Born on April 19, 1857, to Napoleon Bonaparte Broward, Sr. and Mary Dorcas Parsons Broward in rural Duval County, Florida. His parents were American, but he had French heritage from his paternal line. He spent his childhood on a series for family farms along the St. Johns River and Jacksonville. During the Civil War, the family’s original farm was burned by Union troops who occupied the town.
Napoleon’s parents never really recovered from the war and they both died when he was twelve years old. An older brother tended to the family farm for a few years before they moved to the city with their uncle.
Broward’s first job was on his uncle’s steamboat during the summer doing odd jobs. Graduating high school in 1876, he became a ship’s mate and traveled to New England. Spending the next two years in New England, he worked on ships along the coast.
In 1878, he returned to Jacksonville and took a job working tugboats on the St. Johns River and got to know many of the captains and how the shipping operations worked.
After he married his captain’s daughter Georgiana Carolina “Carrie” Kemp in January of 1883, the following spring, he applied for a license to pilot ships over the St. Johns Bar. The constantly shifting sandbar that stretched across the mouth of St. Johns River is sometimes above water and sometimes below water. Not only was piloting a ship over the sandbar treacherous it was also quite lucrative.
Life was going well for Broward until his wife died in childbirth in December and followed by the death of their infant son a few days later. He again traveled north and withdrew from the river for a while.
While piloting his father-in-law’s steamboat Kate Spencer in 1885, he met one of the frequent passenger’s Annie Isabell Douglass and they were married in 1887. They would have nine children together.
The beginning of his political life
After a major prison break in January 1888, the disgraced city sheriff was removed from the office. Leadership from the Democratic party got together to nominate a new sheriff, with his well-established reputation as a good pilot and captain, it was quickly settled that Broward was the man for the job. At the end of February, the governor appointed him to the position. Broward went on to gain statewide notoriety by breaking up gambling operations in the city.
In the early 1890s, Florida’s Democratic Party was having some internal rumblings, and Broward was being more active in city politics. Soon to camps for in the party, the Antis who were conservative and pro-business, and the Straightouts who allied with populists and agrarians. Broward joined the Straightouts camp. During this period in the South, Populists sometimes formed biracial alliances with Republicans and won numerous states. This left the Democratic Party struggling to regain power in state legislatures.
Under his leadership, the Straightouts swept the city offices and two of his friends John N. C. Stockton and John M. Barrs became city attorney and councilman respectively. Broward was reelected, sheriff. The power struggle continued between the two groups with each accusing each other of voter fraud. After complaining to the secretary of state and governor, the Antis sympathizers held most of the state office, and eventually, they won out. Once the Antis regained power in the city Broward was replaced.
The Three Friends and Cuba
His brother and an associate began building a new steamboat in 1895 called The Three Friends located on Fort George Island. While they were constructing the boat, Cuban insurgents began fighting for independence from Spain. Broward was approached by a prominent member of the Jacksonville Cuban community about shipping a load of munitions. They also were looking to ship some expatriates from Nassau to Cuba. The brothers agreed and in January 1896, The Three Friends shipped out of Jacksonville on her maiden voyage bound for Cuba.
Continuing his military filibustering operation, once William McKinley declared war on Spain, Broward was nearly caught several times and destroyed by Spanish gunboats. The Spanish ambassador to the United States knew of Broward’s identity and demanded that he be stopped. While the U. S. authorities tried to catch him, he continued to elude them by loading The Three Friends under the cover of darkness and in secluded locations. After picking up Cubans and munitions from other ships at various points near the mouth of the river, he would hide her behind the larger ships as she left the St. Johns. He was never captured.
Returning to politics
Busy with his filibustering operations, when the Straightouts offered to nominate him for sheriff, he declined. When the war ended in 1900, his filibustering days were over.
Elected without almost no opposition, Broward was elected to the State House. Supporting many progressive initiatives, one being the state dispensary bill and another a law allowing insanity as grounds for divorce. This was at the request of powerful developer Henry Flagler. The Primary Election law is considered one of the most important laws he supported.
