The area of the modern city of Jacksonville has been inhabited for thousands of years. On Black Hammock Island in the national Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve, a University of North Florida team discovered some of the oldest remnants of pottery in the United States, dating to 2500 BC.
In the 16th century, the beginning of the historical era, the region was inhabited by the Mocama, a coastal subgroup of the Timucua people. At the time of contact with Europeans, all Mocama villages in present-day Jacksonville were part of the powerful chiefdom known as the Saturiwa, centered around the mouth of the St. Johns River. One early French map shows a village called Ossachite at the site of what is now downtown Jacksonville; this may be the earliest recorded name for that area.
In 1562 French Huguenot explorer Jean Ribault charted the St. Johns River, calling it the River of May because that was the month of his discovery. Ribault erected a stone column at his landing site near the river's mouth, claiming the newly discovered land for France. In 1564, René Goulaine de Laudonnière established the first European settlement on the St. Johns River, Fort Caroline, near the main village of the Saturiwa.
Philip II of Spain ordered Pedro Menéndez de Avilés to protect the interests of Spain by attacking the French at Fort Caroline. On September 20, 1565, a Spanish force from the nearby Spanish settlement of St. Augustine attacked Fort Caroline, and killed nearly all the French soldiers defending it. The Spanish renamed the fort as San Mateo and, following the expulsion of the French, St. Augustine became the most important European settlement in Florida. The location of Fort Caroline is subject to debate, but a reconstruction of the fort was established in 1964 along the St. Johns River.
Northeast Florida showing Cow Ford (center) from Bernard Romans
' 1776 map of Florida
Spain ceded Florida to the British in 1763 after its victory against the French in the Seven Years' War (known as the French and Indian War on the North American front). The British soon constructed the King's Road connecting St. Augustine to Georgia. The road crossed the St. Johns River at a narrow point, which the Seminole called Wacca Pilatka and the British called the Cow Ford; these names reflected the use of the ford for moving cattle across the river there.
The British introduced the cultivation of sugar cane, indigo and fruits as commodity crops, in addition to exporting lumber. These crops were labor-intensive and the British imported more enslaved Africans to work the plantations that were developed. The planters in northeastern Florida began to prosper economically.
After being defeated in the American Revolutionary War, Britain returned control of this territory to Spain in 1783. The settlement at the Cow Ford continued to grow.
Founding and 19th century
After Spain ceded the Florida Territory to the United States in 1821, American settlers on the north side of the Cow Ford decided to plan a town, laying out the streets and plats. They named the town Jacksonville, after President Andrew Jackson. Led by Isaiah D. Hart, residents wrote a charter for a town government, which was approved by the Florida Legislative Council on February 9, 1832.
During the American Civil War, Jacksonville was a key supply point for hogs and cattle being shipped from Florida to feed the Confederate forces. The city was blockaded by Union forces, who gained control of nearby Fort Clinch. Though no battles were fought in Jacksonville proper, the city changed hands several times between Union and Confederate forces. In the Skirmish of the Brick Church in 1862, Confederates won their first victory in the state. However, Union forces captured a Confederate position at the Battle of St. Johns Bluff, and occupied Jacksonville in 1862. Slaves escaped to freedom in Union lines. In February 1864 Union forces left Jacksonville and confronted a Confederate Army at the Battle of Olustee, going down to defeat.
Union forces retreated to Jacksonville and held the city for the remainder of the war. In March 1864 a Confederate cavalry confronted a Union expedition in the Battle of Cedar Creek. Warfare and the long occupation left the city disrupted after the war.
During Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, Jacksonville and nearby St. Augustine became popular winter resorts for the rich and famous. Visitors arrived by steamboat and later by railroad. President Grover Cleveland attended the Sub-Tropical Exposition in the city on February 22, 1888, during his trip to Florida. This highlighted the visibility of the state as a worthy place for tourism. The city's tourism, however, was dealt major blows in the late 19th century by yellow fever outbreaks. Extending the Florida East Coast Railway further south drew visitors to other areas. From 1893 to 1938, Jacksonville was the site of the Florida Old Confederate Soldiers and Sailors Home; it operated a nearby cemetery.
20th and 21st centuries
1900 to 1939
On May 3, 1901, downtown Jacksonville was ravaged by a fire that started as a kitchen fire. Spanish moss at a nearby mattress factory was quickly engulfed in flames and enabled the fire to spread rapidly. In merely eight hours, it swept through 146 city blocks, destroyed over 2,000 buildings, left about 10,000 homeless and killed seven residents. The Confederate Monument in Hemming Park was one of the few landmarks to survive the fire. Governor William Sherman Jennings declared martial law and sent the state militia to maintain order; on May 17, municipal authority resumed. It is said the glow from the flames could be seen in Savannah, Georgia, and the smoke plumes seen in Raleigh, North Carolina. Known as the "Great Fire of 1901", it was one of the worst disasters in Florida history and the largest urban fire in the southeastern United States. Architect Henry John Klutho was a primary figure in the reconstruction of the city. The first multi-story structure built by Klutho was the Dyal-Upchurch Building in 1902. The St. James Building, built on the previous site of the St. James Hotel that burned down, was built in 1912 as Klutho's crowning achievement.
