[On February 22, 1819, the Treaty of Adams-Onis that brought Florida into the United States was initially negotiated; this year marks the 200th anniversary of its 1821 ratification as the Transcontinental Treaty. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy the Treaty and other Florida histories!]
On the very American story of the woman who helped save the Everglades.
Over the last few years, the name Marjory Stoneman Douglas has likely and tragically become synonymous with the Parkland, Florida mass shooting in February at the high school named for her. But while of course we can and should continue remembering the Douglas High shooting (and celebrating the amazing group of Parkland students who have turned that tragedy into an occasion for activism, on whom more in tomorrow’s post), Marjory Stoneman Douglas deserves separate and full commemoration as well. In a 108-year life that spanned nearly all of the 20th century (she was born in April 1890 and passed away in May 1998), Marjory Stoneman experienced a number of striking and very telling moments, including many by the time she turned 25: from watching her mother, concert violinist Florence Lillian Trefethen, get committed to a mental hospital in Providence for being “high-strung” to attending Wellesley College and helping form its first suffrage club; from a brief marriage to charming con artist Kenneth Douglas (who was already married at the time and subsequently attempted to defraud Marjory’s father) to a groundbreaking 1915 divorce and move to Miami (then a small town of less than 5000) to rejoin her father and join the staff of his decade-old newspaper The Miami Herald.
For the next few decades, Douglas (she continued to go by her married name for the rest of her life) made quite a name for herself as a South Florida (and national) journalist and literary figure. (After serving in both the navy and the Red Cross during World War I.) Besides her work for the Herald, which included long stints as Book Review Editor and Assistant Editor, she also worked extensively as a freelance and creative writer; she published forty stories in the Saturday Evening Post, for example, and also wrote a number of one-act plays for the Miami Theater as well as the foreword to the WPA’s 1941 guide to Miami. Around that same time, however, Douglas became involved with the cause that would define her second half-century of life, and all of America, very fully. The publisher Farrar & Rinehart approached her to write a book on the Miami River for their new Rivers of America series; as she began her research Douglas found herself unimpressed by the river but profoundly moved by the Everglades, and convinced F&R to let her research and write a book on them instead. She spent five years researching and writing, working closely with geologist Garald Parker, and the result was The Everglades: River of Grass (1947), a monumental achievement that sold out its initial printing in a month and remains one of the most significant and influential works of American naturalism.
River of Grass was just the beginning, however (and not even that, as Douglas had been fighting for local environmental causes for decades by that time). Over the next half-century, Douglas would more than earn her nickname “Grande Dame of Everglades,” waging continual war to protect and preserve the wetlands from developers, politicians, corporations, sport hunters and fishermen, and just about every other adversary one could imagine. Douglas titled the last chapter of River of Grass “The Eleventh Hour,” warning that the region was on the brink of destruction; but in December of that same year Everglades National Park was dedicated, and thanks to those federal protections and Douglas’s lifelong efforts, the area instead has become the largest tropical wilderness in the US and the largest wilderness of any kind east of the Mississippi. No individual can achieve such milestones single-handedly, of course; but at the same time, American history reminds us time and again of the power a determined and impressive individual can have to help shape the future. Marjory Stoneman Douglas most definitely did so for the Everglades and South Florida—and having had the good fortune to visit the Glades a few times as a kid (my maternal grandparents had retired to South Florida), I can testify that she helped preserve a truly unique and amazing American space.
Next Florida history tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other Florida histories or stories you’d highlight?