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Cool Jacksonville History: 13 Facts & Places to Visit

Not so many know about Jacksonville’s rich past and cool history. Here’s a rundown on Jacksonville’s colorful past and some of the places worth visiting.

Jun 7, 202115 min read

Anecia Ascalon
Anecia Ascalon
Team Building Expert

Jacksonville, Florida Is A Great Place To Live Or Visit.

Everyone knows about the Jacksonville zoo, parks, and gardens, the Museum of Science History, the Riverside Arts Market, and the wonderful opportunities for retail therapy at St. Johns Town Center. Not so many know about Jacksonville’s rich past and cool history.

Jacksonville was founded in 1822, and despite being almost destroyed by fire–twice!–has some wonderful historic sites. Here’s a rundown on Jacksonville’s colorful past and some of the places worth visiting.

palm tree in jacksonville

Fact #1: Native Americans Already Lived In Jacksonville Long Before Settlers Arrived

Before the Europeans arrived there was already a settlement where downtown Jacksonville would one day be built. Ossachite was one of the many villages in the huge 19,300 square miles of the Timucua Empire.

It was built by the Saturiwa Chiefdom, part of the Mocama subtribe. By the time the Spanish came in the sixteenth century “Cow’s Crossing” (Wakka Pilatka in Timucuan) was already a fixture.

Where To Visit:

Little is left of the mighty Timucua Empire, but there is a waymark, erected in 1931. It is situated near the imposing City Courthouse, on the northwest corner of Monroe Street and Julia Street, and marks the location of the original Ossachite.

Fact #2: 200,000 People Called Now-Jacksonville Home In The 15th Century

At its height, in the late 1400s, the Timucuan Kingdom numbered around 200,000 people and covered a third of the northern Florida peninsula, plus southeastern Georgia as far as the Altamaha River. Sadly, the native inhabitants were not prepared for the diseases brought by the Europeans, and by the end of the 16th century, the Timucuan population had fallen by a massive 75%. This diminution was nothing compared to what happened in the following 100 years. By 1700 only 1,000 Timucua Indians still survived.

jacksonville sunset

Where To Visit:

Another memorial to the Timucua people is provided by the Timucuan Ecological and Historic Reserve found to the northeast of Jacksonville on St. George Island. This is a must-see for anyone interested in the area’s past or lovers of wildlife. It’s not a bad place for surfing and fishing too!

Covering nearly 50,000 acres, this reserve is a haven for animals and plants but also contains exhibitions depicting the lives of the Timucua Indians and French pioneers who arrived before the Spanish. Visitors can enjoy recreations of the hut and shell mound typical of the original inhabitants together with a reconstruction of the French Fort Caroline.

building in jacksonville

Fact #3: One Of The Biggest Plantations In The Area Was Owned By A Man Who Made One Of His Slaves His Wife

The jewel of the historic reserve is probably the 1798 Kingsley Plantation, the oldest surviving plantation house in Florida. The house is named after Zephaniah Kingsley, and his family lived there from 1814 until 1839.

His wife, Anna Madgigine Jai, came from Senegal in West Africa and had been bought as a slave by Kingsley. Anna was freed by Zephaniah in 1811, they married, and she bore him four children. She, too, became a land and slave owner.

The plantation on St. George Island grew to more than 32,000 acres, employing over 200 enslaved people. They grew Sea Island cotton, indigo, and all the food for the entire community.

In 1839, the Kingsley family moved to Haiti in response to new, harsher restrictions on free blacks and African slaves that Florida had imposed. Their descendants still live on the island of Hispaniola.

Where To Visit:

The Plantation house and the remains of some of the slave quarters are redolent of a time when some thought it was acceptable to own other human beings. It may be uncomfortable, but we must remember what happened. The plantation is open 9am – 5pm from Wednesday through Sunday. You can find more information here.

Fact #4: The Only Revolutionary War Battle In Florida Took Place In Jacksonville

There was only one battle fought in Florida during the Revolutionary War, the Battle of Thomas Creek, in what is now Duval County (Jacksonville). Driving north on Highway 23 out of the city you go close to the site just before you get to Nassau Village-Ratliff on the road to Callahan.

