Local Obituaries

Eminent Florida history professor Michael Gannon dies at 89

Michael Gannon
Michael Gannon AP File/1996

Michael Gannon, a University of Florida history professor and expert on the state's Spanish period, has died. He was 89.

The university said Gannon died peacefully in his sleep on Monday night. No cause of death was released.

“It’s hard to say where to start with Mike’s involvement with the university. It just seems like he was involved with so many things,” UF historian Carl Van Ness told the Gainesville Sun. “He was funny and had a great sense of humor — very outgoing. He had a beautiful, beautiful voice.”

And that voice also was a soothing one.

The former priest was a key figuring in soothing emotions on campus after two major historic events: the 1970 shootings of student anti-war protesters at Kent State University by Ohio National Guard and the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks.

Gannon also was an expert on Florida history from its Spanish founding through the U.S. Civil War.

Gannon is also credited with research that contends that the first Thanksgiving occurred in St. Augustine in 1565 between Spaniards and Timucuan native Americans.

According to the St. Augustine Record, he was protective of the city’s 1565 founding, offering this quote: : “By the time Jamestown was founded in 1607 and Plymouth in 1620, St. Augustine was up for urban renewal.”

“I looked over at the cross at the mission and I reflected on Dr. Gannon and his impact on some lives and our community,” St. Augustine City Manager John Regan told the newspaper. “Not only was he our foremost historian but he was such a kind person and a mentor to so many people. “He was a giant of a man that you can see his impact in the symbolism of the Great Cross.”

Gannon, who was born in Oklahoma and moved to St. Augustine in 1941, received his doctorate in history from UF.

He is survived by his wife, Genevieve Haugen.

Here is a look back in the Miami Herald archives in 1996, when a Florida history book edited by Gannon was published:

A major new history of Florida has just been published, the first in 25 years, and this one gives the common folk a break.

The New History of Florida, a 480-page book written by 22 leading scholars and edited by University of Florida history Professor Michael Gannon, makes many corrections in the understanding of Florida's past 10,000 years.

From musty, 450-year-old documents in archives in Spain to layers of dirt preserving the record of the American Indians who lived here before Europeans came, the experts have uncovered thousands of new facts.

They know now that Pedro Menendez de Aviles, founder of St. Augustine, came primarily to establish the New World's first agribusiness empire, and kicking the French out of Florida was secondary.

The Spanish got to Florida first. But 50 years later, the French horned in, setting up a major colony, Fort Caroline, at the mouth of the St. Johns River north of Jacksonville. Historians have long assumed that removing the French was Menendez's mission to Florida.

But deep in the Archives of the Indies in Seville, Spain, Flagler College's Eugene Lyon discovered that Menendez came primarily as a speculator in Florida agriculture, forestry and shipbuilding. Menendez and King Philip II of Spain signed the contract before they had a clue the French were already here. Menendez founded St. Augustine, fended off a French attack, captured Fort Caroline and got on with his business of trying to make a fortune in Florida.

And Lyon also found out a lot about regular Joes, like Alonso de Olmos. Olmos, a simple tailor who sewed the suits of cotton armor that Menendez's soldiers wore, now shows up in history alongside Menendez, Hernando de Soto and other luminaries of Spanish conquest.

Who knows? Without tailoring by Olmos, St. Augustine might have been just another failed European settlement on the Atlantic coast instead of the oldest permanent city in North America, Gannon said.

The New History of Floridareflects the explosion of Florida historical research made by the buildup of history departments at state universities, Gannon said. Faculty at eight state universities are among the authors.

The University Press of Florida published The New History of Florida to celebrate the 150th anniversary of statehood.

The big events have always been the outline of Florida history are there: conquest, statehood, the Civil War, railroads, the land boom of the 1920s, the military buildup of World War II, the influx of Northern retirees, the rise of tourism, the Cuban exodus to South Florida, moon shots from Cape Canaveral.

More recent big developments are added, like the coming of Disney, the continuing transformation of Florida by immigration from Latin American and the Caribbean, Hurricane Andrew, and the fight to save the Everglades.

But the book is as much about the churnings of American society during the past 25 years as it is about the long ago. Keepers of Florida's past have put it through the wringer of a democratizing movement called "social history."

Traditional history focuses on the documents left behind by people who had authority or power. Occasionally, something jolts historians into recognizing that the people who cut the deals and leave paper trails behind -- the kings, governors, business magnates -- are not the only actors in history, said Duke University Professor Larry Goodwyn, an expert on social history.

The civil rights movement shocked historians into the current social history mode, Goodwyn said. When blacks took to the streets three decades ago and chanted "I Am Somebody, " scholars -- particularly graduate and undergraduate students -- recognized traditional history was not telling the story of a lot of Americans.

They set out to document the lives of the little guys who previously only showed up on the receiving end of actions by governors and magnates, Goodwyn said. Their work has been increasingly significant in histories of the past 15 years.

In The New History of Florida, Menendez and De Soto still loom large. So do Henry Flagler and Henry Plant, whose railroad and resort empires pioneered modern Florida. But this time around, there's a lot more about Hispanics, blacks, Seminoles and Miccosukees, women and other ordinary people. And about how everybody got along, or didn't.

Some of the authors say that if you want a good, easy-to- read history of Florida, pick up Gannon's 1993 book Florida: A Short History. The New History of Florida" can be rough going in spots.

The new history is geared primarily for college classes and serious readers of history. But it's worth a go if you really want to find out how Florida became the complex place that it is, says David Colburn, a UF history professor and one of the authors.

Until now, the standard work on Florida's past has been University of Miami historian Charlton Tebeau's 1971 classic A History of Florida, updated in 1980.

Tebeau tried hard to Florida's historic ethnic diversity and conflict, but he had little to go on, Colburn said. "That story was almost a complete void out there, " Colburn said. "Serious research on those issues didn't start until 15 years ago."

But now historians have documented that Florida has been multicultural since the 16th Century, when American Indians, Spanish and Africans began sharing the land. When they weren't warring, they were finding ways to coexist in reasonable peace and even work together, Gannon said -- sort of like Floridians today.

Lyon's work uncovered Olmos the tailor and other ordinary Spaniards who helped colonize Florida.

Scholars like Jane Landers of Vanderbilt University and Maxine Jones of Florida State University have pieced together the continuous story of blacks in Florida since 1513.

Free and enslaved blacks accompanied the conquistadors, and throughout Spanish rule, there were large numbers of free blacks, and it was common for enslaved blacks to become free. The Spanish established the first free black community in North America, Fort Mose, two miles north of St. Augustine. It was set up as a sanctuary that enslaved blacks in British territories to the north could escape to.

The phenomena of Latinized Miami and freedom-seeking Cuban rafters who brave the treacherous Florida Straits show that in some ways, the story hasn't changed at all, Gannon said.