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From Miami-Dade To Broward, The Case For Being Mindful When Renaming Counties

Amid chatter that Broward County is considering changing its name to reflect the county’s biggest city-- Fort Lauderdale-- this all got me thinking about the names that we give to our counties in South Florida.

As time goes forward, the histories of the place names that we know become obscured.  After some amount of time they take a life of their own as names become places, and we scarcely think of the individual.

Yet, if you dig beneath the surface, you will find that the place names that surround us tell the hidden, and often ugly, stories of our place in the world.  Winston Churchill once said, “History is written by the victors,” and he was right.  But while the victor often renames the place he has conquered, as time passes on, these place names can often tell their own stories -- and they just might tell a more troubling narrative than could have been imagined.

Let us look close to home.

Napoleon Bonaparte Broward and Major William Lauderdale

Hidden histories abound in the names of South Florida’s counties and cities.  Broward County, for example, is named after Napoleon Bonaparte Broward, the 19th governor of the state.  Broward lived a remarkable life, doing everything from lending assistance to expatriate Cubans in Florida during their fight against Spain to his biggest accomplishment as governor-- draining the Everglades.

While during his lifetime this last achievement was lauded as a major accomplishment, many environmentalists now agree that the effort did more harm than good.  According to Mark Derr, author of "Some Kind of Paradise," a social and environmental history of Florida, the result was both an “engineering marvel and [an] ecological disaster.” Florida’s booming citrus industry, however, does owe its international status to the draining effort.

The city of Fort Lauderdale was named after Maj. William Lauderdale of Sumner County, Tenn. Lauderdale’s claim to fame was fighting with Andrew Jackson in Florida’s Seminole Wars of the early 1800’s.

With talk of changing the county name to Lauderdale County, one might wonder what the Seminoles  of Broward County think about naming the county they live in after someone who waged war on their ancestors.  The Seminole Tribe stands alone as the only tribe in the United States never to have signed a peace treaty with the federal government.  The Seminoles' considerable success in fighting the United States speaks directly to their pride as a people.

Francis L. Dade and the Mayaimi Tribe

The story behind Miami-Dade County gets a little complicated.  Up until 1997, the county was simply known as Dade County, named after Francis L. Dade.  Dade was a major during the Second Seminole War and was killed in battle in 1835 by Seminole Indians in what came to be known as the “Dade Massacre.”  The defeat that the Seminole wreaked on the United States intensely escalated the war, which went on until 1842.  As the story goes, the Seminoles killed Dade with the very first shot of the surprise attack.  Only three Americans survived the battle.

In 1997, Dade County decided to do more or less what some Broward residents are doing now.  Voters and county commissioners decided that they wanted the county they lived in to reflect its most recognizable city; hence,  today’s Miami-Dade County.

The City of Miami was named after the Miami River, which empties into the Atlantic in modern-day downtown Miami.  The river itself was named after the Mayaimi native peoples of the Lake Okeechobee area.  They called themselves the Mayaimis because that is what they called Lake Okeechobee.  Mayaimi is a word that meant "big water" to the Mayaimi, Calusa and Tequesta tribes (Okeechobee is the Hitchiti equivalent).  The Mayaimi lived there from the beginning of the common era through the 17th or 18th centuries, when they were effectively killed, sold off in slavery, or made to flee to other parts as refugees.

Talk about a deep, troubling history for both sides of Miami-Dade County’s name.  Which brings us to the point of this musing: if all of this background were not spelled out for the general population, would anybody know any of this history?  Or better yet, would they even care?

When Marketing and History Collide

The argument for changing the name of Broward County to Lauderdale County is essentially for marketing purposes, which underscores both the shallowness that our region is known for, and recognition that marketing is a big deal in tangible terms when you rely on tourism dollars for your local economy.

Miami was well established as a brand-name destination when the county made the decision to change its name.  Now some minds in Broward feel that Fort Lauderdale has reached that critical mass of notoriety.

As America’s last wilderness, we have always renamed things with marketability in mind.  But do we just forget about our history and hop onto the next best thing?  Does history even matter in America 2.0, or is it all about marketing and brand recognition?

No matter how distant and problematic his history might be, Lauderdale is a figure of significance to Florida, as were Broward and Dade.  But the red flag that we should all be thinking about is the notion that marketing forces should dictate the names of the places where we live.  One can hardly think of something that gets any closer to the core of our identity.

Dare we ask: what kind of precedent would this set for other counties?

What we now know as Orange, Volusia, Seminole, Lake, and Osceola Counties were once part of a massive Mosquito County.  Mosquito County itself became Orange County after it was decided that mosquitos repelled people, as opposed to attracting them.  Out of this county all the aforementioned counties were forged.

As I close my eyes I can see the marketer's promised land perfectly in the not-so-distant future.  It is what became Osceola County, carved out of Orange.  Osceola was an influential leader of the Seminole who led a band of warriors during the Second Seminole War.  

Then one day the natural progression of events and market forces lead the place to its destined name, after its most popular attraction:

Disney County.

Daniel Rivero is a reporter and producer for WLRN, covering Latino and criminal justice issues. Before joining the team, he was an investigative reporter and producer on the television series "The Naked Truth," and a digital reporter for Fusion.