Also known as the Thomas Creek Massacre, the action took place at dawn on May 17, 1777, and involved the ambushing of an American unit by a force of British Loyalists, British Regulars, and sympathetic Indians.

The Georgia militiamen, under the command of Colonel John Baker, numbered just 100 and were waiting for 400 Continental soldiers to join them before pressing on into Florida.

Before this could happen, they were set upon by the Loyalists, who were soon joined by the regular British troops, and, after suffering casualties, the outnumbered Americans were forced to withdraw.

jacksonville city

Where To Visit:

The Thomas Creek Conservation Area has a historical plaque, and there is a commemorative ceremony held there each year to honor those who lost their lives. The area is now a beautiful nature reserve, so be sure to take a walk or go kayaking.

Fact #5: Florida Didn’t Become A US State Until 1845, Despite Being The First State Settled (1565)

Florida was ceded from Spain to America in 1819 for $5 million as part of the Adams-Onis treaty. It became a US territory in 1821, and finally became a state in 1845. The town of Cowford became known as Jacksonville in 1822, and the settlement received its first town charter 10 years later with William J. Mills becoming the first mayor. The railways reached Jacksonville in around 1860, just before the Civil War broke out.

jacksonville beach

Where To Visit:

The Currents of Time exhibit at the MOSH (Museum of Science & History). This exhibit explores 12,000 years of Jacksonville history, so shouldn’t be missed. Of course, the MOSH also has numerous other exhibits to see, and there’s plenty for kids to interact with, too.

Fact #6: The Civil War Almost Destroyed Jacksonville

The war was particularly unkind to the young city, despite the lack of battles in Florida. As a port, Jacksonville was important to both the Confederacy and the Union. In the four years of conflict, Union troops took major occupation four times. After the third time, in March 1863, it was set on fire. By the end of the Civil War, Jacksonville was almost a ruin and the inhabitants had to start to rebuild from nothing.

Growth was rapid as a new city rose from the ashes. Land for a city park was donated by the Hart family, one of the founders of the community, in 1866. Three years later, work on building the St. James Hotel began.

This was shortly to become the largest in the city and popular with presidents and the crowned heads of Europe. Grand churches were built, luxurious hotels, hospitals. Streetcars began to operate in 1893. Jacksonville was important and thriving.

bridge in jacksonville

Where To Visit:

Take a Go Tuk’n History Tour to get a guided tour of Jacksonville Architecture, all from the back of a tuk-tuk, which is a little like a golf cart. This is a great way to take a tour if you aren’t interested in being in a crowd of other people. 

Fact #7: The 1901 Fire Destroyed 146 City Blocks

With the ravages of war a memory, by the turn of the twentieth century, Jacksonville had grown to be a vibrant, bustling city. All that changed in eight hours on May 3, 1901. At the Cleveland Fiber Factory, mattress stuffing laid out to dry caught fire. It was dry and windy, the fire quickly spread, and soon became a conflagration. Nothing could resist its insistent progress. Remember, most buildings were largely made of wood and there were no fire hydrants on the streets.

jacksonville skyline

Whole neighborhoods were destroyed. By the time the fire was put out, nearly 2,500 buildings had been burned; over 450 acres of devastation. 146 city blocks turned into ashes, in just eight short hours. It is said the glow of the flames in the sky could be seen from Miami, well over 300 miles to the south. The miracle is that the death toll was so low. Just seven died in the devastating inferno.

Where To Visit:

If you visit the James Weldon Johnson Park, near Hemming Plaza Station, you can see the sign that commemorates this terrible disaster. You can also take a walking tour with Adlib Tours for an entertaining tour that will tell you stories of the fire. 

Fact #8: Only One Church Survived The Fire

Old St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church dates from 1887 and is the only major church to have survived the great fire. It is a wonderful example of Gothic Revival architecture and is located in the heart of the city on Loan Star Road. Though no longer used as a church, it has become a great venue for weddings, social gatherings, and parties. You can find pictures of the building here, but be sure to stop by if you’re in the area.

