Florida's first constitution has its roots in the Panhandle

Published: Jul. 26, 2018 at 9:06 PM CDT
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Port St. Joe residents understand the city’s historical significance.

"[Residents are] pretty proud of that. In fact, you'll notice as you enter the city of Port St. Joe, they claim to be the Constitution City," said Florida State Park Ranger Joanna Lindsey, who manages the Constitution Convention State Museum in town.

A monument sits on the exact spot 56 delegates from the territory of Florida gathered to create its first constitution.

“[The] focus was pretty much on the Constitutional Convention,” said Lindsey.

The year was 1838. The city of St. Joseph was a bustling port town.

"It was quite a boom town," said Lindsey. "In fact, it was the most populous city in the territory in Florida in the early 1800s, so it's hard to imagine, but there were actually more people in the old city of St. Joseph than there is in the current city of Port St. Joe today."

Two hurricanes, a wildfire, and yellow fever virtually wiped St. Joseph out not too long after the convention took place.

“The city itself was pretty short-lived, otherwise it would have probably become the state capital,” said Lindsey.

A museum sits just feet away from where the Constitutional Convention took place. It opened in 1956.

"Even Florida residents really have no idea what took place here," said Lindsey.

Inside you’ll find artifacts about Florida's road to statehood. The constitution paved the way for it to become the union’s 27th state a little more than six years later.

Lifelike figures reenact the debate that took place prior to the signing. Of the 56 delegates, 51 came from northern Florida.

“From what would be about the Gainesville area now all the way down to Key West, out of 56 delegates, there were only five delegates to represent that whole area,” said Lindsey.

Delegates like John L. McKinnon from Walton County or Thomas Levan Baltzell of Jackson County, who would later become the state’s first supreme court justice. Or William Pope Duval of Calhoun County. He was the territory’s first civilian governor and the one who chose Tallahassee as the state capital.

"[It was a] pretty significant event," said Lindsey.

Thirty-nine days later, the delegates ratified the constitution. Unfortunately, no one knows what happened to that original copy.

"A lot of people, and of course when they visit here, they expect to see the actual signed constitution for Florida or Florida's first," said Lindsey. "Nobody actually knows the location of the signed document.”

Lindsey hasn’t given up hope it’ll be found one day.

"Check in your attic when you're cleaning out the lint filter on your dryer looking for the lost socks, you just might find Florida's first constitution, so let me know," said Lindsey as she laughed.

The original document may be lost forever, but the significance behind it will live forever.

The original secretary’s copy of the first constitution sits in the archives in Tallahassee.

The Constitution Convention State Museum is open Thursday through Monday from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m.