The history of the Gulf of Mexico is often times relegated to the footnotes in history textbooks.
It’s a wrong that historian Jack Davis said he hopes to make right in his latest book, “The Gulf: The Making of an American Sea.”
In it, Davis argues that America’s expansion south into Florida and other Gulf States is as important to understanding America as its westward expansion.
“I wanted my readers to know that all Americans have a historical and ecological connection to the Gulf of Mexico, that it is more than just an oil sump and more than a vacation destination,” he said. “It has a rich and wonderful history that I was trying to recapture.”
Readers seem to have gotten the message. In April, Davis was awarded the 2018 Pulitzer Prize in History for bringing “crucial attention to Earth’s 10th-largest body of water, one of the planet’s most diverse and productive marine ecosystems.”
Davis was born in Largo and received his bachelor’s degree from the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. He went on to earn a master’s degree in history at the USF Tampa campus. He is now a professor of history at the University of Florida.
Davis said growing up in Tampa Bay influenced his fascination with the Gulf.
“As I was writing in my study in Gainesville, my mind was constantly casting back to the days that I lived on the Gulf and grew up on the Gulf,” he said. “I really believe that influence made it through my fingertips to the keyboard and the words on paper.”
In his book, Davis flips the traditional way of writing natural history on its head. Rather than telling the history of the Gulf through the experiences of the various people who lived near it, he focuses on the natural features of the Gulf and how they’ve influenced human development. The book is organized into chapters on estuaries, beaches and oil exploration.
“I wanted to show how nature is a driving force in the course of human history, but I use the human stories to help move the narrative along,” he said.
Davis also argues that understanding the history of the gulf and our relationship to it is necessary to tackling the pressing problems of today, namely sea level rise and other effects of climate change.
“What the history of the Gulf can share with us is that there are more vital ways to live with the Gulf than we do today,” he said. “We have historically taken a lot from the Gulf. We just need to give one little thing back, and that’s our respect for its vitality, its natural ecosystems and for its biodiversity that includes us.”
Davis will be discussing "The Gulf" and signing copies of his book at The Oxford Exchange in Tampa on May 27 at 1:30 p.m.