A City’s Bicentennial Only Comes Around Once

What are you doing to commemorate Jacksonville’s founding?

By Kate A. Hallock, Jacksonville Historical Society

Portrait of Andrew Jackson, Florida’s first American Governor, by Courtenay Hunt, 1967. Presented to the city of Jacksonville by the Jacksonville Historical Society. The portrait hangs in Council Chambers. Opposite: Handwritten petition in 1822 to the Secretary of State by 61 residents of what was locally known as The Cow Ford.

In 2020 protests over the tragic death of a Black man named George Floyd at the hands of a white policeman reignited a long-running national debate over the significance of Confederate monuments in public places. Some discussions widened to consider the names of schools, streets, parks, and even a city itself. Suggestions for renaming Jacksonville have included Jaxson, Duval, Cowford, and even Durstville, after Fred Durst, lead vocalist for the local band Limp Bizkit.

Those ideas have gained little traction, which means that citizens will commemorate, celebrate, and elevate their city during Jacksonville’s bicentennial in 2022.

Jacksonville’s founding was a rather informal moment according to Alan Bliss, chief executive officer for the Jacksonville Historical Society (JHS).

“Jacksonville’s name appeared first on a petition dated June 15, 1822, addressed to then U.S. Secretary of State John Quincy Adams asking him to designate ‘Jacksonville,’ in the U.S. Territory of Florida, as a port of entry,” Bliss says. “Sixty-one residents of the St. Johns River community signed the request, which Adams denied. But the name ‘Jacksonville’ began to supplant previous references to ‘the cow-ford,’ or ‘Cowford.’”

Apparently Cowfordians of 1822 thought to improve their chances with the national government by renaming their riverbank hamlet after the hero of the Battle of New Orleans, who the year prior served for just four months as Florida’s military governor, Bliss says. 

“It availed them little, however. As far as anyone knows, Andrew Jackson never visited the Florida city that is his namesake,” Bliss notes. “Indeed, he is only known to have visited Florida three times. Luckily, his acolytes spelled his name correctly, as Jackson was notoriously thin-skinned and bilious.” Other cities’ namesakes were less fortunate. Cleveland, Ohio, for example, dropped the first “a” from its name after founder Moses Cleaveland was dead and no longer able to object. 

It would be nearly 10 years, in February 1832, before Florida’s territorial legislature granted a local government charter to Jacksonville. But the development of Jacksonville, by people using that name, began in June of 1822, so that is the date and evidence that historians cite as its founding.

One City, Many Stories

Nearly two centuries later we live in a city that puzzles outsiders. “Describe Jacksonville in a nutshell,” a reporter from the Associated Press asked Bliss recently. “It’s complicated,” Bliss responded, “and it got that way by growing its resources and accumulating the stories of nine generations of natives and immigrants. Whether you are descended from one of the original ‘Cowford 61’ or you’ve just unloaded your U-Haul, you are a Jaxson with your own story of how you became part of this immense coastal city straddling a major river.”

At the JHS, the city’s stories are its stock in trade and its tagline is One City, Many Stories. “We never run out [of stories], and no two are alike,” Bliss says. 

To commemorate Jacksonville’s bicentennial, the JHS is at work on collecting, preserving, and sharing stories to help citizens reflect, not just on the past two centuries, but also on the next 200 years. “Understanding how we got here is crucial to imagining where we want to go,” Bliss says.

What’s Your Story?

Consider, for a start, that there are more than 90,000 residents at Evergreen Cemetery. That’s more than 90,000 stories waiting to be discovered and shared according to Bliss. It’s also more than merely an interesting statistic. 

Those tens of thousands of stories are the tip of the iceberg—if there can be an iceberg in sunny Jacksonville—that is called Jacksonville’s history, beginning with the city’s founder, Isaiah D. Hart (1792-1861). Although Hart died before Evergreen Cemetery was formed in 1880, it is his final resting place.

At 142 years old, Evergreen Cemetery is honored to be the resting place of many other notables, including five Florida governors (one of whom is Ossian B. Hart, son of the city’s founder), four United States senators, and 10 Jacksonville mayors. And that’s just the beginning of Jacksonville’s who’s who among the headstones and in the mausoleums.

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Author: Arbus

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