A Brief History of Florida

By Tim Lambert

Early Florida

The first people reached Florida before 10,000 BC. They were hunters and gatherers. At that time the world was in the grip of an ice age and huge animals like mastodons roamed what is now Florida. After the end of the ice age, shellfish were abundant and by 2,000 BC the people of Florida were making pottery. After 1,500 BC they also built burial mounds.

The first European to reach Florida was a Spaniard, Ponce de Leon in 1513. He called the peninsula Florida after the Spanish feast of flowers. In 1521 Ponce de Leon returned to Florida with a group of settlers. However, the first colony was abandoned because of hostility from the native people.

In 1562 the French landed in Florida. In 1564 a group of French people, most of them Protestants settled at a place called Fort Caroline. However, the Spanish massacred the French except for women, children, and Catholic men and they renamed the settlement San Mateo. But the French took revenge. They landed and killed the Spanish soldiers.

Meanwhile, in 1565 a Spaniard named Pedro Menendez de Aviles founded a little settlement at St Augustine. It was the first permanent European settlement in Florida. However, the Englishman Francis Drake attacked St Augustine in 1586. Meanwhile, the native population was devastated by European diseases.

Florida did not have gold and silver like the other Spanish colonies but it was strategically important. In 1740 the British attacked Florida but they failed to capture a fort, the Castillo de San Marcos at St Augustine. Then in 1763 as part of a peace treaty that ended the Seven Years War Spain handed over Florida to Britain. However, at the end of the American War of Independence in 1783, Britain agreed to hand Florida back to Spain.

19th Century Florida

In 1817-1818 the USA fought the first Seminole War against the Seminole Indians. At that time US troops made incursions into Spanish territory. Finally, in 1821, Spain agreed to cede Florida to the USA in return for the cancellation of some debts. In 1824 the newly founded town of Tallahassee was made the capital of Florida.

The number of white settlers in Florida increased steadily and they put pressure on the US government to remove the Indians from their land. In 1832 the US government signed the Treaty of Payne’s Landing with certain Seminole chiefs offering them land elsewhere if they agreed to leave Florida.

However many Seminoles refused to go and the government resorted to force. The Second Seminole War was fought from 1835 to 1842 and almost all the Seminoles were forced to leave Florida. Florida became the 27th state of the USA on 3 March 1845.

However, on 10 January 1861, Florida ceded from the union. Civil war then followed. The battle of Olustee was fought in Florida on 20 February 1864. However, the Civil War ended in 1865.

In the late 19th century Florida developed rapidly. Its population boomed and railroads were built. The citrus industry also grew, although a freeze in 1894-95 almost wiped it out. n In 1870 the population of Florida was less than 188,000 but by 1900 it had risen to over 528,000.

Meanwhile, the city of Miami was incorporated in 1896.


Modern Florida

During the early 20th century the population of Florida continued to rise rapidly. By 1930 it was approaching 1.5 million.

However, in 1926 Miami was hit by a hurricane. Another hurricane hit Florida in 1928. Then like the rest of the USA Florida suffered in the depression of the 1930s. Yet after the Second World War Florida boomed and tourists flocked to the state.

After a revolution in Cuba in 1959 many Cubans fled to Florida. In the 1980s many Haitians arrived. By 1980 the population of Florida was approaching 10 million and it continued to soar.

Meanwhile, the economy of Florida boomed. Today tourism, banking, and phosphate mining are important industries in Florida. In 2023 the population of Florida was 22 million.

Last revised 2024