John K. Mahon (1912-2003)

Michael Seidman, January 2006

John K. Mahon, distinguished historian and dedicated environmentalist, died on October 11, 2003. Born in 1912 in Ottumwa, Iowa, he graduated from Swarthmore College with a BA in history in 1934. He then returned to Ottumwa in assist in the family wholesale grocery business, which was struggling through the Depression. He was inducted as a private in the United States Army in 1942 and, after serving in the European theater, was discharged as a captain in the United States Army field artillery in 1946. The GI Bill allowed him to embark upon graduate studies at UCLA where he earned a PhD in history in 1950. He became civilian military historian, Office of the Chief of Military History, Department of the Army, from 1951 to 1954. Appointed assistant professor of history at the University of Florida in 1954, he rose to full professor in 1966 and served as chair from 1965 to 1973. At Florida, he published the bulk of his most important scholarly works: American Militia: Decade of Decision, 1789–1800 (University of Florida Press, 1960); the beautiful narrative, The War of 1812 (University of Florida Press, 1972, reissued in paperback by the Da Capo Press in 1991), and the classic, History of the Second Seminole War (University of Florida Press, 1967, never out of print). His colleague, Eldon Turner, commented: "John was a military historian who understood that the history of warfare was fundamental to the great movements of power among nations. His histories of the Seminole wars were definitive in detail and powerful in their understanding of the big questions—land, control, and the perspective that Americans had on Native Americans during the Early Republic and the Age of Jackson." He produced numerous articles for historical journals and periodicals. The year following his retirement in 1982 saw the publication of History of the Military and National Guard (Macmillan, 1983). The University of Florida endowed the annual John K. Mahon Undergraduate Teaching Award in his honor.

His lifelong love of the outdoors and interest in Native American culture were among the motivations of his deep commitment to conservation. He was a founder of the Alachua [County] Audubon Society and the Florida Defenders of the Environment. He became president of the local chapter of the Sierra Club and a board member of the Alachua Conservation Trust. He promoted green spaces, neighborhood recycling, and planning for local flood control. He also served as president of the Florida Historical Society, board member of the Seminole Wars Historic Foundation, and board member of the Gainesville Chapter of the United Nations Association. As president of the Citizen’s Housing Association, he worked to improve housing for minorities and low-income families. On August 8, 2005, the City of Gainesville dedicated the John Mahon Nature Park in his honor, an appropriate memorial to an exemplary citizen and scholar.

—Michael Seidman, University of North Carolina at Wilmington