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Everglades Resources at UF: America's Swamp: the Historical Everglades Project

About the Project

America's Swamp: the Historical Everglades Project includes some of the University of Florida's most important historical record collections documenting the despoiling of the Everglades and the development of South Florida in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Through funding from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC), this three year project (2009-2012) digitized approximately 100,000 pages in multiple archival collections held at UF. The collections selected for this project document early plans for draining the Everglades in the 1880s and 1890s, the dredging of canals and subsequent development of the destroyed wetlands at the start of the 20th century, as well as early attempts by conservationists to preserve the natural resources of the Everglades.

The digital resources are available at America's Swamp.

The natural and political history of the Everglades and development in South Florida is more than just a state or regional history. The drainage and overdevelopment of the Everglades, the destruction of the region's fragile and unique ecosystems, and the loss of source water and other natural resources, are seen by many environmentalists as one of the worst ecological disasters in the nation's history. The six Everglades collections document the people and culture of the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as defined by the country’s societal values, politics, regionalism, development and growth activities, gender- and race-based discrimination, and the changing attitudes regarding nature. These sources reveal the modern story of “America’s Swamp” from the time when dredgers and canal-builders assaulted it through calls for establishing a national park.

Interest in draining and “reclaiming” land in the Everglades began as early as the 1880s, but major drainage activities were not undertaken until the first two decades of the 20th century. Two Florida Governors, William Sherman Jennings and Napoleon Bonaparte Broward, would serve as the primary designers and spokespersons for the draining of the Everglades. In 1904 Governor Broward famously promised to create an "Empire of the Everglades." Of course, in fulfilling this promise the state would have to destroy the ecological systems by dredging, creating canals, and altering the flow of water in the world’s most famed wetlands. Alarmed at the potential loss of the Everglades several early conservationists, including Florida’s May Mann Jennings, began pushing for the preservation of portions of the Everglades.

The drainage work started by Governors Jennings and Broward was of great interest internationally, and soon real estate dealers and settlers from around the world rushed in to profit from the project. The land sales boom in South Florida at the start of the 1920s was almost unprecedented in the history of the world. So was the rapidity with which it had collapsed by the end of the decade. Two catastrophic hurricanes in 1926 and 1928 effectively ended the boom, but many people had already declared the drainage program a bust. By the time the Depression began in 1929, sales had ceased and the state was forced to halt drainage and dredging activities.

The six collections that form the core of this project provide unique and valuable historical evidence regarding the Everglades in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and it is difficult to research early drainage and conservation efforts without consulting these collections. The papers of Governor Broward and Governor Jennings form the nucleus of the project as they were the primary architects for the drainage and reclamation project. Jennings started the project rolling during his term, drumming up widespread support and resolving a myriad of legal issues, primarily pertaining to land claims made by the Flagler and Plant railroads. However, it was Broward who became the driving force for the project. His popularity, his larger-than-life persona, his attention to the smallest details, and his passion for the project, all combined to make him the perfect man to spearhead the effort. The two Progressive Era southern democrats were friends and political allies, and their common goals and accomplishments are documented extensively in their papers.

The May Mann Jennings Papers complement those of the two Governors because of her advocacy of the drainage project, and also because of her marriage to Gov. Jennings. However, the real strength of the collection is that it documents the conservation movement that developed at the start of the 20th century and the role of disenfranchised women in developing and lobbying for legislation to protect the environment. Jennings was a leading member of the women's club movement and an influential social reformer in Florida and nationwide. As president of the Florida Federation of Women's Clubs in 1915, she spearheaded the effort to establish the Royal Palm State Park, the precursor to the Everglades National Park. Her tireless campaigns to preserve portions of the Everglades may seem at odds with her support of the drainage project, but she was representative of many conservationists of this era who were able to reconcile seemingly conflicting positions. Thus, Jennings was able to support the drainage program promoted by Broward and her husband at the same time that she was arguing for the creation of the Royal Palm State Park.

The Papers of Thomas E. Will provide two interesting perspectives regarding the Everglades. The first perspective is at the national level as Will passionately advocated drainage and land development while living in Washington, D.C. His enthusiasm for the project developed by Governors Broward and Jennings is well documented in his correspondence, speeches and writings. The second perspective is at a local level. Between 1912 and 1914, Will purchased land near Lake Okeechobee and began to develop the region's first planned town, Okeelanta. He exemplifies those thousands of people who bought into the dream of reclaimed land in South Florida, and who moved to the region only to find that the drainage program was insufficient. The collection is the perfect complement to the papers of the two Governors because it documents the early failures of the reclamation project, both in terms of unrealized development and destruction of ecological systems.

The final two collections, although much smaller in size and narrower in scope, certainly round out and fill in some gaps in the historical evidence presented by the other collections. The Arthur E. Morgan Papers primarily relate to a controversy that occurred in 1912 when the U.S. House of Representatives held hearings to investigate the USDA's involvement in promoting land sales in the Everglades, and Morgan supplied expert analysis of the drainage project as a civil engineer specializing in flood control. His collection provides a revealing view of the often questionable practices of real estate sellers and members of both the state and federal governments as enthusiasm for the drainage of the Everglades swept the country.

The James E. Ingraham Papers provide the viewpoint of a businessman who spent most of his career working in Florida for the railroad tycoons, Henry Flagler and Henry Plant. The effect that Flagler and Plant had on the development of Florida cannot be underestimated, as they sought to acquire as much land as possible for expansion of their rail lines and resort cities being developed along the two Florida coasts. As part of Ingraham’s work for the Plant railroad, he conducted a survey through the Everglades from Ft. Myers to Miami in 1892. The collection includes correspondence and photographs pertaining to the Everglades, as well as Ingraham’s manuscripts regarding the Flagler and Plant railroads and their role in developing South Florida.

In addition to the six primary collections above, the digital collection for the America's Swamp project also includes selected materials from the Ernest R. Graham Papers and the Chase Collection.

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