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Miami History - How Dade County, FL Got Its Name

May 05, 2007 By Matt Meltzer in Miscellaneous  | 5 Comments

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A lot of locals like to use the words “Miami” and “Dade” interchangeably when they reference our particular corner of South Florida. Granted, Ft. Lauderdale and Broward County are considered part of the greater Miami area, but as anyone from Miami knows Broward may as well be in an entirely different universe given its vast differences. And ask any local street rapper where they reside, and nearly all will answer with a defiantly proud, “Dade County.” Usually followed by some sort of oscenity.

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While the county name was officially changed in “Miami-Dade” in 1997, most still simply refer to it as “Dade.” There is a certain connotation that goes along with this particular four-letter word. A connotation of decrepit jails, ruthless ghettos and corrupt government, of hard living and hard drugs and even harder people. What Dade means to most locals is what this city really is, as opposed to what the Travel Channel makes it out to be.  “Miami” is the fantasy. Dade is the reality.

Major Francis L Dade: The Namesake of Dade County, FL

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But who exactly is “Dade?” Who is this person whose name we invoke every time we show our civic pride? Was he a great explorer like DeSoto or Leon? Was he a great military leader like Lee or Washington or Jackson? Or maybe just a furry aquatic mammal like Manatee? No, no, it seems that whoever named our fair county had some sort of Nostradamus-esque ability to see what kind of place Dade County would become. Because, as it turns out, we are named after a guy who was one colossal screw-up.

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Major Francis L Dade, of Virginia was put in charge of a small force of 107 men and instructed to march them a short distance from what is now Tampa to Fort King near Ocala on December 28, 1835. It seems that Major Dade, while certainly an effective military leader, was not so much a fan of strategic planning. Dade received informaiton about the location of some Seminole Indians in the area, but somehow he misunderstood it and went the wrong way. And got lost. And not unlike so many German tourists trying to find their way from the airport to South Beach who end up in Opa-Locka, he paid for it with his life.

Why Men Dont Ask for Directions

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Apparently Dade received the 1835 equivalent of a bad rental car map and began wandering aimlessly along what is now I-4 in search of Fort King. And since someone had told him, most likely in broken English, that the Seminoles had already been evacuated from this area and were well along the Trail of Tears to Oklahoma, he continued through the shrubs and palmettos on his way to Ocala. Unfortunately for Major Dade and his 107 men, he was not so fluent in Seminole. Somehow he misunderstood “Taken out of this land” for “Lying in wait to massacre your entire platoon.” Kind of like misunderstanding “Turn left and get on 826 West” for “Turn Right and go to Carol City.”

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It was a frigid 62 degrees that winter day, so the Floridians were understandably on the verge of frostbite. Or were just excited that they had an excuse to bust out their “cold-weather” clothes for a couple of days. As such, their inability to adapt to the cold and decision to promote form over function left them with their muskets tucked inside their seldom used “winter” coats. This would later prove mortally costly.

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As Major Dade proceeded to get horrifically lost, his platoon was, predictably, jacked by a bunch of vicious, angry locals with guns. Dade was the first to go, and as soon as he was hit most of his men feverishly attempted to retrieve their weapons from under their winter cots. Never having worn a jacket in their lives, the Floridians were slow on the draw and unable to unsheathe their muskets before they too fell victim to Florida’s first recorded car jacking. By the end of the battle only three men remained and one poor guy had to crawl all the way back to Tampa after his leg had been blown off. On a summer weekend he would typically have beaten most modern-day drivers.

Reenacting the Dade Massacre

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This event is historically known as the “Dade Massacre,” much to the chagrin of many cocaine kingpins who years later would try to use the phrase only to find that it had been taken 150 years earlier. For those interested,  a reenactment of the battle takes place every year on the weekend closest to the actual date of the event. The Massacre was the catalyst to the second Seminole Indian war, which still persists today as the Seminoles routinely massacre unsuspecting palefaces traveling Florida’s Turnpike, luring them in with Hard Rock music memorabilia, and then taking their money with mysterious “games of chance.”

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Today you can go and visit the first colossal planning error in Dade history at the historic Dade Battlefield located nowhere near Dade County. It is somewhere up in Canada, or as some call it North Florida, near the more-geographically-appropriately named Dade City. There are also Dade counties in Georgia and Missouri, neither of which feature beaches, cocaine or massive confusion around every corner\. Which makes one wonder why they have such an irrelevant namesake. No matter, Miamians know that there is only one true Dade County, the one that Major Francis envisioned when he got bad directions, failed to plan, and got killed by unscrupulous natives. Yes, no doubt up there, somewhere, Francis Langhorne Dade is looking down and smiling and his namesake. I’ll bet you he even speaks Spanish in heaven.

Related Categories: Miscellaneous,

About the Author: Matt Meltzer is a featured columnist at Miami Beach 411.

See more articles by Matt Meltzer.

