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Julia Tuttle May Not Be The Only Mother Of Miami. Could Mary Brickell Be One, Too?

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History Miami

At Bayfront Park in the City of Miami, a 10-foot tall bronze statue stands in honor of Julia Tuttle. She holds oranges in one hand and branches with tiny flowers in the other. 

Tuttle has long been recognized as the “Mother of Miami” — the only woman to found a major city in the United States. The original story, as told by local South Florida historians for decades, says it was her and her alone that founded the City of Miami.

"She was the one who convinced Henry Flagler to build a railroad all the way down to Miami," said listener Logan Jaffe. 

Jaffe sent WLRN a question as part of our Palm Readers project, where you ask questions and we answer them. She was curious about what Tuttle saw that would later become the city of Miami. 

In our journey to find the answer, we came across another question: Everyone thinks Julia Tuttle is the mother of Miami. But what if it's not that simple?

Because now, 123 years later, Julia Tuttle may have to share that distinction — with another mother of Miami. 

"[Tuttle] definitely had a role. There's no denying that," said South Florida historian Cesar Becerra. "But one big question to ask is: is there room — and I believe there is — for a co-mother designation?" 

WELCOME TO MIAMI

Tuttle first tasted the wilds of southeast Florida in 1875. A young wife and the mother of two, she traveled from Cleveland, Ohio, to the area now known as Miami Shores to visit her elderly parents who were homesteading. 

She fell in love with the subtropical paradise and vowed to someday move to Florida permanently. 

According to Paul George, historian in residence at History Miami, Tuttle was one of only nine people who lived at the mouth of the Miami River when she moved there in 1891. And she had a vision, according to Arva Moore Parks, author of "Miami, The Magic City, and The Forgotten Frontier"to "make this the greatest city in the southland."

Two men, Henry Flagler in the north and Henry Plant on the west coast, were already building railroads across Florida, and she wrote both of them, requesting they bring their railroads to Biscayne Bay in exchange for land. 

After Tuttle's eighth letter to Plant, she finally received a firm no.

“He replied and he said ‘My dear madam, I have no intention of extending my railroad 160 miles across trackless wasteland to satisfy your ego,’” said Seth Bramson, adjunct professor and historian in residence at Barry University.

That left Flagler as the only hope to make Miami into the grand city she thought it should become. 

CHASING FLAGLER

By the time Tuttle received the rejection from Plant, Flagler’s Florida East Coast Railroad was roughly 65 miles north of Miami. Flagler had no intention of extending his railroad into the swampland.

But Tuttle wasn’t the only one trying to convince Flagler to come south. Mary Brickell, Tuttle's neighbor on the south side of the Miami River, was allegedly in communication with the railroad baron, too. She had also offered him a large swath of her land between Coconut Grove and West Palm to lay track, if he would build a town south of West Palm in return. He wasn't interested, at least not yet. 

Then, between December 1894 and February 1895, Florida saw back-to-back freezes. Temperatures fell below 30 degrees, turning oranges black and damaging mature orange trees. Just six weeks after the first blast of icy air hit, another brutally cold weather spell came. It seemed the entire orange industry was destroyed. 

Paul George said Tuttle knew — this was her moment. With the turn of weather, Tuttle sent Flagler a telegram.  She reported that Miami was untouched by the freeze and requested he come see for himself. 

So Flagler sent two of his men from St. Augustine by train and boat to the shores of Biscayne Bay where Tuttle and the Brickells greeted them. On behalf of Flagler, the men collected a box of produce including some citrus tree limbs wrapped up in cotton to bring back north. 

Then Flagler approached the families again. This time, he was ready to take Brickell and Tuttle up on their offers. 

THE MATRONS OF MIAMI

The first train arrived in Miami on April 15, 1896. Three months later, on July 28, 1896, the city was incorporated. The tale of the “Mother of Miami” arrived soon after. 

“Yes, Julia Tuttle was the catalyst. Unquestionably,” Seth Bramson said. “Immediately after the freezes, she was the one who sent the telegram to Mr. Flagler. She was the one who wrote the letter.”

But a 1958 article written by Jane Wood, the mother of former U.S. attorney general Janet Reno, in the Miami News referred to Brickell as Miami's other Miami. The headline of that article was: Women You'll Remember, Mary Bulmer Brickell.

So, does Miami have two mothers?

In 1871, twenty years before Tuttle moved to South Florida, the Mary and her husband William had already begun to homestead on the Miami River. The family built a trading post to exchange goods with Native Americans in the Everglades, as well as a post office on the south bank of the Miami River.

Now, Flagler needed the land that both Tuttle and the Brickells owned so that he could connect his railroad to Key West. That had been his plan all along anyway. After all, Miami wasn't much back then. 

The story goes that Flagler worked out a deal with both women to use land each of them owned for the railroad, according to Moore Parks. 

"It was Julia Tuttle that got Mary Brickell to add land to the Flagler donation to help him get down here," Moore Parks said. "It helped talk him into his coming."

But the Brickells didn’t just own the land south of the river, they had bought thousands of acres of land extending from Coconut Grove to Palm Beach. According to Cesar Becerra, they had signed a land contract with Flagler months before Tuttle did. 

"They knew exactly what they were doing," Becerra said. 

They simply weren't as vocal as Julia Tuttle was, he said. For years, as Miami's birth story was told, the Brickells remained silent. There was more documentation about Tuttle than about the Brickells, more pictures and more letters.

That's why Becerra says he is open-minded when it comes to history.

"I'm of the opinion that I could very well be wrong," he said. "That's where we go from here. We just research it. Who knows."

History, George said, is an evolving evaluation. He himself has changed his thinking around Julia Tuttle and Mary Brickell and the founding of Miami. 

"Julia Tuttle, for me," George said, "would be No. 1 mom of Miami and Mary Brickell would be No. 2."

This story has been updated.