Broward was considered a supporter of the “common man,” and he naturally opposed the party nominating system in the state which in the Democratic Party was controlled by a small clique and headed by Flagler. By this time, Florida had disfranchised most blacks and was essentially a one-party state. He was smart enough to sponsor Flagler’s requested divorce bill, but he still wanted to wrestle some power away from him.
Road to becoming Florida’s 19th Governor
By 1902, Broward was in the Keys with a salvage operation and did not run for the House again. Having been approached numerous times, in 1903, he decided to run for governor. Besides, the party was hard-pressed to find another liberal candidate.
Frequently finding himself in debt for one reason or another, and never wealthy, and the liberal side of the party not having great financial backing, while the conservative forces controlled most of the money and newspaper said of his chances:
“I don’t intend to go after the cities. Their newspapers are against me and they don’t take me seriously. But I’m going to stump every crossroad village between Fernandina and Pensacola and talk to the farmers and the crackers and show them their top ends were meant to be used for something better than hat racks. I’m going to make ‘em sit up and think. They won’t mind mistakes in grammar if they find I’m talking horse sense.”
His strongest opponent was the Flagler candidate, Robert W. Davis. There were two other candidates, but they present smaller threats. Davis and the city newspapers labeled Broward as a liberal whose time had passed, and he was an idiot.
The primary issue of the campaign was the drainage of the Everglades. He came out strongly in favor of it and called the ground “the fabulous muck.” Always carrying an elevation map of the various parts of the Everglades, when he found he was losing an argument, he would point to his map and say, “Water will run downhill.”
Even though Davis continued to hit Broward with, “Mr. Broward is a man of but little ability and no intellectual brilliance whatever!”, on election day, Broward’s rural voters gave him the primary victory by 600 votes out of 45,000 casts. With an uneventful general election weeks later, Broward was inaugurated on January 3, 1905.
Considering it a useless swamp, Broward pushed on with his program to drain the Everglades. At the time, people did not understand its ecology or relationship to the water table and habitat. Even one of his most ardent opponents, John Beard, was eventually convinced that the land was fertile, and the drainage was working.
Gaining national attention with his project, Broward brought President Teddy Roosevelt down and took him on a trip through the Glades. Roosevelt soon became an important advocate for the program.
Another issue tackled by Broward was the state universities. People appointed to assessed them felt they offered not much more beyond the high school level. A bill he guided through the legislature closed some schools and set up a commission to determine where the remaining schools should be located. At the time, the major state university was in Lake City, eventually, the commission selected Gainesville as the new site for the flagship state university. Residents from both areas complained that the commission had been bought off.
Broward attempted to provide life insurance for all residents of Florida with a bill he introduced in 1907, but the legislature voted that down with little debate. He also supported measures to create a textbook commission, reform the state’s hospital system, regulate the accounting profession, and make the state’s Railroad Commission permanent.
After the governorship
With his national nontertiary from the Everglades project and his earlier filibustering, Broward’s name being batted around as a potential candidate for the vice presidency. The 1908 Democratic National Convention was in Denver, and Broward was attending it. When he arrived, banners greeted him with, “Bryan, Broward, and Bread.” Newspaper editorials spoke favorably of him, but the Presidential nominee, William Jennings Bryan wanted a Midwesterner instead of a Southerner.
When James Taliaferro’s Senate seat was up for reelection in 1910, Broward entered the race against him. The first primary campaign was expected to be a showdown between the two, instead, it was a bore. Newspapers removed it from the front page of their papers in favor of Halley’s Comet. For the second primary campaign, Broward stumped and traveled throughout the state. After an exciting election-eve rally where the Broward supporters got carried away, Taliaferro left in disgust. Broward pulled out the victory.
Broward was exhausted by the campaign and retired with his family to the beach at Fort George. For months there had been a concern about his health, and in late September he took ill with gallstones. While in the hospital awaiting surgery, he died on October 1, 1910.
The Florida Times-Union wrote,
“Today there are thousands who, like the ‘Times-Union’ always opposed the big man so recently crowned with laurel and now clothed in a shroud, who see so clearly the qualities that all admired, that past differences refuse to intrude, and the opponent craves a place among the mourners.”
The photograph is in the public domain.