In the 1880s, he ran munitions for Cuban revolutionaries, running afoul of Spain as well as the U.S. government. He worked on tugs on the St. John’s River before becoming sheriff of Duval County. And later, most famously, he sought to drain the Everglades to develop what he called the “fabulous Muck.”
He had arguably the most bombastic name in a long line of Florida characters. We’re talking none other than Gov. Napoleon Bonaparte Broward, our county’s namesake.
His parents not only endowed him with an empirical moniker, but named his brothers Washington Broward (after George, of course) and Pulaski Broward (after the Revolutionary War hero).
His childhood started out very promisingly, as his parents had a successful farm in Jacksonville. But they died young, and the Broward clan was on the wrong side in the Civil War. Their original farm was burnt to the ground by Union troops.
Napoleon moved in with an uncle, helped on his farm and earned a high school degree. He traveled north for two years, then returned to Jacksonville.
According to historian Michael Gannon, Broward’s resume grew to include stints as “a riverboat crewman, a Newfoundland cod fisherman, lumberman, a phosphate mine developer, Sheriff of Duval County and a boat pilot.”
Those roots explain his path to politics. He wanted to represent the proverbial common man, he said during one campaign: “I don’t intend to go after the cities. Their newspapers are against me and they don’t take me seriously. But I’m going to stump every crossroads village between Fernandina and Pensacola, and talk to the farmers and the crackers, and show them their top ends were meant to be used for something better than hatracks.”
He might not have made it to politics if either Spain or the U.S. had caught him running guns to the Cuban revolutionaries on his steamboat-tug The Three Friends. He had several near misses with Spanish gunboats, and the Spanish ambassador, whose country was trying to preserve its tenuous hold on Cuba, demanded he be stopped. The cagey Broward eluded them all, working under cover of darkness and hiding his vessel behind larger ships, ferrying munitions and explosives picked up in secluded areas along the St. John’s River near Jacksonville. From there, it was to the Bahamas, then to Cuba for the forces of José Martí.
When President William McKinley finally declared war on Spain, Broward’s gun-running was no longer needed and he escaped punishment. But his exploits, including a stint in Jacksonville as sheriff during a yellow fever epidemic, added to his stature. One historian notes that during the epidemic he was the only public servant to stay in the city as thousands fled. “He opened his doors to health officials and basically ran the city himself,” writes Robert Buccellato in Florida Governors: Lasting Legacies.
In 1900, Broward was elected to the state legislature virtually unopposed. He won the governorship in 1904. The populist Democrat appealed to farmers, laborers and small business, opposing railroad magnates like Henry Flagler and land barons. He is credited with a series of progressive measures passed in the legislature, including reorganizing state colleges into two major universities at Gainesville and Tallahassee, one institution that eventually became Florida A&M, and a school for the deaf. He pushed child labor restrictions, hospital reform and even lobbied the legislature to pass a bill guaranteeing insurance for all state citizens. (The latter bill failed.) And of course, there was the draining of the Everglades to provide a new fertile crescent to feed the world (and sell real estate). We know how that ended today as we try to reclaim what we can of the “River of Grass” and live down the reputation of epic land swindles.
After his term as governor, Broward ran and won a seat in the U.S. Senate but died before taking office.
But there was a less talked-about side to the man who lived in the Florida mansion with his wife, eight daughters and a son, and who got Teddy Roosevelt down here to endorse the Everglades plan.
According to T.D. Allman in Finding Florida, The True History of the Sunshine State, Broward was a racist. As governor, he once proposed evicting black citizens from Florida. It was ignored “as an eccentricity” and never went anywhere, writes Allman. But it showed his true stripes (sadly, not all that uncommon in the South then). Allman says he also proposed rules to muzzle the press, who on more than one occasion referred to him as an idiot.
“These days his plan for an all-white Florida is completely excluded from accounts of his putative achievements,” Allman writes.
In readings from half a dozen books on Florida history, material related to Broward never addressed the race question. The closest thing found was a reference to a governor following him by eight years, Sidney Catts, who ran on a platform that was anti-black, anti-liquor and anti-Catholic. He claimed that the nuns were hiding guns in convents and the pope was planning to move the Vatican to Tampa. (Right, of all the world’s cities the pope would certainly choose Tampa.)
But if the Vatican never left its mark on Florida, our own Napoleon surely did.