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Florida's Napoleon

By Donald. J. Mabry

                                           

 
Napoleon Bonaparte Broward, Junior (1857-1910)
Source: MyFlorida.com

      

    1895 Duval County

 

 Napoleon Bonaparte Broward, Junior was born on the family farm on the St. Johns River in Duval County on April 19, 1857. His family was prominent and wealthy. His grandfather, John Broward, liked famous names. He named the first Napoleon Bonaparte Broward and he also had Charles, Pulaski (from the Revolutionary War), Washington (the first President), Montgomery (British general), Maria, Caroline, Helen, Margaret, and Florida. He established a school on his plantation on the north bank of the St Johns River and imported teachers at a time when there were very few schools. The Browards were among the landed gentry, the elite, of Florida. Charles graduated from Harvard Law. Napoleon Senior was a dapper man who married a New Hampshire Woman, Mary Dorcas Parsons, who had taught school in Mayport on the south bank of the St Johns River at its mouth. She was sixteen, a proper age for a bride in those days. She bore Napoleon Senior eight children–Josephine, Napoleon Junior, Montcalm, Mary Dorcas, Emily, Osceola, Hortense, and California. They all lived on land on Cedar Creek given to Senior by his father. 

Napoleon Junior had a pleasant, carefree life surrounded by family and servants until Florida tried to secede from the United States early in 1861. The United States government was not about to allow that. Broward Senior thought it a great idea, however, and became Captain Napoleon Broward when he raised a militia company. It cost the Browards dearly. When the United States Army and Navy invaded Florida, Confederates adopted a scorched earth policy but to no avail. The Browards' farms were burned. The United States Army occupied Jacksonville. For many, that most of the soldiers were black really roiled the supporters of slavery. 

After the war, the Browards were reduced to a hard scrabble existence. Eight-year-old Junior and even younger Montcalm did heavy manual working, trying help the family survive but they were not very good farmers. Life was tenuous, a far cry when they were rich and powerful by Duval County standards. The mother died in February, 1869. Although she hadn't enjoyed good health for years, Mary Dorcas Parsons Broward had been a mainstay of the family. Broward Senior soon moved the family to his brother's place, the former John Broward plantation, where there were aunts to raise his children. He began working in Jacksonville, trying to feed and clothe his brood. But he mourned Mary Dorcas excessively as well as the destruction of the life he had known before 1861. He died in December, 1870. His children were orphans. 

Uncle Charles moved to Jacksonville to practice law; he was eventually successful but, the aunts took their nieces and moved to Jacksonville, leaving Junior and Montcalm on the farm for most of 1871. They futilely tried to make it pay. Broward Junior, now the only Napoleon Broward, and Montcalm moved to their mother's brother's home, Joe Parsons, and worked in his lumber camp at Mills Cove. It was hard, dangerous work. No fancy clothes or speech there but getting one's hands scraped and dirty, aching muscles, dangerous saws, and long hours.  Whatever memories Napoleon had ever had of being in the elite were long gone. He  was working class. In the Fall, 1873 he and brother moved to Mill Cove, went to school, and worked on a farm. 

Napoleon got lucky in the Spring of 1875 when he started working on Joe Parson's steamboat. He starting learning the river and its ways. Until his death he would always be something of a river rat. In the Fall, he returned to school but in New Berlin, boarding with the lighthouse keeper. The lighthouse was in the river, 200 feet from Dames Point.  New Berlin was a bustling, important river town where trade occurred and ships were built. Captain David Kemps built and owned boats including the Kate Spencer, a vessel important to the Jacksonville area and to Napoleon. He worked on the ship and became friends with Georgiana Carolinas Kemps, the captain's daughter. 

