By Michael E. Miller
By Ryan Yousefi
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By Sabrina Rodriguez
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By Luther Campbell
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Indeed, some of the cornerstones of Miami's historical narrative are imbued with legend and are shaky at best. For instance, the origins of the Devil's Punch Bowl, South Florida's most famous spring and one of its most mysterious historic sites, have become obscured in storytelling. Located near the edge of Biscayne Bay between Vizcaya and the Rickenbacker Causeway, this five-foot deep circular well was once filled with water from a bubbling spring. (It has since dried up.) According to one legend, the Punch Bowl is a sacred site where Jesus gave the Miccosukee coonti, a local root that when crushed and dried yields a starchy powder used for baking.
Another tale maintains that the bowl was, in fact, the Fountain of Youth sought by Ponce de Le centsn. Still another theory maintains that settlers in the early Nineteenth Century carved the bowl out of the rocky bluff for a water source.
Perhaps no other legend of early Dade has captured the popular imagination like that of Black Caesar, a pirate who prowled the seas off the coast of present-day Miami. "What makes Black Caesar so fascinating is that there is no proof that he lived; nor is there anything that can disprove that he existed," wrote Howard Kleinberg, former editor of the defunct Miami News, in a 1982 newspaper article about the pirate.
One tale, retold by Kleinberg, describes Black Caesar as an African prince who escaped slavers when their ship wrecked off the coast of South Florida. Clutching a fragment of the wooden ship, Black Caesar managed to drift into the area known as Caesar's Creek, just south of Elliot Key. Another story holds that Black Caesar was an escaped mulatto slave whose father was Scottish. Yet another legend describes his escape from a Haitian slave plantation in the late Eighteenth Century and his subsequent career as a pirate operating out of Caesar's Creek (in the middle of which is Caesar's Rock, where he reportedly anchored his ship).
Legends regarding Black Caesar's demise, too, are conflicting. In one, according to Kleinberg, the pirate went into business with colleague (and fellow legend) Jose Gasparilla on Florida's west coast, and both died together in a battle with an American warship. In another version of the pirate's death, Black Caesar was captured by the U.S. Navy, tied to a tree in Key West, and burned to death by the widow of a preacher from Baltimore whose eyes he had burned out. But according to Kleinberg, no mention of the pirate exists in U.S. naval records.
The stories are so widely believed that according to Dade County archaeologist Robert Carr, a group of businessmen put together a costly expedition in the 1930s to find the tons of silver Caesar allegedly buried on Elliot Key. "It's all pure hokum," Carr says. "Problem is that a lot got picked up by early writers of Miami and South Florida history, and they weren't discerning researchers. People were looking for a little romance."
For the same reason, the legend of the so-called Maine Chain has endured for generations. The massive iron chain, which actually exists and is currently on display in the lobby of the Historical Museum of Southern Florida in downtown Miami, used to loop from one low post to another to mark two sides of a residential lot at SE Fourteenth Street and Brickell Avenue. According to Rebecca Smith, the museum's curator of archival materials, a story circulated for years among old-timers that the chain came from the United States battleship Maine, which was sunk in the Havana harbor on February 15, 1898. (The ship's loss helped to precipitate the Spanish-American War.)
In truth the appearance of the chain -- with links eleven-and-a-half inches long and weighing 31 pounds each -- in Miami occurred at about the same time as the sinking of the vessel. But according to Daly Highleyman, whose father owned the Brickell Avenue property, the chain was acquired in 1912 from a freighter, the William R. Wilson, which had been wrecked on Carysfort Reef near Key Largo. "The Maine Chain legend is one we've been fighting for years," says an exasperated Rebecca Smith.
Historians have joined the ranks of impressionable citizens in telling the tale of Julia Tuttle and her orange blossoms -- questionable details included. A widow who had moved her family down to Miami from Cleveland in 1891, Tuttle owned a large tract of land near the mouth of the Miami River. At the time, only several hundred people lived in the area now known as Dade County. But Tuttle envisioned grander things. During the early 1890s, she besieged railroad magnate Henry Flagler with letters urging him to extend his railroad from Central Florida down to Miami. But he was not interested and, the story goes, found Tuttle's persistence annoying.
Finally, when the winter freeze of 1894-95 hit the citrus groves of north and central Florida, Tuttle seized the opportunity. She again wrote Flagler and pointed out that the cold weather hadn't affected Miami. And, legend has it, she sent Flagler photographs of the area and some orange blossoms plucked from her plantation as proof. After seeing the photos and orange blossoms, Flagler agreed to visit Miami in June 1895. The first train steamed into town ten months later.