Who were William and Mary Brickell?

Very little was known about William and Mary Brickell, two of the founders of Miami and Fort Lauderdale, before actress and filmmaker Beth Brickell came here for a film shoot in 1967. Seeing her last name plastered all over the city piqued her curiosity. Her father, who was interested in genealogy, started digging up the Brickell family history.

In the end, Beth Brickell found that she was not at all related to William and Mary Brickell. But as a former investigative reporter with a long background in storytelling in both film and print, she couldn’t resist their tale. She eventually wrote a book about the Brickells’ accomplishments in South Florida — William and Mary Brickell: Founders of Miami and Fort Lauderdale — the first comprehensive historical biography about the family.

Historians argue about who was more influential – the pioneering entrepreneur William and his wife Mary, a bright and bold investor, or their contemporary Julia Tuttle, often called the “Mother of Miami.”

Arva Moore Parks, a Miami historian and author of Miami, The Magic City, and The Forgotten Frontier, credits Tuttle the pivotal move of convincing industrialist Henry Flagler to extend his railroad to South Florida, putting the area on the map. But the Brickells came to Miami 20 years before Tuttle and certainly left their mark, particularly in the area of the city that bears their name today.

Piecing together both historians’ accounts of the Brickells, we’ve tried to tell the story of William and Mary Brickell, whose names are plastered all over Miami’s bustling financial district.

When William met Mary

William Brickell (Courtesy of Beth Brickell/William and Mary Brickell: Founders of Miami and Fort Lauderdale)
William Brickell (Courtesy of HistoryMiami)

William Barnwell Brickell was born in Steubenville, Ohio, on May 25, 1825, to William and Adelaide Brickell. His parents passed away by the time he reached his early 20s, and at the age of 24 he headed to the West Coast to strike it rich in the California Gold Rush.

After three years there, Brickell headed to Australia to chase more gold. While on a steamer there, he met Adam Kidd, a fellow Ohioan headed there for the same reason. The two went on to make a fortune — not from gold, but from selling supplies and building hotels for the influx of gold diggers to Australia.

This is where Brickell met Mary Bulmer, the daughter of Catherine and Joseph Bulmer, who moved from England to Australia when Mary was just 3 years old.

William met Mary when she was 20, and the pair quickly fell in love and got married. They moved to Washington, D.C., in 1862, where Mary served as a volunteer citizen nurse during the Civil War, treating Union and Confederate soldiers alike. After the war, the couple moved to Pittsburgh, to a town just across the river from William’s old hometown of Steubenville.

Off to America

William had a cousin in Pittsburgh, so they lived there until he became interested in the profitable oil industry developing in Cleveland, Ohio. William and Mary, who had six children by then,  decided to make the move to Cleveland and open a wholesale grocery business.

At the time, 27-year-old oil magnate John Davison Rockefeller and 32-year-old railroad mogul Henry Flagler were partners in the Standard Oil. The slightly older William, who was 42 at the time, lent the fledgling company money. Tensions rose when the pair failed to repay the loan.

Mary Brickell (Courtesy of Beth Brickell/William and Mary Brickell: Founders of Miami and Fort Lauderdale)
Mary Brickell (Courtesy of HistoryMiami)

Meanwhile, Mary was growing tired of the Cleveland’s cold winters. William began looking for somewhere with a warmer climate they could move the whole family. He heard about a woman named Harriet English, who was selling four Spanish land grants she acquired from her late son William English, another man who went to California to chase gold. That’s likely where Brickell first heard about South Florida, historian Arva Parks believes.

William and his friend Ephraim Sturtevant, who happened to be Julia Tuttle’s father, went to South Carolina to talk to English, and in 1870, the pair traveled to South Florida to explore the unchartered land.

They both decided they wanted to live in what was then swampy, undeveloped paradise, purchasing the land grants to get them started. William Brickell purchased 2,507.83  acres of land and relocated his family.

“At the time there were only 12 squatters from Palm Beach to Key Largo. It was all wilderness,” according to Beth Brickell.

That wilderness, however, was already home to hundreds of Native Americans living on islands in the Everglades.

