Florida has a reputation in the United States that is completely unique and, some might say, infamous. It’s vibrant and unapologetic, a hot spot, and a reprobate.
Florida history is also distinct in American history. From 12,000 years ago until now, Florida has been everchanging and largely it’s own.
America’s Oldest City
It surprises many to learn that St Augustine is the oldest city in America. But indeed it was Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León who led the first European expedition to America, landing in southern Florida in 1513.
It was he who named La Florida, inspired by the exuberant vegetation and the Spanish Festival of Flowers.
By 1565, Pedro Menédez de Avilés had established the first European settlement. There, in St Augustine, Florida’s history abounds and one gets a peculiar sense of time travel walking the old, warbled brick roads through Spanish colonial buildings squeezed tightly together.
America’s oldest wooden school sits strangely amidst the aged urban sprawl. The massive, intimidating fort guarding St Augustine’s bay has been standing since 1672; the Castillo de San Marcos is a token of the early Spanish claim on the new world.
Florida’s First Residents
As with most North American places, Europeans were not Florida’s first people. Indigenous people traveled south to Florida as early as 500 BCE.
12,000 years ago Florida was much different, with twice its current landmass and a cooler, drier climate. Early people there would rely on sparse watering holes, along with congregated Pleistocene animals.
Across centuries, the amount of Native American tribes was expansive but today Florida only recognizes two: the Miccosukee and the Seminole.
Unsurprisingly for America, Florida’s history often forgets its Native American past and present. However, a reconstructed Seminole encampment sits modestly along a still, grassy river within the Everglades.
The Fights for Florida
Unfortunately, following the arrival of the Europeans, Florida was destined for centuries of dissension. Previously claimed by Spain, it wasn’t until the 18th century that Florida changed hands at the end of the Seven Years War in Europe and the French and Indian War in the Americas with the Treaty of Paris in 1763.
The Spanish regained Cuba, Louisiana, and the Philippines, while the British snagged Florida and Minorca (as well as Canada and Senegal). Most Spanish inhabitants left, bound primarily for Cuba.
The British would rule Florida until 1783. The area was split by east and west, even appointed different governors. But British control would not last long.
The American Revolution ended with the Treaty of Versaille (or, the Second Treaty of Paris), an agreement between Britain, France, and Spain. Within, the British would trade the Spanish Minorca and Florida for the Bahamas and Gibraltar. Thus the exodus of residents began again, however, the Spanish would permit anyone to stay who would convert to Catholicism.
After, Spain allowed Americans to immigrate to Florida in 1790.
In 1811, President Madison authorized an attack on Florida, aiming to seize the entire area for the United States, thus beginning the Patriot War of 1812.
Over the next couple years, the war would become increasingly violent and disorganized. The disarray, along with America’s war with Britain (the War of 1812) prompted Madison to withdraw from the coup.
The First Seminole war began shortly after in 1817, a violent conflict between the United States and Florida’s Native Americans, which also involved escaped black slaves who found refuge among the Seminoles.
The Second Seminole war raged from 1835-41 in the Everglades when Native Americans refused to vacate their reservation after passage of the Indian Removal Act.
The war cost thousands of lives and in the end, the tribe was pushed off their land. The Third Seminole War was a quieter blip, in which the remaining Natives were sought out and paid to leave.
The Adams-Onis Treaty finally ended Florida’s endless hand-switching. In 1819, the United States bought Florida from Spain for $5 million, however, the outlines of the treaty were not fully realized until 1821. Florida was finally almost a state.
By 1824, Florida established Tallahassee as its capital and a governor, William P. DuVal. It wasn’t until March 3, 1845, however, that Florida officially became America’s 27th state.
Florida’s Civil War Involvement
Florida would soon vote to secede from the United States, in 1861, as tempers heated and the country neared the beginning of the Civil War. Held in Tallahassee, the Secession Convention voted 62-7 for Florida to leave the United States.
Florida and six other southern states met to discuss their new government. On February 22nd, 1861, the Confederacy was formally established. The war would become a major component of Florida history.
Florida was not involved in the first major battle of the Civil War, Bull Run, in Virginia but saw plenty of action over the next few years. In 1862, both St Augustine and Jacksonville were taken over by the Union.
While Jacksonville was wrestled back and forth four more times, St Augustine remained under Union occupation for the duration of the Civil War.