When he finished school (what passed for high school)  in 1876, he signed on as ship's mate and he traveled to New England where he had Parsons relatives. The seafaring tradition of New England dated from the early 17th century; he learned more than he could ever have learned on his river. He returned to Florida in 1878. By 1882, he was working on a sea going tugboat; in December, he became a partner with Kemps. He made a great career move in January, 1883 when he married Georgiana Carolinas Kemps.  The couple moved to the mouth of the river to Mayport, a fishing and lumber village. There, they lived with Mrs. Arnau at her boarding house. In May, Napoleon applied for a pilot's license so he could lead ships over the treacherous, shifting sandbar at the mouth of the St. Johns River. Pilots charged hefty fees and Napoleon made money. He seemed set for life.

Then came tragedies. In the summer of 1883, his beloved sister Josephine died . The couple left the river and moved into her house in Jacksonville. Then his wife Georgiana died in childbirth on October 29, 1883. Then his son, Napoleon Bonaparte Broward, III, died on December 16. Life once again was cruel.

In June, 1884,  Broward went north but came back in the late Fall. He piloted his father-in-law's steamboat, David Kemps. Then he became partner on the Kate Spencer. Captain Broward as he was now known,  prospered from tourism, hauling cargo, and carrying mail carrying to Mayport by July, 1885. The Kate Spencer was big and well-furbished so tourists sough it out. That the captain, who live ion the boat, was a big, strapping, handsome 29-year-old man was also a draw. One young lady snagged him, quietly but steadily reeling him in over several months.

He married Annie Douglas on May 5, 1887. They lived in Jacksonville. In October, 1887, he bought a small lumber yard and gristmill from George A. DeCottes in the city but he loved the river. He hired someone to run it while he continued to work on the river where he could earn more money but also smell the water, wind, flora, and fauna. He was happy, prosperous, and respected. 

Then came the notorious year of 1888. Jacksonville was scandalized by a prisoner escape which occurred because the sheriff had moved the prisoner from the county jail to an office in  commercial building. The prisoner walked out while his guards were asleep on February 2, 1888. Uproar and furor followed.  Governor Perry asked for and got the sheriff's resignation. The Democratic Party executive committee recommended Broward who was appointed on February 27, 1888. 

Broward went after gambling in the city and stopped most of it. Jacksonville was, after all, a port city so people, locals and visitors, liked to take chances. The Corbett-Mitchell heavyweight championship fight was a real challenge, however.

 Mayport, the little village at the mouth of the St. Johns River in northeast Florida, played a significant role in two fights by "heavyweights" in the winter of 1893-94. One is well-known, drawing international attention; the other was not. Victory for one; defeat for the other. Both are intertwined. 

 “Gentleman Jim” Corbett fought the English heavyweight champion, Charles Mitchell, for the heavyweight championship of the world on January 25, 1894 in Jacksonville, Florida. The fisticuffs were held in Moncrief Park under the auspices of the Duval Athletic Club. The club sold tickets for $25 each to pay the purse of $20,000 and meet expenses. The DAC had pulled off a coup in getting this championship match scheduled for Jacksonville both because other places wanted this “Super Bowl” of boxing and because the illegal fight met stiff resistance.

  

Jim Corbett                         Charles Mitchell

 
 Corbett trained at Mayport less than twenty miles by train from the south part of Jacksonville. He and his crew rented the summer home of Claus Meyer and almost got arrested when one of Corbett’s aides forgot to pay Meyer until he threatened arrest. Mitchell trained in St Augustine, well over thirty miles distant.  

Both were distant from the furor in the state over the upcoming fight. The opposition seemed insurmountable. Opposed were Governor Mitchell I. Mitchell, Jacksonville Mayor Duncan U. Fletcher, Duval Country Sheriff Broward, churches and moralists, and the Second Battalion of Ocala Rifles which the governor sent to Jacksonville. They saw betting immoral and feared that the match would bring riff raff, whores, gamblers, the wrong kind of tourist, and such to the city. They feared violence.  

