Famous Bastards of Florida, Pt 1
Several years ago, I went down a rabbit hole researching old Florida foodways for a restaurant project. It was essential to understand Florida’s history to understand its food. Along the way, I encountered many impactful people to the state, often in the worst ways, that had zero relevance to food. But their stories were intriguing, infuriating, and shined great light on how Florida got to be, well, Florida. Here’s the first of their stories.
Florida has a long, glorious history of grifters, conmen, and carpet baggers. Its entire existence as part of the US started as a fraud, and not much has changed since. One of its earliest, and most impressive bastards was David Levy Yulee.
What’s in a name? Yulee was born David Levy on June 2, 1810, in St. Thomas. His father, Moses Elias Levy, was a slave merchant, Caribbean lumber baron, and/or the son of a Moroccan nobleman, forced to flee Morocco upon the Emporer’s death. Moses moved to Spanish East Florida after the War of 1812 and established the Pilgrimage Plantation near present-day Micanopy. The plantation served as a refuge for Jews suffering persecution in eastern Europe, and apparently, persecution did not apply to the enslavement of Black people. David was sent to a private school in Norfolk, VA, while that was happening. During his time in school, a single defining action took place that would shape his path and fortune; John Quincy Adams swindled Spain into giving Florida to the US in 1819.
After joining Moses in Florida, David studied law, was admitted to the bar, and began practicing in St Augustine in 1832. Gaining favor and political contacts in old Spanish families and also in the federal government, Levy was named a delegate to the State constitutional convention in 1838 and clerk to the Territorial Legislature in 1841. He wasn’t in the Territorial Legislature long, winning a territorial seat in the US House of Representatives that same year. Being the white supremacist that he was, Levy pushed hard for Florida statehood, citing the need for more southern states in the Union to be able to uphold the institution of slavery.
His persistence paid off. Florida was admitted to the Union in 1845 and his truly being elected as both Florida’s first US senator and the first Jew elected to the Senate.
In 1846, Levy changed his name to Yulee, a family name of unclear origins, although the backstories are impressive. Maybe he should have stayed a Levy because the next term was not to be his. The Florida legislature was in charge of electing senators at that time and in 1851 there were three consecutive split votes, 29 for Yulee, 29 blanks. 2 days later another vote was taken and Yulee received 27 votes while Stephen Mallory received 31. Setting the stage for future elections, Yulee contested the outcome, insisting that the legislature violated election rules but could not fully explain how. Instead, he claimed that non-Floridians could not possibly understand the complexity of the rules but he was the rightful winner. It took almost a year for the Senate special committee investigating the matter to deliver its findings and gave Yulee the opportunity to make his case in front of the Senate for two hours. Not satisfied with merely arguing again that any non-Floridian could not possibly understand the complexity of the election rules, he doubled down with the claiming that the blank votes in the three original elections were, of course, votes for him. The Senate sent him home in 1852.
In 1854 he had better luck and returned to the Senate where he served from 1855 until 1861. During that time he pushed for on national matters such as improving the postal service and the building of iron ships. He was also a proponent of increasing the number of slave states and territories in the Union, believing that if left only to the south, slave states would lose clout.
While most Eastern states were long-settled, Florida was still largely frontier at this point, with active “Indian wars” taking place from 1835–1842 and 1855–1858 and lacking roads or infrastructure to move people and goods. To fill the void, Yulee launched the Florida Railroad Company in 1853.
Yulee was a strong force behind Florida’s Internal Improvement Act of 1855. Why? Land grants, of course. With free land courtesy of the state and federal governments, Yulee’s company constructed several lines through the state, including the first cross-state line that connected Cedar Key and Fernandina, the state’s two most prominent port cities. He then secured contracts to carry mail from the postal service that he’d worked so hard to strengthen. On the taxpayer’s dime, he’d skirted the high land acquisition costs and secured steady income for his railway. The transcontinental railroads and Florida’s later railroad moguls Flagler and Plant emulated his model, but Yulee was an original.
Yulee continued to use his seat in the Senate to steer legislation favorable to his personal interests until abruptly leaving in 1861. After being such a compelling force for Florida statehood and lining his pockets as a member of both houses of Congress, he thanked the government for his fortune by being one of the loudest voices in Washington for secession.
Being part of the Confederacy wasn’t all kind to a man who loved it so much. Yulee was forced to leave his home in Fernandina when Union forces took the city. He then took up residence on his plantation near Homosassa, which an estimated 1,000 enslaved people staffed. The Confederacy took over his railroad, dismantling large parts of it and sending the materials north for more critical use. The sad, unbelievable truth for secessionist white supremacists in Florida was that the Confederacy regarded Florida as its bitch. Union forces occupied the vital ports of Fernandina, Key West, and Pensacola, and the rebel army did nothing to address these matters. Instead, they confiscated food, arms, and material and shipped them to places more vital to the cause. Union forces burned his plantation, and Yulee fled, eventually rebuilding in Archer, near Gainesville. At the end of the war, Yulee spent several months imprisoned at Ft Pulaski for his treason and aiding in the escape of Jefferson Davis.
Upon his release, he rebuilt his railroads but realized that his political business pull was no longer what it previously was. He sold his business interest and headed north, dying in New York in 1866. History is kind to Yulee, naming him a hero as the father of Florida railroads and naming a town and a county for each of his names.
In Florida terms, his greatness is complete. He came from Up North, he was an avowed white supremacist, he used the government to make him rich, and he dipped when things went sideways for him. As you will see in future articles, these are the standards against which all “great” Floridians are measured.