One historian of the nineteenth-century South claimed that Florida was "virtually empty throughout the antebellum [pre-American Civil War] era." In fact, for most Americans, whether professional historians or regular folks (in other words, amateur historians, which is what we all are, whether we realize it or not), Florida's history does not begin until the twentieth century. The Helen Carmichael Purdy Foundation dispels this common belief and shows that Florida was not empty in any sense of the word.

Florida, the place, has been the crossroads of continents and cultures, an area of contact between the Caribbean and North America on the one hand, and between native, Latin, and Anglo America on the other. Florida, the idea, has also been filled with meanings that signified different things to different people. The items presented in the Purdy Foundation virtual exhibition cover a wide span of time, and encompass most of the classic formats of archival material. From a 1533 Spanish book showing the Peter Martyr's early mention of Florida's "discovery" by conquistadors to an early twentieth-century poster blaring "Florida Land For Sale," these rare and unique materials show the numerous peoples who have met, traded, fought, bought and sold, and sometimes even made peace on the Florida peninsula. The Purdy materials illustrate the numerous continuities in the history of Florida, as well as the numerous ruptures that make the state's history among the most complex (and yet strangely, understudied) in all of the United States.

For instance, the idea of Florida as a semi-tropical refuge for the prosperous and the aged dates from the time of Ponce de Leon to our century, and appears throughout the state's past. The idea of Florida's natural beauty has also drawn millions of refugees from colder climates, or those seeking a "wilder" environment far from over-settled older communities. Like William Bartram a century earlier, John Muir traveled south, walking through Florida in an effort to recover something of himself in an environment that seemingly could not be constrained by human hands. This may seem ironic to anyone who now lives in Southeastern Florida, one of the more urbanized areas of the United States, but that semi-tropical jungle is still out there despite humankind's energetic efforts to defoliate and depopulate it.

Perhaps we should also remember that Ralph Bohun's 1671 A Discourse Concerning the Origine and Properties of Wind. With a Historicall Account of Hurricanes and Other Tempestuous Winds, shows an early attempt to understand phenomena beyond human control 300 years ago and beyond our control today. The beauty of the state, the warmth of the sun, the endless vitality of Florida's bird, mammal, reptile, and plant life all appear with great frequency in the travel accounts maintained in Purdy Foundation materials. On the other hand, the state has also appeared as a haven for those seeking to escape a troubled past or find a second chance. Florida has also drawn the young, the poor, and the outcast. From Thomas Jefferson's 1790 letter, we can glean some hints of the problem that until 1821 (when Florida became a U.S. territory) plagued relations between Spanish Florida and its Anglophone neighbors to the north. Certainly from the founding of South Carolina in the 1660s, slaves escaped, crossed the Spanish border, and either pronounced themselves Catholic to gain Spanish protection, or simply melted into Florida's local free black or Native American populations.

But most of the migrations that over four centuries depopulated the Native American peninsula that may have held one million inhabitants in 1492, and populated black and white Florida, have ultimately relied upon the promise of wealth to attract immigrants and investors alike. Thus we find in Charles Vignoles' 1821 The History of the Floridas, that the newly American territory was endowed "with a soil capable of producing more than one lucrative staple." Planters who moved from all over the South to Florida hoped that among those staples were sugar and cotton. The latter became crucial to Florida's economy as early as the 1830s, and helped spur the forced movement to Florida of tens of thousands of enslaved African Americans. In fact, for every century since the sixteenth, the Purdy collection boasts the accounts of those who have come to Florida seeking wealth.

Finally, one finds in the Purdy materials accounts of the wars, conflicts, and other events that always connected Florida to the wider world. Alexander Ross's Der Gantzen Welt Religionen . . . In Asia, Africa, America, Und Europa (1667), an account of world religions written at the end of a century and a half of vicious wars over the fact of religious difference, includes a description of often conflict-ridden attempts by Spanish settlers to "Christianize" native Florida groups such as the Apalachees. The accounts of the Second Seminole War (1835-1842) contained in the hyperbolic A True and Authentic Account of the Indian War in Florida, or Myer Cohen's Notices of Florida and the Campaigns give us an inside view of the last great stand of Florida's aboriginal population. The Purdy materials also enhance and support many other publications and primary source materials in the Archives and Special Collections Division. The W.H.H. Hutton letters opens a window on the American Civil War era, in which Florida "the third state to secede" played a key strategic role for both the Union and the Confederacy. Students of Florida history will find in the rare and unique materials acquired through the Helen Carmichael Purdy Foundation a set of resources for research. More importantly, they will find a road into the past, marked by a set of signs that says that Florida does indeed have an important and interesting history. Florida has always been a crossroads of people and ideas. The records here show that for four centuries people have come to Florida, thought about Florida, and written about Florida. The Florida of their experience and the Florida of their imagination was hardly empty. Now, as Florida fills up with people, is not the time to dismiss the peninsula's history, but with the generous and continued support of the Helen Carmichael Purdy Foundation, to understand Florida as a fascinating and diverse whole.

Edward E. Baptist
Charlton B. Tebeau Assistant Professor
Department of History
University of Miami
Coral Gables, Florida

December 15, 1998