 Pressing public officials seemed  to work. The Governor said no. The Mayor and the Sheriff Broward each said no. One suspects they were not that opposed but were afraid to say otherwise. Sheriff Broward didn’t complain that much when Circuit Court Judge H. M. Call issued an injunction to prevent him from attaching the Duval Athletic Club’s property or enter its grounds. Governor called up troops (the Ocala rifles). Groups tried to get the railroads of H. B. Plant and Henry Flagler not to transport any spectators or gamblers or whores or boxing people to Jacksonville. Free enterprise prevailed, however. The railroads were not about to forgo profits. They refused to accept the argument that it was their moral duty and they should act as government. Moreover, they refused to transport the troops without cash payments in advance. The Governor conceded. When he threatened martial law in Jacksonville to prevent the Corbett-Mitchell fight, he went too far. Public opinion turned against him. Prominent merchant L. Furchgott protested; the business community had joined the pro-fight crowd. The troops that came were booed as they marched down Bay Street. As it turned out, their presence was a charade, a way of saying the Governor was serious about maintaining public order. The fight would go on. 

 One who came to Jacksonville was a blond New York City woman who was wintering in Florida went to Mayport with her Jacksonville cousin to visit the training facilities of Jim Corbett. No doubt, they probably also wanted to see this very fine example of male beauty. As the New York Timesreported on December 25, 1893, “Corbett’s muscles stood out in perfect relief, and his skin glowed with perfect health.” He was worth seeing. He sparred and wrestled and ran. He weighed himself twice a day on the scales he used, scales which had to be accurate to satisfy boxing rules. 

 Our heroine made the first of several bad decisions, ones that she would lose the battle to maintain her dignity. She sweet talked the powers that be to allow her to try Corbett’s scales, to become more than a spectator. And she mounted them. Much to her horror, she weighed 138 pounds! Surely, she thought, she couldn’t have gained weight on vacation in Florida; surely the scales were wrong. She searched the tiny windswept, sandy village for another scale, one that she was sure would show she wasn’t that “fat.” 

A little grocery store nearby had scales to weigh its products, keeping them with hogsheads of molasses in a small annex. The hogsheads had a trough below for the drippings when drawn off. The trough was two by nine feet, more or less, and a foot deep. The annex was dimly lit and its floor was lower than the main building. Our heroine fell into the trough, for her eyes focused on the scales which would restore her reputation. But she was stuck! She was too fat to get out of the tough either by herself or with the help of the owner and his assistant. It took four men!

 The defeated tourist, holding her head high, headed for the proprietor’s house to get clean as small boys tasted her newly-acquired sweetness. She was even heavier. 
 The other heavyweight, Gentleman Jim Corbett, won twice. The “scientific glove contest,” as the DAC termed the match, was held in Moncrief Park in Jacksonville before 1800 people. Corbett won in twelve minutes and became Heavyweight Champion of the World. The purse was awarded; Corbett collected the $10,000 he had in side bets; and the swells and “sports” settled up according to their gamble.  

 Corbett and Mitchell were arrested for assault and battery. Corbett was tried first and acquitted. The government gave up. The crowds left. The Duval Athletic Club disbanded. Life in Mayport settled down.  We don’t know if the sweet woman ever recovered from the loss of face.  

We do know that Broward became active in city politics as a liberal, a Straighouts, against the conservatives, the Antis, in the Democratic Party. The Republican Party had no clout because of Reconstruction when it had forced Southern states to be more democratic and enfranchised African Americans. The Democratic Party was the "white man's  party"  and most whites did not want democracy. They wanted to rule.

The Jacksonville Yellow Fever epidemic of 1888 caused a political as well as a mortality crisis. Jacksonville was a black city but white voters still controlled but whites fled and the black vote was the majority in the November elections. Broward and other Democrats lost. Broward, however, was appointed again in 1889 after the victor was declared ineligible. State government would change the rules so that only the Democratic Party, which was white, could win. The US population census of 1890 reveals that the county contained only 26, 773 people, of whom 14, 878 or 55.6% were black. The number of white voters was small since at least half were females and many were children. In other words, a few thousand white men could vote. 

