Trials and Tribulations: the many lives of David Levy Yulee

// by Sue Bjorkman

If He who dies with the most nicknaDavid_Levy_Yulee_-_Brady-Handymes wins, the prize should go to David Levy Yulee. Known as the Father of Florida Railroads, the Great Floridian, the Architect of Florida Statehood, Father of Fernandina and most colorfully the Florida Fire Eater, each epithet illuminates a different facet of who he was.

This 19th century trailblazer left such a multi-tiered legacy that it’s hard to pinpoint what he’s best remembered for.

“How to choose? I talk about him as the first person of Jewish ancestry in the U.S. Senate, as this really shocks people. And with his role in railroads, he was most important to Florida’s economy,” says Marcia Jo Zerivitz, founding executive director, Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU in Miami Beach and initiator of Florida Jewish History month.

“He’s definitely a Jewish hero,” agrees Jo Ann Arnowitz, the museum’s current executive director. “But bringing Florida into statehood is probably his biggest distinction.”

Yulee is many things to many people. He’s the engine that drove development of Florida towns on opposite coasts by founding the Florida Railroad Company. The Fernandina Train Depot and Railroad Museum has the first public statue honoring him. His “Great Floridian” plaque hangs by City Hall and another commemorates his residence. The Archer Railroad Museum, the Amelia Island Museum of History and the Florida Railroad Museum all do their part for his legacy.

“Yulee Railroad Days” is a popular local celebration. The town of Yulee in Nassau County is named for him; Jacksonville and Tallahassee have Yulee Streets and the University of Florida has Yulee Hall. Then there are his “Old South” fans who applaud his support of the Confederacy.

David Levy Yulee’s early prominence disputes some historians’ claims that Jews didn’t live in Florida until after World War II. He was born in 1810 into a wealthy Moroccan-Jewish family in St. Thomas before coming to Florida as a teen. His father, Moses Elias Levy, amassed a fortune in the Caribbean timber industry. He came to Florida in 1820 to establish his life’s dream, The Pilgrimage Plantation. “It was to be an idyllic, Utopian settlement, but ultimately it didn’t succeed. It began in 1822 and ended in 1835 with the second outbreak of the Seminole War,” says Arnowitz. Levy is credited with reintroducing citrus to Florida, founding Micanopy and starting St. Augustine’s first public school.

The ambitious son had other plans.

He studied law under future Florida Territorial Governor Robert Reid (1839-1841) in St. Augustine and became a lawyer in 1832. “Yulee was a skilled, strong-willed attorney,” says Zerivitz. By 1838, he became a delegate to the State constitutional convention, then a clerk to the Territorial legislature in 1841. He served from 1841 to 1845 as the Florida territory’s Democratic delegate to Congress where some of his peers called him “that alien Jew from Florida.”

When David Levy married Nannie Wickliffe (daughter of former Kentucky Governor Charles A. Wickliffe) in 1846, he officially added Yulee to his name—the Sephardic name of his father. Zerivitz conjectures he might’ve done it to appease his wife because perhaps it sounded less Jewish. He didn’t drop Levy, which is why Levy County is also his namesake.

Statehood for Florida became Yulee’s top political agenda. He had a large role in drafting the state’s first constitution. When Florida joined the Union on March 3, 1845, Yulee became one of the state’s first U.S. Senators. He served until 1851, then again from 1855-1861.What a difference war makes, however. In 1861, “Mr. Statehood” now supported secession. Yulee resigned in January 1861, leading the Southern walkout.

Brash, outspoken and determined, “his inflammatory pro-slavery oratory in the US Senate earned him the nickname ‘Florida Fire Eater,’” says Zerivitz.
Personally and professionally, the Civil War devastated Yulee. In April 1864, Union forces destroyed Marguerita, his plantation that helped supply the Confederacy. The Yulee Sugar Mill ruins are now a State Historic Site.

The family fled to Cottonwood Plantation in Archer, but in May 1865 Union forces demolished it when they found “illegal” Confederate documents there. Yulee was charged with treason and spent nine months in prison at Fort Pulaski, Georgia. General Ulysses S. Grant intervened and he was pardoned in 1866. The Kirby-Smith United Daughters of the Confederacy erected a monument there in 1932.

From 1853-1866, Yulee was president and chief stockholder of the Florida Railroad Company that ran 156 miles from Fernandina to Cedar Key. The first to connect Florida’s East and West Coasts, it was the state’s longest rail system of its day. The tracks soon became the Union forces’ favorite target, though. Even the Confederate Army took pieces of its iron tracks to rebuild other supply lines.

Yulee was living in Fernandina in 1862 when Union forces attacked. He was making his escape by train when the USS Ottawa became the first warship to ever fire on a moving train. A shell fragment killed the man next to him, but Yulee escaped unharmed. Physically, at least.

Financially, he was shot. He sold his railroad’s majority share to a company that defaulted but later reorganized into other railroad lines. Yulee stayed as vice-president until he retired in 1881. He and his wife moved to Washington, D.C., and died a year apart, in 1885 and 1886.
Yulee is buried in D.C.’s Oak Hill Cemetery, but his legacy, and name, live on in Florida.