William Dunnington Bioxham was born on a plantation in Leon County, Florida on July 9, 1835, to William and Martha (Williams) Bioxham. To manage George Washington’s plantation, his great-grandfather migrated from England and his grandfather endured adversity due to the War of 1812. In 1825, his father originally from Alexandria, Virginia moved to Leon County to run a plantation, becoming one of the few white settlers in the Native American dominated area. His father served in both Seminole Wars.
He attended county school in Florida until 13 at which time he was sent to a preparatory school in Virginia. The schools included Rappahannock Academy where one of his teachers was U. S. Senator William Mahone. After he graduated, he attended The College of William and Mary, where he acquired a law degree in 1855. After he was admitted to the Florida Bar, he chose not to practice due to health issues but rather traveled to Europe. When he returned, he became a farmer and in 1856 he married Mary C. Davis in her hometown of Lynchburg, Virginia.
During one of Florida’s most violent periods in 1870, Bioxham was at the center of a political firestorm. Violent Republican carpetbaggers were being resisted in Florida by groups like the Ku Klux Klan. On Election Day in 1870, at the request of Governor Harrison Reed, the most violent counties were inundated with federal troops. In the middle of the chaos of the day, constitutional convention member, William Capers Bird, pointed a handgun at African American state senator Robert Meacham on the courthouse steps in Monticello, warning, “No damned nigger shall vote here.”
At the end of the voting, Bioxham had won the race for Lieutenant Governor. In the nine largely Democratic counties, Republicans used the chaos as an excuse to reject the votes. He sought an injunction from the Florida Circuit Courts to prevent tainted results from being announced. The injunction was granted and later a grand jury indicted the judge. With the judge in jail, the Republican-led board of canvassers rejected enough of the ballots, and overturn turn his victory in favor of Republican Samuel T. Day.
To force a recount, Bioxham took the dispute to the Florida Supreme Court, filing a writ of mandamus on January 10, 1871. The Florida Attorney General disagreed with the recount, but the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court sided with Bioxham. To counter, the Republican legislators repealed the law which created the board of canvassers in the first place, which left the Supreme Court unable to compel the board to recount, when the board effectively ceased to exist. He filed a writ of quo warranto on February 20, 1871, challenging Day’s victory, but the case was not heard until November 15th. The Court finally ruled on June 1, 1872, that he had won the election in 1870, but he had missed every state session in the term and his term was effectively concluded. Sworn in on June 3rd, he was unable to perform any duties of the lieutenant governor other than to preside over the Senate, and consequently, his name is not on the list of Florida Lieutenant Governors. This ruling marked the first win for the Florida Democratic Party since the war.
Bioxham was nominated unanimously in the summer of 1872 by the Jacksonville Democratic Convention to run for Governor, with his running mate being Confederate General Robert Bullock. A severe storm on Election Day reduced the vote count and Bioxham was defeated by Republican Ossian B. Hart by 1,200 votes. He was later appointed as Secretary of State by Governor George Franklin Drew.
Nominated again in June 1880 to run for governor, he accepted and resigned as Secretary of State. On his second try, he won by over 5,000 votes and was inaugurated on January 4, 1881. He inherited a state debt of $1 million and a lawsuit that placed a lien on millions of acres of Florida land. In his first month as governor, he signed an agreement with Philadelphia industrialist and real estate developer, Hamilton Disston, whereby Disston would attempt to drain the Everglades and receive half of the land he reclaimed. On July 14, 1881, Bioxham traveled back to Philadelphia to make an even larger deal with Disston where he would purchase an additional four million acres for a million dollars. The purchase made international news and was larger than the state of Connecticut. Once Disston and a second buyer Sir Edward James Reed paid in full, the state was out of debt and the first land boom followed.
Fueled by the state’s Democrats, toward the end of his first term in 1844, there was a call for a revision to the Florida Constitution. Supporters of his predecessor, George Franklin Drew, criticized Bioxham for the Disston Land Purchase as well as a commitment to developing the Florida Panhandle at the expense of the rest of the state. After rallying around Confederate General Edward A. Perry and a call for a Constitutional Convention in 1884, Bioxham lost the Democratic nomination to Perry. Voters approved the convention which led to the 1885 Florida Constitution.
Appointed as Minister Resident and Consul General to Bolivia by President Grover Cleveland, on April 18, 1885, he took the office but declined to report for the post. In November 1885, he accepted the appointment to become the U. S. Surveyor General for Florida which he held until December 1889. On May 1, 1890, Governor Francis P. Fleming appointed him to the position of state comptroller. In August 1890 he was nominated for the position and won easily and was reelected in 1892.
Twelve years after leaving office, Bioxham again ran for governor and was victorious. During his second term, he reinstated and expanded the powers of the railroad commission, restricted monopolies, and created a statewide auditor to eliminate government fraud and waste. Fire insurance company regulation was initiated, and women served as public notaries for the first time.
Bioxham died on March 15, 1911, in Tallahassee. There was planned Bioxham County, Florida centered around Williston, Florida but was rejected by referendum in 1915.