Downtown Jacksonville in 1914
In the 1910s, New York–based filmmakers were attracted to Jacksonville's warm climate, exotic locations, excellent rail access, and cheap labor. Over the course of the decade, more than 30 silent film studios were established, earning Jacksonville the title of "Winter Film Capital of the World". However, the emergence of Hollywood as a major film production center ended the city's film industry. One converted movie studio site, Norman Studios, remains in Arlington; it has been converted to the Jacksonville Silent Film Museum at Norman Studios.
During this time, Jacksonville also became a banking and insurance center, with companies such as Barnett Bank, Atlantic National Bank, Florida National Bank, Prudential, Gulf Life, Afro-American Insurance, Independent Life and American Heritage Life thriving in the business district.
1940 to 1979
During World War II, The U.S. Navy became a major employer and economic force, constructing two Navy bases in the city, while the U.S. Marine Corps established Blount Island Command.
Jacksonville, like most large cities in the United States, suffered from negative effects of rapid urban sprawl after World War II. The construction of federal highways essentially subsidized development of suburban housing, and wealthier, better established residents moved to newer housing in the suburbs. After World War II, the government of the city of Jacksonville began to increase spending to fund new public building projects in the postwar economic boom. Mayor W. Haydon Burns' Jacksonville Story resulted in the construction of a new city hall, civic auditorium, public library and other projects that created a dynamic sense of civic pride. Development of suburbs led to a growing middle class who lived outside the urban core. An increasing proportion of residents in Jacksonville's urban core had a higher than average rate of poverty, especially as businesses and jobs also migrated to the suburbs.
Given the postwar migration of residents, businesses, and jobs, the city's tax base declined. It had difficulty funding education, sanitation, and traffic control within the city limits. In addition, residents in unincorporated suburbs had difficulty obtaining municipal services, such as sewage and building code enforcement. In 1958, a study recommended that the city of Jacksonville begin annexing outlying communities in order to create the needed larger geographic tax base to improve services throughout the county. Voters outside the city limits rejected annexation plans in six referendums between 1960 and 1965.
In 1962 a federal court ordered the city to prepare a plan for integration of public schools, in accordance with the ruling of the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education (1954). A study found that schools were in poor condition and poorly equipped.
On December 29, 1963 the Hotel Roosevelt fire killed 22 people, the highest one-day death toll in Jacksonville. On September 10, 1964, Hurricane Dora made landfall near St. Augustine, causing major damage to buildings in North Florida. Hurricane Dora was the first hurricane to make a direct hit to North Florida.
In the mid-1960s, corruption scandals arose among city and some county officials, who were mainly part of a traditional white, conservative Democratic network that had dominated politics for the decades since the disenfranchisement of most African Americans since the turn of the century. After a grand jury was convened to investigate, 11 officials were indicted and more were forced to resign.
In 1963 the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools threatened to withdraw accreditation of area schools in a year because of "instructional deficiencies." But voters refused to approve new taxes to improve school conditions. In late 1963, Duval County was spending $299 per student compared to the state average spending of $372 per student. In 1964 all 15 of Duval County's public high schools lost their accreditation. This added momentum to proposals for government reform.
Jacksonville Consolidation, led by J. J. Daniel and Claude Yates, began to win more support during this period, from both inner-city blacks, who wanted more involvement in government after passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, that provided federal oversight and enforcement of their right to vote, and whites in the suburbs, who wanted more services and more control over the central city. Lower taxes, increased economic development, unification of the community, better public spending, and effective administration by a more central authority were all cited as reasons for a new consolidated government.
When a consolidation referendum was held in 1967, voters approved the plan. On October 1, 1968, the city and county governments merged to create the Consolidated City of Jacksonville. Fire, police, health & welfare, recreation, public works, and housing & urban development were all combined under the new government. In honor of the occasion, then-Mayor Hans Tanzler posed with actress Lee Meredith behind a sign marking the new border of the "Bold New City of the South" at Florida 13 and Julington Creek. The consolidation created a 900-square-mile entity.
1980 to present
Tommy Hazouri supported passage of environmental regulations and reduced odor pollution during his single term as mayor, which began in 1987.
Ed Austin was elected as mayor in 1991. His most lasting contribution is the River City Renaissance program, a $235 million bond issued in 1993 by the city of Jacksonville which funded urban renewal and revamped the city's historic downtown neighborhoods. Austin oversaw the city's purchase and refurbishing of the St. James Building, which is now used as Jacksonville's city hall. He was mayor in 1993 when Jacksonville was awarded its franchise, the Jacksonville Jaguars.
The Better Jacksonville Plan, promoted as a blueprint for Jacksonville's future and approved by Jacksonville voters in 2000, authorized a half-penny sales tax. This generated most of the revenue required for the $2.25 billion package of major projects, which have included road & infrastructure improvements, environmental preservation, targeted economic development, and new or improved public facilities.
In 2005, Jacksonville hosted Super Bowl XXXIX, which was seen by an estimated 86 million viewers.
The city has suffered damage in natural disasters. In October 2016, Hurricane Matthew caused major flooding and damage to Jacksonville, Jacksonville Beach, Atlantic Beach and Neptune Beach, the first such damage in the area since 2004. In September 2017, Hurricane Irma caused record-breaking floods in Jacksonville, with a severity not seen since 1846.
As has been typical of other metropolitan areas across the country, suburban growth has continued around Jacksonville, where large areas of land were available for development, drawing more residents, businesses and jobs from the city. This has resulted in further demographic changes. The city's largest ethnic group, non-Hispanic white, declined from 75.8% of the population in 1970 to 55.1% by 2010.