Being sheriff did not prevent Broward from conducting private business. In Florida at the time, mixing the two was allowed. He was elected Sheriff in 1890. and built the Annie Dorcas with his brother and three others. He always had business interests in addition to his being a full-time public employee.

Black-white relations could get testy, especially when the majority tried to assert itself. In 1890, the Duval County population was 11,895 whites and 14,878 blacks for a total of 26,773,  55.6% of whom were black. In 1900  there were 39,733   people in Duval County, the majority black, Jacksonville's population of 28,429 in 1900 made it Florida's largest city. Blacks were 16,236 Afro American residents comprised fifty-seven per cent of the population.

On July 4, 1892. Benjamin Reed, a black teamster, and a white office worker, Frank Burrows, began fighting which began because Burrows made disparaging remarks about Reed. It was a hot 4th of July and those working were hot and tired. Burrows wanted them to finish their work at the Anheuser-Busch company and berated Reed, calling him names. They fought with wooden staves. Reed killed Burrows and was arrested and jailed. Whites began talking of pulling him out of jail and killing him but black groups prevented it. Jacksonville was a majority black city. Broward heard the rumor that a mob was coming from Mayport to avenge the death of their neighbor Burrows. That night, Sheriff Broward wired Governor Francis Fleming to send the militia to prevent a lynching. A Jacksonville unit was activated but it did not appear to be enough for white and blacks mobs grew in size and hostility. Broward got more troops from nearby towns, about 375 men, and a Gatling Gun was placed at the jail. There was a skirmish between the anti-lynchers and the Metropolitan [Jacksonville] militia with both sides firing weapons. One Private and two black men were injured. The New York Times asserted that there never was any intention to lynch Reed, just that a white firebrand had advocated it. The African Americans took no chances. The presence of the troops and the statements of their commander that no lynching would occur, plus a heavy rainfall, drove the people off the streets on July 7th. Reed was tried, convicted, and sent to prison. See "Shot Down By Soldiers," New York Times, July 7, 1892 for a contemporary account.

Broward was fair during this crisis. He prevented a black man from being murdered, a likely event if he had not decided to obey the law and to get reinforcements. Another sheriff might have acted differently since there was obvious fear of the black majority in Jacksonville and Duval County. He preserved law and order. 

In the 1892 municipal elections the liberals, the Straighouts, took control. Broward's friend John N. C. Stockton became city attorney. Stockton would eventually lead the liberals. However, in 1894, the conservatives or Antis took control again after their fellow conservatives in the state government intervened, accepting the Antis arguments that the Straighouts had committed vote fraud, the same charge the Straighouts made against them.  Broward was fired as Sheriff and went back to private business. 

Broward, his brother Montcalm, and George DeCottes started building The Three Friends. Almost as soon as it was completed, Broward used it in 1896 to carry arms and munitions from Nassau to Cuban independence revolutionaries on the island. Broward piloted the seagoing tug to Cuba, carrying a Cuban hero, General Enrique Collazo (veteran of the Ten Years' War), two officers, fifty-four men plus arms and ammunition to Cuba, giving the insurrectionists much-needed hope. Jacksonville Cubans had made the arrangements; their countrymen had begun fighting in 1895 to overthrow the Spanish colonial regime and would continue to do so even after the United States joined the fray on April 11, 1898;  Americans refer to it as the Spanish-American War. Running guns was a profitable and exciting business. and he made eight illegal trips. Broward was so good at it that Spain complained but U. S. authorities could not catch him. The most the United States government did was impound his boat several times. People in the United States, including U.S. government officials, supported the liberals who were trying to achieve Cuban independence from the conservative Spanish monarchy, the last vestiges of the Spanish Empire created in the 16th century. Thus, although Broward was a criminal, many considered him a daring hero. U.S. involvement in the Cuban war for independence meant all charges were dropped.


