by Mike Walker
Rome wasn’t built in a day nor was the South. This is especially important to remember when thinking of Florida’s history. Florida was of course not one of the original thirteen colonies and thus not one of the original states of the union. Unlike Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia, Florida came under American control later in its already long life as a Spanish colony, and it came to the United States as a territory. Whether it would become a state one day or not was at first unclear—this was a time when much of what is known today as the United States still included territories, and the system for their oversight was considerably different from that for states, yet movements were underway to be more inclusive of the territories. This was clearly an exciting time for the young nation.
David Levy was born on Saint Thomas in what were then the Danish West Indies, in the age of great sugar plantations and Caribbean trade and intrigue. Levy’s family was wealthy, having made a fortune in the lumber business, seeing a gap in the supply for the needs of these plantations and other businesses springing up in the growing local economy. Levy’s family also was Jewish and Jews of Moroccan descent at that.
When you think of Jewish stereotypes—whether flattering or negative—of rich Jewish merchants of Europe controlling trade and finance behind the scenes, the Levy family was actually about as close as possible to that vast and often inaccurate impression. David grew up in a world where anything was possible, where his family wasn’t just affluent but very well-connected, and the Florida frontier to their north was a quickly-expanding yet largely rustic land on the edge of the great American experiment.
His father, Moses Levy, moved the family to Florida, buying over 50,000 acres near Jacksonville for them and to hopefully settle European Jewish immigrants. As Saint Thomas was still under the Danish crown, its government still functioned as a European one, and Moses saw the United States with its lack of kings and ancient ways of polity as a fresh start and a welcoming one for the Jewish people. Florida, as a new and untamed part of this young nation seemed even more a land of everything possible. David was sent to a boys’ school in Virginia for his schooling and thus garnered about as good an education as possible at the time, then as a young man read law in Saint Augustine and was admitted to the bar there.
However, there were some problems to be addressed before Florida’s growth could take off beyond a scattering of homesteads running cattle in the pine scrub. For one, Florida lacked both developed inland waterways and railroads, and its roadway infrastructure was rather poor as well. For another, Native American tribes still held important portions of the territory and were marginal in their willingness to come to peace settlements with the white man.
As early as 1837 he dreamed of a cross-Florida rail system to connect the state and ensure better trade routes. He desired to establish a sugar plantation of his own, knowing from his upbringing how much wealth such ventures could garner, but he also realized the best land for such a plantation was around what is now Citrus County on the Gulf Coast (he would in the early 1850’s establish his sugar plantation along the Homosassa River), which was not easily reached from Jacksonville or Saint Augustine. Building railroads, Levy reasoned, would be more economical and useful to state-wide enterprise than building better ports at outposts such as Crystal River or elsewhere on the Gulf Coast north of Tampa. In addition, David Levy and his family wished to stay in the Jacksonville area themselves and not live in the mosquito-infested backwaters.
Once again, Florida was very rustic at the time and differed dramatically from the conditions in New England or places like the West Indies. In colonial times in the century prior, British planters in South Carolina bemoaned the awful insects and snakes of the swamps where they built their rice plantations, but despite those horrors they actually were not located too far from Charleston and could reach civilization via horse with ease. In contrast, a horseback journey from the Homosassa River region to Jacksonville would take a considerable amount of time: even today, driving the distance would be at least three hours, probably closer to four. Levy understood that while Florida had a climate similar to that of the West Indies and could grow many of the same crops, it lacked the short travel time to port you’d find on smaller islands. Something needed to be done about that, and the railroad was the logical answer.
Levy’s real goal wasn’t railroads for their own sake, of course, but to transport goods, to open up Florida for expansion and a better economy. To that end, Levy ran for and was elected as a delegate to the US House of Representatives for Florida Territory in 1841 where he lobbied for Florida’s statehood and also for Federal benefits in the form of grants and bonds to support infrastructure—mainly railroads—in Florida. Territorial delegates, though elected, do not have voting powers in the House, but they were voices and advocates for their territories and added a much-needed presence for these remote regions in Washington. When Florida was granted statehood, Levy was elected its first senator to represent the state in 1845. He also was the first person to utilize Federal grants in Florida for a public improvement project—namely his railroads. By today’s standards of ethics, Levy’s involvement as a politician coupled with his business ventures that profited directly from what he was accomplishing in politics would seem a huge conflict of interests, but at the time he was seen as a man eager and able to manifest grand changes for the young state of Florida and was honored as such.
Levy is often known in Florida to this day both as “David Levy” and as “David Levy Yulee,” with the latter name being a Berber family surname which Levy adopted when he married in 1846. His wife was Christian and the daughter of a former governor of Kentucky and they raised their children in the Christian faith. While “Yulee” is certainly an exotic name, it’s speculated the change of name in part was to please his wife’s family as “Levy” was a common Jewish name and associated with Jews while “Yulee” may not have held such an association. Levy in any case was the first Jew to be elected to the US Senate and was very aware that he was an outlier and trailblazer for his faith and heritage, doing things no one of Jewish origins had previously accomplished in America. Levy County, which is the county that includes Cedar Key and was opened up greatly to settlement by Levy’s Florida Railroad, bears David Levy’s name while the town of Yulee west of Fernandina Beach is also named after him.
While Levy was a pioneer in many regards, not only as one of the first Jewish men to accomplish many great things in politics and business in Florida and indeed in the entire nation, but also in his vision of building a comprehensive rail system basically out of nothing and using Federal funds to do so at the apex of the States’ Rights movement, not all of his views were ones we would consider as progressive today. He was one of the most vocal advocates of slave labor as an economic system, and his sugar plantation was built and run by his slaves. Levy’s stirring speeches as a senator often concerned the crucial benefits of slavery for Florida and the entire South, and at the end of the Civil War Levy was captured by Union forces and imprisoned for nine months at Fort Pulaski near Savannah, Georgia, despite not having actually served in any capacity in the Confederate government. In part, this was due to his support of slavery and being a leading slave-holder but also because of his personal wealth and influence in politics. It was men like Levy whom the Union wanted to have on watch as the South pulled itself back together after the War. When released from prison, Levy focused on his business enterprises but eventually lived in New York City, and that is where he died, as well.
David Levy Yulee’s legacy, though mixed, is overall one of the greatest of Floridians. He had vision at a time when Florida was going through immense changes, and unique vision at that. Levy saw what was possible in Florida, how the railroad could change life for everyone from wealthy business leaders like himself to the poorest of farmers would now have the means to send their goods to far-off markets. He saw the ability of Florida to provide for expansion and what it could offer in terms of new plantations and enterprise. Not everyone thought so when it was just a territory, but Levy believed Florida could become a valid state, and he carried that promise forward, helping to build the Florida we have today.