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The New River of Ft. Lauderdale

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Local historian and author Mae Silver in period costume

Ft. Lauderdale is named after Major William Lauderdale, but for scientists the history of this area goes back millions of years.

During a talk at Ft. Lauderdale’s historic Bonnet House in February 2015, archaeologist Dr. Michele Williams explained that the New River was created long before there was any land in what is now southern Florida. “The channel that became the New River was being dug during the period when the soil was being made underwater. That is why it is quite deep.”

That happened over a period of perhaps a million years. “The last high water here was 125,000 years ago,” she said, “and the first people came to south Florida 10,000 years ago.” When Europeans first visited Florida in 1513, it was inhabited by the Tequesta Indians, but by the time Spain surrendered Florida to the British in 1763 there were only a few left. They were sent on a boat to Cuba. The Seminoles did not move into the area until the early 1800s.

At the main library in Ft. Lauderdale, local historian Mae Silver recently told the story of the original European settlers here. “Most of us don’t think of the Revolutionary War has having anything to do with Ft. Lauderdale, but it did,” she said. “The Revolutionary War is not taught as a Civil War, but it really was. Not everybody was a Patriot- your next door neighbor might be a Loyalist.”

Such was the case with Charles and Frankee Lewis. As Patriots, they were given a land grant in the Bahamas and left the newly-minted United States under the protection of the British. Homesteading in the islands did not work out, so they moved to Florida, “which at that point was governed by the British,” Silver explained.

The New River site where Federal Highway runs today was occupied by Mr and Mrs Lewis: in 1824 they received a 640-acre land grant straddling the New River. “The reason why the Lewis’ were here,” explained Silver, “is because of the coontie plant. It was the first industry in Ft. Lauderdale.”

The name exists today as the Coontie Hatchee Park on SW 15th Ave off Davie Blvd, but most people have no idea what a coontie plant is. “We can’t grow wheat here,” said Silver, “but we can grow coontie. This became a substitute for flour. Soak the plant in water and let it dry; the white residue is like baking powder that can be used to make bread and cakes.” But it didn’t last long.

Another pioneer, William Cooley, also built a coontie mill along the New River after settling there in 1826. In Dec. 1835, the Second Seminole War began around Tampa when Major Francis L. Dade and over 100 of his troops were ambushed. The War spread south and while he was away on a wrecking expedition, William Cooley's wife, 3 children and tutor were massacred by Seminole Indians on Jan. 6, 1836. “Frankee Lewis was in Nassau doing business at the time,” said Silver. This tragedy led to the abandonment of the New River Settlement which had been started in 1824. The surviving settlers fled south to safety on Indian Key.

There is a site on the New River called Cooley's Landing which is thought to have been the site of a stockade & fort built by Major William Lauderdale along the New River in March of 1838. This Seminole War lasted until 1842 and the remaining Seminoles resided mainly on Pine Island west of what is now known as Davie.

For more about the history of pioneers in Florida, get Mae Silver’s excellent book, Too Hot to Handle: Remarkable Women of Ft. Lauderdale. Ask for it at the Ft. Lauderdale History Center (219 SW 2nd Ave). Website: www.fortlauderdalehistoricalsociety.org.

For more about the work of Dr. Williams and her colleagues, consult the website of the Florida Public Archaeology Network: www.flpublicarchaeology.org

A great online local resource is the complete text of a journal named Tequesta. All the issues from 1941 to 2003 can be read for free. It is officially called The Journal of the Historical Association of Southern Florida. The link is: http://ufdc.ufl.edu/UF00101446/00008/allvolumes

All 67 issues of The Florida Anthropologist journal are also online, the latest one being dated 2014. It includes such things as archeological excavations at Stranahan House along the New River in downtown Ft. Lauderdale (in the March 1989 issue). You can find the complete journal at this link: http://ufdc.ufl.edu/UF00027829/00216/allvolumes

Clifford Cunningham

Dr. Clifford Cunningham is a planetary scientist. He earned his PhD in the history of astronomy at the University of Southern Queensland, and has undergraduate degrees in science and ancient history from the University of Waterloo. In 2014 he was named a contributor to Encyclopedia Britannica. He is the author of 14 books on asteroids and the history of science. In 1999 he appeared on the TV show Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Asteroid 4276 was named in his honor in 1990 by the International Astronomical Union based on the recommendation of its bureau located at Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

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