The big move

In 1871, William built a house at what is today Brickell Point in the City of Miami. Later that year, Mary and the children joined him. It was a gutsy move — there had already been three massacres of white settlers by Native Americans, the most recent just 13 years before they arrived.

Unlike many before them, the Brickells didn’t make enemies of the Native Americans — they befriended them and traded with them, opening a trading post next to their house. “[The Native Americans] would come down from the Everglades with pelts, plumes, and deer hides and they would trade with William,” Brickell said.

The Native Americans would lay out blankets on the Brickells’ lawn, trading their hides and fruits for gold, silver, food, trinkets, and sewing machines. When the deals were done, the Native Americans would pack up and return to their homes in the Everglades.

In 1873, a typhoid fever epidemic struck. Mary turned the Brickells’ home into a hospital and used the skills she learned as a nurse during the Civil War to treat settlers and Native Americans alike.

In anticipation of the railroad that she and William hoped would one day be built, Mary began to acquire more and more property, totaling 6,427 acres between Palm Beach and Coconut Grove.

In the meantime, Julia Tuttle’s parents had also moved to Miami. By 1891, after her husband passed away, Tuttle had also moved to the area, almost 20 years after William and Mary arrived.

Tuttle and Rockefeller were church friends from Cleveland, as were Flagler and the Brickells. Both Julia and Mary were bent on convincing Flagler to bring his railroad to Miami and create a city on the river, but, initially Flagler was not interested in the slightest.

Henry Flagler’s railroad heads south

When harsh freezes devastated crops in the rest of the country, Tuttle sent fresh fruit to Flagler, hoping to entice him with Florida’s prosperous crop yields, and promised land, to be given up by both her and the Brickells. Flagler finally agreed to extend his railroad to the sparsely populated swampland.

In a pivotal move, Mary Brickell gave Flagler the rights to a strip of land from Palm Beach to Miami — under one condition. She wanted him to create a town to the north of Miami. At the time, only six people lived there.  “It wasn’t even a settlement, and Flagler didn’t want to fool with that, but Mary insisted,” Brickell said.

Julia Tuttle (Wikimedia)
Julia Tuttle (Wikimedia)

So Flagler built a 1 square-mile town site and laid out the streets of what became Fort Lauderdale on Brickell’s property. With that done, he brought the railroad to Miami.

Tuttle gave Flagler the land north of the Miami River, and the Brickells gave more land south of the Miami River. According to Beth Brickell, the Brickells signed their land agreement five months before Julia Tuttle did.

“What I understand is the Brickells were more private, and not much was known about them because they didn’t promote themselves. Also, all of their records and contracts were destroyed in a hurricane, so there was not much known about them until I wrote my book,” Brickell said.

In Tuttle’s seven years in Miami, she contributed immensely to the city — but Beth Brickell says that Mary, who spent many more years investing in in South Florida, is not credited enough for the work she did for both Miami and Fort Lauderdale.

A city is born

In her 50-odd years in South Florida, Mary, who outlived her husband by 14 years, worked hard to build the home she had always imagined.

In 1911, she ordered concrete from Germany and tasked one of her sons with building Brickell Avenue, stretching from the mouth of the Miami River all the way to Coconut Grove. She arranged for the installation of electricity and planted flowers along the street’s wide median.

Brickell also owned three miles of prime real estate overlooking Biscayne Bay, which she held onto until wealthy homeowners showed interest.

After selling blocs to the likes of three-time populist presidential candidate Williams Jennings Bryan,that area came to be known as “Millionaire’s Row. His “Villa Serena,” a grandiose Spanish Mediterranean style home, still stands today. She also sold land to James Deering, who would go on to build the iconic Vizcaya Museum and Gardens.

She also built Miracle Mile, and worked to develop The Roads, a 500-acre neighborhood just south of what is now “Brickell” known for its lush trees, historic homes, and atypical street grid. Originally called “Brickell Hammock,” Mary auctioned off properties in The Roads to people who couldn’t afford the high price tag on “Millionaire’s Row.” Today The Roads has become one of Miami’s most expensive neighborhoods.

