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.