Three Friends

His fame as a gun runner against an unpopular government fostered his political career as did the money he earned from transporting arms, munitions, and rebels. The  Straighouts tried to get him to run for sheriff office in 1896 but he was too busy making money. The end of the war in 1898 ended this business but his reputation for prowess as a ship captain brought him plenty of other business. In 1900, he agreed to run for the state House of Representatives and won a resounding victory. He supported liberal measures including a political primary system to replace the state convention system which the conservatives controlled. He fought to establish a railroad commission to insure that these corporations served the public interest. Hamilton Disston of Phliadelphia and others paid $1 million for 4 million acres of public land or 25 cents an acre. The land was sold by the Internal Improvement Board and the Governor to pay the debts of the Board. This sale angered many people who saw it as a give away to the rich. Big corporate interests were seen as villains by small farmers the bulk of the population. The railroad barons such as Henry B. Plant and Henry M. Flagler were awarded vast tracks of public land. Railroads controlled much of Florida, charging whatever rates they chose. Liberals held attitudes similar to the Populists, measures they thought would help the common man instead of the privileged few.

Yet, he cooperated with conservatives' and Flagler's assault on traditional marriage. Even though conservatives, led by Flagler, were "political enemies" and even though the vast majority of Floridians believed in the sanctity of marriage, Broward voted with them on this issue.  Christianity historically forbade divorce except in extreme circumstance, abiding by the commandment "what God has joined together, let no man put asunder." One married "for better or for worse." If one's spouse became ill, it was a divine duty to take care of the spouse. Flagler, however,  wanted to ditch his mentally ill second wife, Ida Alice Shourds.  She had been hospitalized for mental illness for six years. The younger Mary Lily Kenan had caught his fancy. Florida law would not let him. Flagler, of course, was one of the richest, most powerful, richest  men in the state; he got the law changed in 1901. Broward voted for the "Flagler Law."  So  Broward voted for it even though Flagler, the Standard Oil and railroad baron, controlled much of the state and the the conservative faction in state politics. Floridians protested, for it was a radical departure from traditional marriage. Perhaps Broward agreed; perhaps he understood that the bill was unstoppable. Perhaps both.  On August 24th of that year, Flagler married Kenan; he wasted little time.

Broward's first stint in state government was successful, for he remained powerful and popular but he also had family obligations. He did not run again for the state House in 1902.  He also served from 1901 to 1904 on the State Board of Health.  Instead, he concentrated on his lucrative salvage business, especially in the Key West area. He had a wife and six daughters to support. Although he had successful business interests in the Jacksonville area, the lure of the sea and big money were irresistible. At least, for a time.

 Supporters begged him to run for governor for the 1904-1908 term, arguing that he was the only liberal who could win. Duncan U. Fletcher, a fellow liberal politician, had a strong political base in Jacksonville where he was mayor, but not the statewide fame of Broward. In 1903, Broward agreed to run. The road to Tallahassee was going to be tough because the newspapers were largely owned by railroads and other corporations. The state's elites, living in cities, would finance his opponent. Broward's gubernatorial campaign was a run against the urban rich and the railroad interests. His chief opponent, Robert W. Davis, was Flagler's man; his record in Congress was ample  proof. Broward campaigned in the rural areas where the majority of the population lived. He stressed  that he had always sought what was best for the majority sand would continue to do so. And he traveled throughout the state, meeting and speaking to people. He advocated draining the Everglades to create rich farm land to benefit the average Floridian. The race went into a second primary, he won by 400 out of 45,000 votes. Democrats automatically won the the general election in November. He became governor on January 3, 1905.