Despite Lincoln’s signing of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, the war continued. Florida takes credit for a major part in the Battle of Gettysburg, for the Civil War’s southernmost battle, fought in Fort Meyers, and for a Union defeat on the grounds of what is now Florida State University.
Battles continued, mostly raging along the St Johns River between St Augustine and Jacksonville. Governor John Milton, who early supported secession, committed suicide in his home amidst the war.
A Florida native, in conspiracy with John Wilkes Booth, attempted to assassinate another Union official on the night of Lincoln’s death but was unsuccessful.
Over the summer of 1865, Confederate troops would surrender across Florida state.
Over the next few decades, Florida, along with the rest of the United States saw growth and development. Anyone would be pleased that one developer failed, however; in 1881 a wealthy Philadelphian bought 4 million acres of the Everglades with hopes to drain them and build on the land.
Also in 1881, construction began on the Florida East Coast Canal continuing until the 1920s and reaching 1,391 miles north to New Jersey, now known as the Atlantic Intercoastal Waterway. In 1887, Henry Flager completed the Ponce de León Hotel, a grandiose 540 room relic, comemporative of Florida’s Spanish roots.
In 1888, the first all-Pullman closed vestibule train arrived in Jacksonville, comprising a 29 hour journey down the east coast of the United States. The route became known as the Florida Special.
The following year, Flager extended the railroad, connecting St Augustine to New York. By 1896, the line continued all the way to Miami and in 1912, Flagler’s railroad was completed in Key West. Through his revelatory developments across the state, Henry Flager remains an icon in Florida history.
World War I and II
Florida became a valuable asset to the United States during World War I. Its climate allowed for year-round training and production. Bases for every military branch were established along Florida’s coasts, which in turn spurred an economic boom for the state. This trend continued into World War II.
Between the wars however, Florida experienced devastation. The Great Depression and several hurricanes brought bankruptcy and hardship, emphasized by a suffering citrus industry. Thankfully, despite the strife it otherwise caused, World War II prompted the federal government to buy nearly all fruit produced in Florida, helping to rejuvenate the economy.
After the wars, Florida’s population, economy, and production skyrocketed. Florida became the 4th largest state in the nation, with migrants coming from all over. In the 1950’s, Florida saw progression in civil rights with expanded voting laws, some desegregation, and a revamped public education system.
Amelia Earhart took flight from Miami for her tour around the world. 32 years later, Apollo II astounded the world after lifting off from the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral to land on the moon.
Only two years later, Walt Disney World opened in Orlando. In 1977, it snowed in Miami. Cape Canaveral made history again when NASA launched Columbia, the first reusable manned space shuttle in 1981.
In the Florida panhandle, you’ll find the state’s highest point: 345 feet above sea level. The Florida Keys have never seen frost.
The United States holds Florida as the variant. From the Florida Man to the Everglades, the state holds endless mysteries, beauties, and comedies.
At times it seems plausible for the whole peninsula to break off and drift away, perhaps to snuggle even closer to the vacation spots of the Bahamas, wherein it has always seemed more comfortable, an amusement park, like its beloved Disney World.
Florida has always gone its own way, for better or for worse. Marjory Stoneman Douglas said, “The Everglades is a test. If we pass it, we get to keep the planet.” I think that could be said for all of Florida.
The United States should be careful and mindful of the way Florida treats its multitudes of valuables: its Indigenous, its elderly, its guests, students, dolphins, reefs, manatees.
Visit a salt spring in Florida and try to say there isn’t some majesty running through that shallow, silty ground. It’s important going forward to hold Florida precious within the United States.
With its limitless assets and thriving business community nestled tightly into the bosom of a rise in business services (including a growth in the banking sector, increased legal services, and the arrival of registered agents in Florida), it’s certain Florida will continue on its upward trend. At least for now. Whether the growth is sustainable remains to be seen.
Publication of Archival Library and Museum Materials. Florida History Timeline, 2009. palmm.fcla.edu. Accessed 8 Feb. 2021.
PBC History Online. A Florida Timeline of the Civil War. pbchistoryonline.org. Accessed 8 Feb. 2021.
PrehistoricFlorida.org. Indigenous Peoples of Florida, 2020. Prehistoricflorida.org. Accessed 8 Feb. 2021.
Senate Kids. Florida Timeline. archive.flsenate.gov. Accessed 8 Feb. 2021.
Visit St Augustine. St Augustine Written Timeline. visitstaugustine.com/historical-text. Accessed 8 Feb. 2021.