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Thomas E. Will Papers

Identifier: Ms 112

Scope and Content

The Will Papers are comprised of business and personal correspondence, scrapbooks, articles, speeches, writings, publications, legal documents, and governmental reports and hearings. The bulk of the collection consists of correspondence relating to Will's land development work in the Everglades, particularly in Okeelanta, as well as his writings about the Everglades. Correspondents and topics covered in the correspondence include the Everglades Land Sales Company, Laura V. McCullough, Lawrence E. Will, the town of Fruitcrest, the Everglades Sugar and Land Company, and various local, state, and federal agencies. The articles, publications, news clippings, writings and notes (many of which are housed in scrapbooks) document Will's efforts to promote development of the Everglades. In addition, there are several legislative reports, hearings, and other official documents regarding the Everglades, Lake Okeechobee, and flood control and drainage programs. The collection is an excellent resource for researchers interested in the drainage and land reclamation in the Everglades, early land sales and development, South Florida agriculture, and in particular, the settlement and early years of Okeelanta. In addition to the letters, writings, and other papers pertaining to the townsite, there are various small maps of Okeelanta filed throughout the business correspondence.


  • Creation: 1893-1938



The collection is open for research.

Biographical/Historical Note

Educator, author, and developer of the Florida Everglades. Born in Illinois on November 11, 1861. Graduated from Harvard in 1890, and earned a M.A. from Harvard in 1891. He worked as a professor of history and political science at Kansas State Agricultural College from 1894-1897, and served as president at Kansas State from 1897-1899. He worked in various cities as an educator, lecturer, free-lance writer, and as an employee of the U.S. Census Office from 1900-1905. He took a position with the U.S. Forest Service in 1906, and served as secretary of the American Forestry Association and editor of its journal, Conservation, for the next three years.

In 1910 Will visited the Everglades for the first time, and he became so excited about the prospects for development there that he quit his Forestry positions to dedicate himself to the Everglades. Between 1910 and 1914, he spent most of his time working in Washington, D.C., promoting drainage and development of the Everglades, and primarily working as a real estate agent associated with the Everglades Land Sales Company and the Florida Everglades Homebuilders Association. He also spent a great deal of time writing articles and making speeches in order to promote further land purchases. In 1911 he was the principal compiler of Senate Document 89, which included treaties, acts, legislative reports, drainage reports, and other materials pertaining to the Everglades.

Between 1912 and 1914, Will purchased several tracts of land near Lake Okeechobee. Between 1913 and 1914, Will began the development and settlement of the region's first planned townsite, Okeelanta. As one of the pioneers, he spent considerable effort experimenting with agricultural crops and practices suitable for the land. He sold plots to other settlers, and tried to make a living by selling farm products. Will's efforts suffered a serious setback between 1920 and 1930 when the drainage program proved to be insufficient. He was forced to live in Ft. Lauderdale from 1921-1931, focusing his efforts on coastal land sales. Throughout that decade Okeelanta deteriorated rapidly, but Will continued to promote development of the Everglades through drainage, flood control, and improved navigation and highway transportation. Throughout the 1930s he refocused his energies on developing Okeelanta, continuing to write and speak on the merits of the Everglades. He died on March 5, 1937.

Source: Dovell, J.E. "Thomas Elmer Will, Twentieth Century Pioneer," Tequesta (1949), p. 21-55.


14 Linear feet (25 boxes)

Language of Materials



The papers of Thomas E. Will primarily relate to the development of land in South Florida following drainage of the Everglades, particularly Will's settlement of Okeelanta near Lake Okeechobee.

Physical Location

University of Florida Smathers Library Building

Alternate Form of Material

Items in the Thomas E. Will collection have been digitized for America's Swamp: The Historical Everglades project, which is generously supported by a grant from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC). In addition to the links that are provided throughout this guide to the collection, all materials can be browsed at the Thomas E. Will page in the University of Florida Digital Collections (UFDC). Please note the majority of items in this collection are not described individually. Therefore, it is not possible to search for a specific item (e.g., a letter written by a particular author). Instead, the digital collection is best accessed by selecting a folder title and browsing the images contained in each folder.

Related Material

The Kansas State Libraries University Archives has the Thomas E. Will Papers, which document his years as professor and president at Kansas State. For additional materials pertaining to development in the Everglades, consult the Napoleon Bonaparte Broward Papers, the William Sherman Jennings Papers, and the May Mann Jennings Papers.

Processing Notes

An item titled "Upper Everglades of Florida from 1913-1929" featuring photos and documents mounted on board backing, was removed from the Miscellaneous Pamphlets folder and rehoused in an oversize folder in flat storage map cases.

A Guide to the Thomas E. Will Papers
Finding aid created by Dept. Staff
December 2011
Description rules
Finding Aid Prepared Using Dacs
Language of description
Script of description
Language of description note
Description is written in English.
Digitization funded with the generous support of the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC).

Repository Details

Part of the Special and Area Studies Collections, George A. Smathers Libraries, University of Florida Repository

George A. Smathers Libraries
PO Box 117005
Gainesville Florida 32611-7005 United States of America