David Levy Yulee
By Lewis L. Zerfas

Portrait photo of David Levy Yulee

Perhaps no one had more of an impact on the early development of Florida’s railroads than David Levy Yulee. He was born on June 12, 1810, in St. Thomas, West Indies. David’s father, Moses Elias Levy, was a wealthy merchant. David’s parents divorced when he was quite young and he spent his early years with his mother, Hannah, in St. Thomas.

Drawn to Florida, Moses Levy purchased about 100,000 acres of land in the present day Alachua County. David eventually joined his older brother Elias in Florida and worked at his father’s Plantation. David experienced Florida and he became an avid hunter and fisherman. He continued his self education and eventually moved to Newnansville, the county seat of Alachua County, and served as Deputy Clerk.

David was drawn to the legal profession and moved to St. Augustine to study law and at the age of 22, David was admitted to the Florida Bar. He served in the territorial militia, and in 1834 he attended a conference of the great Seminole chiefs, including Osceola. His reputation brought him into the Florida Legislative Council in 1836, where he won a seat in the territorial senate.

David became a champion of U.S. statehood for Florida, and despite heavy opposition, Florida became a state in 1845. David was elected and became the first Jewish United States Senator. He married Nannie C. Wickliffe on April 7, 1846. Shortly before his marriage, David Levy added his grandfather’s name to his own and became David Levy Yulee. About this time he bought land near the mouth of the Homosassa River as the site for his home and established a sugar plantation nearby.

David Yulee was narrowly defeated in his bid for a second term in the Senate in 1850 and then set out to fulfill his life long dream of a cross-Florida railroad. In 1837, his plan called for a state-owned railroad, but by 1851 he decided to build it himself with land grants and money raised by the sale of stock.

Shortly after the end of the Civil War, David Yulee was taken into custody and charged with treason. He served 10 months in prison at Ft. Pulaski, Georgia. Through the intervention of General Ulysses S. Grant, he was released in May 1866.

Only two months after the completion of their mansion on Connecticut Avenue in Washington, DC., Yulee’s wife died suddenly on March 16, 1885. His motivation was gone. He later contracted a severe cold while visiting his grandchildren in Maine. On his return trip to Washington, he succumbed to pneumonia in New York on October 10, 1886.

© 2006 Lewis L. Zerfas
Reprinted with permission