Where To Visit:

Jacksonville has some of the most beautiful churches in the country, so if you love architecture, make sure you visit at least a handful. You can find a list of some of the best here.

jacksonville fountain

Photo courtesy of COJ Parks and Rec

Fact #9: Friendship Fountain Was Once The World’s Tallest And Largest Fountain

Friendship Fountain is one of the most recognizable landmarks in Jacksonville and was said to be the world’s largest and tallest fountain when it was first built (1965). It pumps 3500 gallons of water 100 feet into the air each minute, with colored lights that cast rainbows in the spray. When it was first built, Friendship Park was then known as Dallas Thomas Park and Marina, and Friendship Fountain was called The Fountain of Friendship.

Where To Visit:

The fountain operates on weekdays from 11.30am to 1.30pm, and 7.30pm to 9.30pm, 2pm to 4pm on Saturday, and 1pm to 9.30pm on Sundays, so be sure to stop by. You can find it across St Johns River from Downtown on the Southbank Riverwalk. 

Fact #10: 30,000 Commuters Use Main Street Bridge Daily, Built Back In 1941

To fail to mention Jacksonville’s Main Street Bridge in this cool Jacksonville History would be a crime; it is part of the very fabric of the city. It opened in 1941, has a total length of 1,680 feet, and carries four lanes of traffic.

Today, between 20,000 and 30,000 commuters use this bridge every day to and from downtown and San Marco. It is designed as a vertical lift bridge: the center section can be raised while remaining horizontal to allow ships passage up and down the river. Although it was named the John T. Alsop Bridge in 1957, after the longest-serving mayor in the city’s history, it remains universally known as the Main Street Bridge.

main street bridge in jacksonville

Where To Visit:

You can’t miss it! It’s the bridge that connects Downtown and Southbank, so you can cross it if you visit Friendship Fountain!

Fact #11: Jacksonville Farmers Market Was Founded In 1938 And Is Visited By Over 1 Million People Each Year

Jacksonville Farmers Market was established over 80 years ago, and is still open every day with genuine local farmers selling their goods. The market covers 9 acres, so you’ll need a lot of time to explore!

farmers market

Where To Visit:

It’s located on 1810 West Beaver Street, just a mile west of Downtown. It’s open everyday from 7am to 5pm on weekdays, and 9am to 4pm on Sunday. They welcome tour groups.

Fact #12: Jacksonville Is 20 Times Larger Than It Was Originally Because Voters Decided To Increase Its Tax Base

The land Jacksonville stands on has long been a place people wanted to call home, but in 1967 it got substantially bigger. The voters wanted to consolidate Jacksonville with the rest of the county to increase its tax base, and so it grew 20 times its size almost overnight!

Fact #13: The Treaty Oak Was Saved Thanks To The Lie Of One Journalist

The huge live oak tree that stands in Treaty Oak Park, known fondly as Treaty Oak, was only saved due to the lie of one reporter. In the 1930s a reporter called Pat Moran heard that developers were talking about tearing the tree down, which he found abhorrent. He teamed up with a friend who was in the Jacksonville Garden Club and fabricated a story about how Native Americans had signed a treaty with white settlers under the tree, which made it a historic monument.

Everyone who read the article bought it, and that live oak still stands today, at around 250 years old.

Treaty Oak

Photo courtesy of Atlas Obscura

Where To Visit:

Treaty Oak Park is located on Prudential Drive in Southbank, not far from Friendship Fountain and the Main Street Bridge. The park is relatively small but it’s a great place to stroll or to sip a coffee. 

Jacksonville Is Not Just About The Here And Now.

This part of Florida, and the city in particular, have a past packed with human interest, achievement, and disaster. Settlement, development, wars, and flames have all played their part. But Jacksonville has now grown into a rich, three-dimensional city worth experiencing for many reasons.

While you are here, don’t forget to make a date for the best indoor experience in Jacksonville, The Escape Game! Small groups or large, we offer fun and entertainment for everyone with five different scenarios to choose from. We also offer remote options so you can play from anywhere!

Now that you’ve gotten a little history lesson, do you want to find some more things to do in Jacksonville? Check out these options!

beach in jacksonville