As governor, he was an activist. His program of draining parts of the Everglades gave him national prominence. Although 21st century people would question changing the environment so drastically, Broward and those who supported the project believed they were helping the common man by providing cheap farm land. He reorganized the higher education system so that there were only three colleges—Florida (for men), Florida A & M, (for African Americans) and Florida State College for Women. The University of Florida moved from Lake City to Gainesville, a sign that the state's population was shifting southward.  He supported a state textbook commission, free school books, a permanent Railroad Commission, and hospital reforms. He failed to get a law creating life insurance for Floridians and a state insurance commission.

Surprise twists of fate encouraged him to seek the U. S. Senate. On December 23, 1907, U. S. Senator Stephen Mallory died suddenly. On December 26th,Broward appointed his gubernatorial campaign manager, William James Bryan, to replace him. Bryan was only 31 years old and there was an uproar that a callow youth received this plum position. That ended when Bryan died  of typhoid fever in March 22, 1908! Broward decided he would run so he then appointed William Milton on the condition he would not run in the next election. Broward ran against the conservative John Beard and the moderate liberal Duncan U. Fletcher, mayor of Jacksonville. He and Fletcher went into the second primary but Fletcher won.

Broward lobbied to be the Vice Presidential candidate under William Jennings Bryan, the popular, perennial Democratic candidate. He came close to being chosen. It was not to be.  After all, Florida was a small frontier state. Bryan needed someone who could attract more votes so he chose John Kern of Indiana.

Broward refused to give us his ambition to play a role on the national stage. He ran for the U.S. Senate against the incumbent, James Taliaferro. in 1910.  He won. His victory in the general elections in November was a foregone conclusion.

Exhausted by campaigning, he vacationed at Fort George island on the north shore of his beloved St. Johns River. He died there in late September of gallstones. He was buried on October 4th. He was only fifty-seven. The Broward Era did not quite end with his death, however. Nathan Bryan, brother of William James Bryan was elected and served only one term. Senator Fletcher, who served until his own death in 1936, was a moderate liberal politician who brought lots of federal money to Florida during the New Deal, including funds for the high school which bears his name. 

Today the exquisite  Napoleon Bonaparte Broward Bridge, commonly known as the Dames Point Bridge, would be built there. Few know its name  or, if they do, realize that it is named for a man who was a true hero, an man who overcame poverty in childhood to become someone who was democratic in manner and belief. He supported his wife and children; he helped relatives and friends; and he was loyal.

__________

Sources:

Samuel Proctor, Napoleon Bonaparte Broward: Florida's Fight Democrat. Gainesville, University of Florida Press, 1993. Solid biography.

Wayne Flynt, Duncan Upshaw Fletcher, Dixie’s Reluctant Progressive. Tallahassee: Florida State University Press, 1971.

BiographyBase, "Napoleon Bonaparte Broward Biography." 

"Capt. Liscomb Returns," New York Times, May 9, 1897 tells the story of a Harlem man, Captain Alfred Libscomb, who also ran guns and people to Cuba during its independence revolution and had to evade the Vesuvius.

Susan D. Brandenburg, "Lynching That Didn't Happen," May, 2006.  Review of Margaret Vandiver, Lethal Punishment (Rutgers University Press, 2006).

Gustavo J. Godoy, "Jose Alejandro Huau: A Cuban Patriot in Jacksonville Politics,"  The Florida Historical Quarterly, October 1975, volume 54 issue 2, pp.196-206.

"Collazo Safely Landed ," New York Times, March 19, 1896.

"Shot Down By Soldiers," New York Times, July 7, 1892.

“Corbett in Active Training,” New York Times, December 25, 1893.

“May Declare The Fight Off,” New York Times, January 20, 1894.

“The Fight Still In Doubt,” New York Times, January 25, 1894.

“The Vanity Of A New York Woman Wintering in Florida Got Her In Trouble,” New York Times, January 28, 1894.

New York Times, November 30, 1897.

John W. Cowart, “Gentleman Jim Corbett’s Big Fight,” 2005.

Foley, Bill. “Jacksonville's boxing title match had real sideshow,” Florida Times-Union, February 23, 2000.

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