Governor Napoleon Bonaparte Broward House | Duval County, FL | c. 1878
Built in 1878, this home sits at the literal and figurative crossroads of some incredible Florida history. In 1877, the land where the home stands was purchased by a dentist from New York named Dr. Jonathan Gilbert, but before that, the land had been occupied for thousands of years by Native Americans. In fact, the 2.9 acre parcel where this home stands is almost entirely covered with a Timucuan Indian shell midden and artifacts that date as far back as 3,500 years.
Sitting at the mouth of the St. Johns River where it meets the Atlantic Ocean, this area was important to indigenous tribes and later, to bar pilots who navigated sea-faring ships past a treacherously shifting sandbar nearby. A small village began here known as Pilot Town where most of these bar pilots lived.
The Gilbert family constructed this Folk Victorian style home of 2,723 square feet. It’s lacy porches and filigreed balustrades must’ve made it quite the site in its day and even more so considering that widows walk on the 3rd floor that likely provides lovely views of the river and ocean. Not much is known about the Gilbert Family but in 1897, this home was purchased by Napoleon Bonaparte Broward- for whom the house is now known and named.
‘Florida’s Fighting Democrat’
Broward was an eccentric character, well-known in his home state of Florida, being both loved and hated. Born in rural Duval County in 1857, Napoleon’s family was wealthy but their farm was burned during the Civil War by Union troops who occupied town. The Browards had a difficult time getting back on their feet afterwards and within a few years, both of his parents would pass away, leaving him orphaned by the age of 12.
He and his brother would continue to work the family farm with their grandfather before moving to Jacksonville to work at an uncles timber camp. He would move through various odd jobs in different places as a farm hand, log rafter, ships cook, steamboat deckhand, cod fisherman before returning to Jacksonville in 1878.
He took a job working tugboats on the St. Johns River and in 1883, he married his captain’s daughter, Georgiana Carolina Kemp, ‘Carrie’. She would pass away in childbirth, followed shortly after by their infant son. But Napoleon would remarry in 1887 to Annie Douglass, the daughter of a Northern ship captain with whom he later had 9 children. He became well known as a skilled bar captain.
Just one year after his new marriage began, Napoleon would enter the public arena, being elected Duval Sheriff in 1888, 1890, and 1896. In 1897, he purchased this home as a Summer Residence for his family. In 1898, the outbreak of the Spanish American War brought with it a new venture for Broward: gun-runner. In the years leading up, he had grown sympathetic to the Cuban cause and eventually ran 8 successful trips to Cuba on his boat, The Three Friends, supplying guns to Cuban insurgents fighting Spain for independence.
Several times he was nearly caught and destroyed by Spanish gunboats. Aware of Broward’s identity, the Spanish ambassador to the U.S. demanded that the American be stopped and his ship impounded. U.S. authorities tried to catch him, but Broward eluded them by loading The Three Friends under cover of darkness in secluded locations, hiding her behind larger ships as she left the St. Johns, and picking up Cubans and munitions from other ships at various points near the mouth of the river. His actions were not only in opposition to Spain’s interests but also a violation of U.S. neutrality laws and earned him celebrity status amongst Floridian’s.
A loud and burly character at over 6 feet and 200 pounds, Broward was striking and well-known as an adventurer. He would spend the rest of his life as a public servant who became known as ‘Florida’s Fighting Democrat.’ Through service as a Sheriff, State Legislator he was both admired and despised in Florida.
Napoleon Bonaparte Broward (right) taking oath from Justice J.B. Whitfield. Behind Broward’s elbow is Secretary of State, H. Clay Crawford. To the right behind Broward in front of the column is retiring Governor W.S. Jennings, c.1905.
But it wasn’t until his service began as the 19th Governor of the State of Florida that earned him his best known actions as an advocate for draining the Florida Everglades to recover land for agricultural cultivation which helped spur development in South Florida.
He referred to the Florida Everglades as “the fabulous muck” that he considered useless swamp as people at that time did not understand its ecology or relation to water table and habitat.
Early in his term, he was often attacked for his drainage program and the land tax he instituted to pay for it. One newspaper noted that, “The treasury will be drained before the Everglades.” Broward gained national prominence through this massive program, eventually involving the federal government and gaining federal funds for the drainage project, supported by President Teddy Roosevelt.