A seaside idyll on Floria’s southern coast, Fort Pierce most likely conjures images of manatees floating in rivers, beach goers suntanning on the sand, and tropical cocktails sipped near glorious sunsets. But beyond the wonders Fort Pierce has to offer in the present day remain layers of fascinating history. 

From its origins as a small settlement through its important role in the artistic community of the era, there is certainly a lot to learn about this hidden gem on the Treasure Coast. 

Today, Fort Pierce is also known as the Sunrise City. But when it first began, Fort Pierce was no city at all. Before it was incorporated, the area that is now known as Fort Pierce was a ragtag settlement occupied by pioneers. When it was officially incorporated in 1901, Fort Pierce was home to a mere 300 residents. Now Fort Pierce, one of the oldest cities in Florida, is home to more than 45,000 residents- it has certainly grown a lot in the last one hundred and twenty years! In this article, we will take a look at different aspects of the history of Fort Pierce, from its beginnings through to the present day.

 The Early Days of Fort Pierce

Modern day Fort Pierce is located along the ‘Treasure Coast’ of Florida. This area is named after a famous Spanish treasure fleet of ten ships that sank along the coast here in July of 1715. 

As early as 1565, Spanish explorers roamed throughout the region that now makes up Southern Florida. One such explorer, Pedro Menendez, founded a fort on an Indian River Lagoon in Florida. He called it Santa Lucia- later this became the name of the Floridian county, St. Lucie. And it is St. Lucie where Fort Pierce is located. 

The city was first established as a US Army military base. The Army created the base in 1838 and intended for it to be a major supply depot during the Second Seminole War. (If you have ever seen the classic film Seminole, starring Rock Hudson, then you have learned about this war. Look for screenings of the film on cable TV to learn more.) The fort was named after its very first commander, Benjamin Pierce. Commander Pierce was the brother of the 14th United States President, Franklin Pierce

By the end of the Second Seminole War in 1842 Fort Pierce was all but abandoned. In fact, the following year, in 1843, the fort itself burned down, ending the first chapter of its history. 


Fort Pierce in the 1920’s

Official Incorporation And A Time Of Growth

About fifteen years after the end of the Second Seminole War, in 1901, the small village of Fort Pierce was officially incorporated. The town was not much more than a local general store surrounded by a few houses, home to a mere 300 inhabitants. But that would change soon enough. 

In 1915, a railroad magnate named Henry Flagler brought train connectivity to the tiny town and prosperity followed. Soon there were more residents and visitors from afar. New schools and buildings were erected to accommodate the town’s growing population. The first steam locomotive to reach Fort Pierce also brought with it a new trade: soon Fort Pierce was in the import business, importing pineapples from Cuba. This booming business unfortunately declined due to frequent crop diseases and regular freezes that harmed the tropical fruit. So the pineapple industry was replaced as citrus and cattle became prevalent industries.  

In the 1920’s, Fort Pierce prospered during the Land Boom. Many of the historically significant buildings that have been preserved in Fort Pierce date from this era, when the town was transformed into a beachside paradise with clear Mediterranean influences on design and style. 

From 1943 to 1945, during World War II, the city returned to its military origins. Pierce Beach was developed as a training base for the Navy. There, Navy trainees prepared for combat. At the time, they were called UDT. Today we would refer to those Navy trainees as Navy SEALs. The National Navy SEAL Museum in Fort Pierce reveals a lot about this history. 

A Time of Decline and New Beginnings

In the two decades following World War II, Fort Pierce benefitted from a time of increased urban development. But after twenty years of growth, the city began to gradually decline. Older buildings and neighborhoods had begun to show signs of neglect that worsened over the next decades, through the end of the 1980’s. But starting in 1994, new public buildings and restoration projects began to take off, once again beautifying and enlivening the cityscape. 

Fort Pierce is also home to some legendary figures of art and culture. Writer Zora Neale Hurston, the “Queen of the Harlem Renaissance” and author of the critically acclaimed novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, lived out the last years of her life here in Fort Pierce. 

Fort Pierce was also home to the Highwaymen, a legendary group of 26 African American landscape artists whose collective of individual works of art speak to their determination, talent, and triumph over adversity. The Highwaymen, or the Florida Highwaymen, as they are sometimes known, were mostly self taught artists working during the late Jim Crow-era. They managed to achieve critical public success in spite of the barriers and difficulties imposed upon people of color in the South at that time period. Their legacy is honored today by the Highwaymen Heritage Trail in Fort Pierce. 

The Sunrise City

Fort Pierce has evolved a lot since its early days over 100 years ago. Today, visitors and residents alike can enjoy picturesque sandy beaches alongside the charming main streets of Fort Pierce, that retain some of that small town feeling. 

Fort Pierce offers elegantly preserved buildings from the 1910s, 1920s, and beyond, and a rich and varied mixture of museums, educational institutions, and cultural landmarks. Truly a hidden gem of the Treasure Coast, Fort Pierce has survived and thrived throughout history, redefining itself and emerging anew time and time again.

  • St. Lucie County Regional History Museum
  • St. Lucie County Reginal center

Writers credit Anthony Moretti

Anthony Moretti is a history buff who loves nothing more than to learn about the unexpected ways places have evolved. He often shares his extensive historical research with his favorite companion: his beloved cocker spaniel, Thomas Jefferson. 

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Plythe Freedman holds a MA in Youth Ministry from Columbia Theological Seminary. She is a mother of two. Her passion for small businesses and her community has been displayed through her many hours of volunteering and meeting with city officials to assist in promoting Fort Pierce. She is also a former board member of Grace Way Village, a non profit organization that helps clothe and feed disadvantaged children. She is a former member of the Chamber of Commerce and a former Royal Palms member. She served on the RDC advisory board at Suncoast Mental Health Center. And She was appointed by a City Commissioner to serve on the CRA Advisory Committee as the chair. She worked with Frontline For Kids as their public relations specialist and had her own column in the Lincoln Park Main Street Showcase. Plythe's goal is to promote Fort Pierce as a destination for families to visit, live, work and play.

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