Florida Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Although Florida has a long and varied history, many of the most important developments in the state, especially in terms of economic, political, and demographic changes, took place after the 1950’s.

History of Florida

Although Florida has a long and varied history, many of the most important developments in the state, especially in terms of economic, political, and demographic changes, took place after the 1950’s. Because of its geographic location, which promotes the influence of West Indian and Caribbean cultures, and its pleasant, tropical climate, which has attracted large numbers of residents from both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres, Florida developed a unique and distinctive character.

Early History

Native Americans arrived in Florida sometime around 10,000 b.c.e. and slowly made their way south, not reaching the southern tip of the peninsula until about 1400 b.c.e. Archaeological evidence from northeastern Florida and southeastern Georgia indicates that inhabitants of these areas invented pottery in the period around 2000 b.c.e.. This would place their development of pottery approximately eight hundred years before other North American cultures.

Because of the abundance of game and marine life, early Native Americans in the Florida area were primarily hunters and fishers, rather than farmers. Great respect was paid to the dead, who were interred in large burial mounds. By 1500 c.e. a sun-worship cult, also centered around large earthen mounds, spread through the region. The tribes discovered agriculture and grew corn, beans, and squash, among other crops.

Along the northern Gulf coast lived the Panzacola, Chatot, and Apalachicola; farther west were the Apalachee. The lower part of the peninsula, from Tampa Bay extending south, was inhabited by the warrior Calusa, for whom warfare seemed to be part of their religious practice. In the north, the dominant group was the Timucua, who were the first Native Americans to encounter Europeans. By far the most famous of Florida tribes, however, were the Seminoles, who entered the state in 1750. The word seminole means “runaway” in the Creek language, and the people themselves were Creek Indians who came from Alabama and Georgia. At first scattered in small groups, the Seminoles united against those who wanted to remove them from Florida, first the Spanish and English and later the Americans.

Exploration and Colonization

The first European contact with Florida began in 1513, when Juan Ponce de León landed on the coast, claimed the land for Spain, and bestowed its current name, either because it was Easter (Pascua Florida, in Spanish) or because of the many flowering plants he discovered (florida also means “flowery” in Spanish). After Ponce de León’s death during a battle with Native Americans in 1521, several other Spanish explorers, including Hernando de Soto, sought to establish a permanent presence in Florida. It was not until 1566, however, that a Spanish colony was founded at St. Augustine, becoming the first permanent European settlement in what is now the United States.

As they did elsewhere with their New World colonies, the Spanish implemented both imperial rule and the Catholic religion. Settlements and missions were established throughout Florida, but these were destroyed in the early 1700’s in raids by Native Americans and British settlers from South Carolina. In 1763, as part of the treaties which ended the French and Indian War, Spain ceded Florida to the British in exchange for Cuba. The British divided the colony into East and West Florida.

Immigration increased the English population of Florida, and during the American Revolution the residents remained loyal to that crown. However, in 1778, Spain, which had become an American ally, seized West Florida. In 1783, at the end of the Revolution, Spain regained all of Florida. While many English settlers left for British possessions in the West Indies, others remained behind, stubbornly defiant to the Spanish and fearful of possible takeover by French forces.

Steps to Statehood

During the War of 1812 the British used Pensacola as a naval base, prompting its capture by American forces under General Andrew Jackson. In 1819, Spain ceded Florida to the United States, and Jackson returned in 1822 as military governor of the new territory. The northwestern portion of the region, along the panhandle, became the site of numerous cotton plantations worked by slaves. Tallahassee was named the capital in 1823. In 1845 Florida was admitted to the Union.

Even before Florida officially became part of the United States, efforts had been underway to remove Native Americans from the territory. This ongoing conflict was concentrated on the Seminoles, who had formed a formidable presence against the threat from the Americans. From 1835 to 1842 the United States waged the Seminole War against the tribe. The war was begun when Osceola, a young Seminole chief, publicly rejected a harsh treaty with the United States by plunging his dagger through the document. Outnumbered by the Americans, Osceola led the Seminoles into the Everglades and conducted guerrilla warfare. He was captured while under a flag of truce and imprisoned in Fort Moultrie at Charleston, South Carolina; he died there in 1838. Without his leadership, the tide turned against the Seminoles, and after their final defeat they were removed to lands in the western United States. Only a handful remained behind, hidden in the swamps and wilderness of Florida. The number of Seminoles increased in the state during the twentieth century, however.

