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Coconuts & The Providencia: Palm Beach, Florida


When the first settlers arrived in what was to become Palm Beach, the entire area was known as “Lake Worth”, named for Major General William Jenkins Worth who fought in the Second Seminole War. Pioneers struggled to clear land for their houses and to make room for their crops. The first of the permanent pioneers arrived in 1872.

By now, the story of how the island — as well as several other municipalities, and scores of businesses and locales — got its name is well known. As is often the case around these parts, it stemmed from a combination of boating and drinking.

On Jan. 9, 1878, the 175-ton brig Providencia was bound from Trinidad to Cadiz, Spain. Its cargo: 20,000 coconuts.

It turned out the sailors had dipped into the grog a bit during the voyage. So when the ship grounded on the coast of what is now Palm Beach, the tipsy crew thought it had landed in Mexico.

Once they realized where they were, they decided the ship could not go on with its cargo.

The few local residents of what was then called “the lake region” rushed to the beach.

“I was greeted by the mate of the vessel, with a bottle of wine and a box of cigars, as a sort of olive branch,” pioneer William Lanehart wrote.

“There were 20,000 coconuts, and they seemed like a godsend to the people. For several weeks, everyone was eating coconuts and drinking wine.”


Early settlers lost no time claiming salvage and planting the coconuts, which were not native to South Florida, in an effort to launch a commercial coconut industry. Lanehart and fellow pioneer Hiram F. Hammon took the nuts as salvage and sold them for 2 1/2 cents each. Within a decade, the area was filled with palm trees, and the island had a new name.


As an aside, Hiram F. Hammon, an Ohio native, had a boat service in Titusville in the late 1860s. He filed the first homestead on Lake Worth, which became part of Palm Beach. The property included present day Worth Avenue and, like other Palm Beach homesteads, extended from the ocean to Lake Worth. Hammon’s friend William Lanehart took an adjoining homestead, and they shared a palmetto shack. When Hammon sold his land for over a million dollars, the U.S. Department of the Interior declared it to be the most valuable claim filed to date.

On Jan. 15, 1887, a post office was established for Palm City. But settlers learned another post office already had the name, so it was renamed Palm Beach.

When a new pioneer, R.R. McCormick, arrived, he proclaimed, “Truly this is a paradise. You have made the wilderness to blossom.”


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