Mary, who died a year before the area’s completion, designed the area with wide streets and pedestrian-friendly walkways. When houses were ready for sale, all of the properties were sold in a single day, according to a 2013 Miami Herald article written by Beth Brickell.

Mary was buried alongside her husband William in a mausoleum in Brickell Park, a 2.5-acre waterfront park next to their home. In 1921, a year before she died, Mary donated Brickell Park to the City of Miami. The one stipulation was that if Miami didn’t use the property for the purpose of a public green space in perpetuity, the land would revert back to the Brickell family.

A few years ago, the City of Miami wanted to sell the land. Descendants of the Brickells, none of whom still live in South Florida, pointed out that if Miami sold the land, it would revert back into their hands.

The mausoleum no longer holds the remains of the Brickell family. In 1946, Maude Brickell, the youngest of the Brickells’ eight children, moved the remains to the Caballero Rivero Woodlawn North Park Cemetery and Mausoleum in Little Havana. According to Beth Brickell, Maude decided to move the family because “Brickell had become too noisy, even for the dead.”

Today, it’s only gotten busier, as Brickell has become the bustling financial capital of Miami-Dade County. Much of that is thanks to a gold-rushing Ohioan and an entrepreneurial Australian who found their way to South Florida’s swamplands. In a little more than three decades, they laid the groundwork for a thriving metropolis.

  • Steve Sauls

    I’ve had dinner with one of the descendants who lives in D.C. in the condo of a friend near the White House. We spent the last evening talking about traditional southern cooking. Lovely lady.

  • cesar becerra

    The story of the orange blossoms by Julia has been greatly simplified. In a speech that Flagler’s James Ingraham (head of his Model Land co./ Flaglers real estate interests) made years after his death – found by historian Larry Wiggins and published in Tequesta magazine by History Miami – he clearly stated that what was sent to Flagler was a box approx 4 by 4 by 4 foot square with clippings from several tropical trees (t prove that Miami was truly frost proof) and along with the box came two contracts one from Tuttle one from the Brickells…..was jointly the lubrication that finally changed Flagler’s mind. Of course one could also debate it from another angle knowing that Flagler probably had his eyes on business interests south of Miami (deep water port eventually in Key West to take advantage of the future opening of the Panama canal…..making lands south of any river crossing (New River in Ft Lauderdale and Miami River in Miami) much more valuable than lands north or said rivers. Both of which were owned by the Brickells. Lastly, contracturally Flagler and the FEC never complied with Brickells strict request that the bridge be built across the Miami River before the railroad arrived….launching a mini feud between Flagler interests and the Brickells.

    Cesar A. Becerra, South Florida Historian
    President, University of South Florida Appreciation (opening soon)

  • The Small Town of Brickell was declared an independent protectorate on or about August 11, 2011. I was made the Ambassador of Brickell at that time.

    The land mass covered in the independent protectorate includes all of Mary Brickell’s original declaration in 1896. However, the City of Miami’s jurisdiction will be respected, so the actual independence applies to the small area south of the river and east of the Interstate.

    The Small Town of Brickell is tax-free at the moment (including all Federal, State, City, County, or other taxes). The Small Town of Brickell has taxation authority over the exterior land mass on the other side of the Interstate. That area has not been explicitly defined as yet.

  • So, the only source of this information is Beth Brickell who has no relation?

    As I remember, Mary Brickell was divorced when she moved to Florida, made friends with the Indians, and settled on a land area known as Brickell. Flagler was invited down and there were many plots of land divided up which became Miami. 1896.

    • I thought she was from Illinois, not Ohio, but I could be wrong on that point.

    • Roshan

      Hey Andrew,

      Arva Parks, another Miami historian was another source who confirmed that Mary moved with William to Miami from Ohio. As far as I’ve read, this seems to be accurate. Could you please direct me to any materials that show otherwise?


      • I read a lot of history about Mary Brickell while I was there in August 2011 that I cannot locate any more. It was online.

  • J.J. Colagrande

    Mary Brickell is an under-appreciated champion.

    Here, here — to Mary

    One has to wonder if she would be okay with the clusterfuck Brickell is today . .