Civil War and Reconstruction

In 1861 Florida joined other southern states in seceding from the Union. During the Civil War, Union naval forces quickly captured strong points along the coast, including Fernandina, Pensacola, and St. Augustine. However, when Union troops attempted an invasion of the interior, they were defeated at the battle of Olustee in 1864. A second Union attempt to capture Tallahassee failed in March, 1865; the Florida capital and Austin, Texas, were the only two Confederate capitals never captured during the war.

After being readmitted to the Union in 1868, Florida entered Reconstruction and began a period of transformation of the state’s economic base. Citrus fruits replaced cotton as the major cash crop, and phosphate mining for fertilizer became a dominant industry. Tourism, almost unknown before the Civil War, began to become a key economic factor in the 1880’s, especially with the development of railroads. Henry B. Plant completed the Kissimmee-Tampa cross-state railroad in 1884, and Henry M. Flagler inaugurated the Jacksonville-Miami Line in 1896. The two systems linked Florida and its produce to the rich markets of the Northeast and encouraged the growth of the tourism and retirement industries. Starting in the early 1900’s, the state’s population began to double approximately every twenty years.

The Florida real estate boom of the 1920’s saw a dramatic increase in settlers, but by the middle of the decade the boom had ended. In addition, massive hurricanes in 1926 and 1928 further damaged the state’s economy, which was severely affected by the Great Depression of 1929. President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal brought relief and massive defense spending before and during World War II, helping bring the state into the modern age.

A Mixed Economy

Cape Canaveral on the east coast of Florida was one of the oldest sites to be named by Europeans on the North American continent. During the 1950’s and 1960’s it became the site of the nation’s newest explorers, as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) chose it for the site of the American space program. In 1958 it saw the launch of the first U.S. satellite, in 1961 and 1962 the first American manned spaceflight and orbital mission, and in 1969 the first lunar mission.

Modern Florida developed a mixed economy that depends upon traditional areas such as manufacturing and agriculture and also relies heavily on tourism. Companies that produce computer equipment and accessories have taken the lead in manufacturing. Citrus fruits, first introduced to Florida in the 1570’s, are a strong staple, with Florida producing more than three-quarters of the total U.S. harvest of grapefruit and oranges. In addition, the state’s pine forests are valuable sources of materials for pulp and paper, as well as turpentine and other products. The almost year-round growing season has made Florida a leader in truck-farming agriculture, shipping tomatoes, vegetables, and other produce throughout the nation.

A Multicultural State

The Cuban Revolution of 1959, which brought Fidel Castro and the Communist Party to power, saw a massive emigration from that island, largely among the professional, upper, and middle classes. Conservative in politics and religion, Cubans brought with them a tradition of respect for learning and for the free enterprise system. Although their initial plans had been for an early return to their home, these immigrants established themselves in south Florida, especially in the Miami area, where they developed a strong economy and thriving culture. By the late 1970’s, south Florida had become a multicultural, bilingual area.

These developments were not without difficulty. In 1986 Bob Martinez became the first Hispanic to be elected governor of Florida. Significantly, he won election as a Republican. However, many conservatives, disturbed at the increasing power of Hispanic voters, pushed hard to win approval in 1988 of an amendment to the state constitution that made English the official language of state government. Adding to the situation were sometimes tense relations between the white, Hispanic, and African American populations; in the early 1980’s these tensions caused riots to flare in the Miami area.

Tourism and Nature

Tourism, long a staple of the modern Florida economy, received a major boost in 1971 with the opening of Walt Disney World near Orlando. Disney’s Epcot Center followed in 1982. Soon, Disney World became the single most popular tourist destination in the United States. Other attractions, including Sea World, Universal Studios theme park, and Busch Gardens, increased Florida’s appeal as a tourist destination. Added to these are the state’s natural attractions, such as the Everglades, the Florida Keys, and the unique John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park near Key Largo, which is entirely underwater and features living coral formations. In 1990, a record-breaking 41 million visitors from around the world visited Florida.

Although much of Florida’s appeal rested upon its environment, much of that environment had been devastated by natural forces or harmed by human intervention. In 1992 the state was struck by Hurricane Andrew, at that time the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history. The storm raged through south Florida, ruining entire communities and causing more than $20 billion in damages.

As the state entered the twenty-first century, it began to address a potentially fatal threat to its environment. Decades of systematic draining of wetlands, including the vast expanse of the Everglades, to accommodate expanding human population and development seriously endangered the environment and wildlife. Finally realizing the seriousness of the situation, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and other organizations abandoned long-standing projects such as the Cross Florida Barge Canal and began efforts to reverse years of neglect and active damage. These efforts became critical for a state more dependent than most on its natural environment for its prosperity and continued growth.

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