, the Mother of Miami.
Photo: State Archives of Florida
Born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1848, Julia Tuttle displayed great business prowess from a young age, taking care of her husband’s business affairs once he fell ill with tuberculosis. Tuttle didn’t set foot on southern Florida until 1874. Her father had moved to the Lemon City area as a homesteader and Tuttle, intrigued by his stories about the beauty of Biscayne Bay, decided to pay her parents a visit. She may have returned to her family in Cleveland, but Julia Tuttle had already fallen in love with the area and saw great potential in it.
“It may seem strange to you,” she told a friend, “but it is the dream of my life to see this wilderness turned into a prosperous country.”
Tuttle’s husband died in 1886 leaving her to take care of the foundry but upon her father’s death in 1891, she sold her Cleveland home and moved permanently to the Biscayne Bay with her two children. Using part of her family’s estate, she purchased 640 acres where the city of Miami is now located, on the north side of the river, including the old Fort Dallas a military installation from the Seminole Wars on the north bank of the Miami River. Her neighbors to the south of the river were William and Mary Brickell, fellow early and influential pioneers.
Fort Dallas on the north banks of the Miami River c. 1870. Photo: State Archives of Florida
Tuttle was convinced that the area would become a great city and a center of trade for the United States with South America. In retrospect, her foresight could not have been more accurate, but Tuttle also knew that the only way to make the land prosper was to bring the railroad to the area. So she took it upon herself to convince multi-millionaire Henry M. Flagler, whom she knew from her days in Cleveland, to bring his railroad to the Miami area. She even offered to divide up her land with him if he agreed to do this.
Flagler, however, was not convinced and refused Tuttle’s offer. But the Mother of Miami did not give up on her efforts to bring the railroad to Southern Florida and when the Great Freeze of 1894 wiped out most of Florida’s orange groves and with them many great fortunes, she finally managed to persuade Flagler. She sent a fragrant branch of orange blossom to the magnate showing him that the Miami River area had been spared by the freeze, and Flagler having lost most of his business finally accepted to bring the railroad to Miami.
A current view of Downtown Miami. Julia Tuttle’s estate used to sit here. Photo: Unsplash
The first train arrived in the area on April 22, 1896, and all thanks to Tuttle’s prowess. Later, on June 28 of that same year, a group of male residents voted to incorporate the new city of Miami but Tuttle was the main driving force behind its growth. The city’s first laundry, first bakery, and the first dairy were all reportedly started by Mrs. Tuttle.
Miami’s first hotel was also built by Tuttle as a bunkhouse for workers arriving in the area. It burned down in 1899. Photo: State Archives of Florida.
Julia D. Tuttle died two years later at the age of 49 died leaving a large amount of debt, partly due to her altruistic land grants to Flagler. Her children sold her remaining land to pay off the debt. Because of that her name was largely forgotten until it was placed on a causeway for Interstate 195 over Biscayne Bay.
While Flagler may have had the money, Julia Tuttle had the drive and determination that ultimately made her dreams for the Magic City a reality, earning her the title of “Mother of Miami.”