See more articles by Matt Meltzer

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5 Comments on

"Miami History - How Dade County, FL Got Its Name"

South Florida Realtor says:

Good article! The county commissioners renamed the Dade County Courthouse in 2002 to the Major Francis Langhorne Dade County Courthouse. The Board said “that Major Francis Langhorne Dade is a person who made a significant contribution to Miami-Dade County”.

Posted on 05/16/2007 at 11:06 AM

Reenactor says:

You should have read a little more into this topic before putting it out there. Even though you are correct about certain things you are way off on many. Dade did not get “lost”; he did not “go the wrong way.” The Fort King Road was a often traveled military road and the primary route from Ft. Brooke (Tampa) to Ft. King (Ocala). Dade new there were hostile Seminoles still in Florida, this was known due to the meeting held between Indian Agent Wiley Thompson and many Seminole Chiefs who indicated they had no intention of leaving. (O by the way the Trail of Tears has nothing to do with the Seminoles it’s name given the removal of the Cherokee Indians from Georgia in 1838… after Dade’s Massacre!) This was the reason why Dade and his men were on there way to Ocala, to reinforce Ft King. This was also the reason Dade(“Not a fan of strategic planning”) had his men cut down trees and construct breastworks for protection every night they spent on the Fort King Road during there 100 mile march. (Which started on Dec 23..) Dade did however make one mistake; he did develop a false sense of security. On the first half of there journey they had to cross three rivers (the Hillsborough, Big and Little Manatee Rivers) Dade strongly believed that if they were to be attacked that is where it would be. He was not far off, this was part of the Seminole’s original plan however the attack was slowed because Chief Micanopy was waiting for Chief Osceola, who was near Ocala preparing to gun down Indian Agent Wiley Thompson, to join the force. Since an attack never came Dade lowered his guard. He pulled in his flankers (soldiers that fan out to the left and right of the marching column that would have forced out any Seminoles hiding in the palmettos) and allowed for his men to place there overcoats over there cartridge boxes (holds there ammo) not there muskets!!! On the morning of December 28 the Micanopy decided that it was time to attack and he could no longer wait for Osceola. The opening volley from the Seminoles killed Dade and killed or wounded nearly half of his command. The battle raged on until the Seminoles retreated back into the swamp feeling that their point was made. However to there surprise the soldiers did not retreat back to Tampa but rather cut down trees and formed breastworks and dug in!! Micanopy and his men returned to the battlefield and fought until only cries and moans came from the breastworks. Three men did survive the battle, one continued to Ft. King and made it the, other two made their way back to Ft Brooke (all of them had both of their legs!!!) however only one of them made it. On their way back to Tampa they crossed paths with a Seminole on horseback, the two split only Ransom Clark made it to Ft Brooke with a shot to the head, groin, and a bullet in his right lung and he suffered from a broken right arm and shoulder joint. As for the rest of the soldiers they lied in the sun until February until the next detachment made the journey from Tampa to Ocala. The bodies were interred on the battlefield and were later moved to St Augustine where they still are today.  In any case these are the correct facts that surround how Dade County got his name. I find it outrageous that someone would call him a “colossal screw-up.” This man was a solider in the United States Army who died for country. I find it be an honor to reside in the county named for him and an honor to participate in the reenactment of Dade’s Massacre every year located in Bushnell Fl. (Not Dade City) There many articles and two books written by Frank Laumer “Massacre” and “Dade’s Last command” try reading them or even better yet come up to the reenactment, you might learn something.

Posted on 12/02/2007 at 10:01 PM

Reenactor says:

The more I read your article the dumber you sound!!! I-4 goes from the area Tampa to Orlando not Ocala… A more appropriate comparison would be HWY 301 which more closely follows what was then the Ft King Rd… And Dade’s command was not comprised of native Floridians; all the soldiers enlisted in the army in the north and were stationed in Florida. Meaning they all have experienced cold winters and not strangers to wearing heavy winter coats. Either you really that dumb or you twisted the truth so to fit your prejudice point of views against Germans, Spanish speakers and rappers. Obviously your motivation wasn’t to educate people on how Dade County got its name but to belittle rappers and musicians that use the name Dade in their music. I understand the reasoning, discredit Dade and the rappers are idiots. Turns out the only idiot here is you!!!  Guess you thought no one would call you out on it!!!

Posted on 12/23/2007 at 7:52 PM

Cornan The Iowan says:

I found this article while verifying that the name “Dade County” had been in fact changed to the mush-mouthed and confusing “Miami-Dade County”, referred to only as an aside in this article as having happened in 1997.

I’d like to know more about that decision; for me the new name is like oatmeal mixed with school paste (though I like oatmeal).

There is some interesting information in the article but can’t say I’d pass it on to anybody due to the negative tone.

Posted on 04/14/2009 at 6:44 AM

unight says:

joke story

Posted on 07/31/2014 at 12:09 PM

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