Florida is the 4th most populous, and the 8th most densely populated of the 50 United States. Florida was discovered in 1513 by Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León – who named it La Florida (“Flowery Land”) upon landing there during the Easter season, Pascua Florida – Florida was a challenge for the European colonial powers before it gained statehood in the United States in 1845. It was a principal location of the Seminole Wars against the Indians, and racial segregation after the American Civil War. Today, it is distinguished by its large Hispanic community, and high population growth, as well as its increasing environmental concerns. Its economy relies mainly on tourism, agriculture and transportation, which developed in the late 19th century. Florida is also known for its amusement parks, the production of oranges and the Kennedy Space Center.
Archaeological research indicates that Florida was first inhabited by Paleo-Indians, the first human inhabitants of the Americas, perhaps as early as 14 thousand years ago. Florida was the first part of what is now the continental United States to be visited by Europeans. The earliest known European explorers came with the Spanish conquistador Juan Ponce de León, who spotted the peninsula on April 2, 1513. It is possible Juan Ponce de León was not the first European to reach Florida, however; reportedly, at least one indigenous tribesman whom he encountered in Florida in 1513 spoke Spanish. From 1513 onward, the land became known as “La Florida”, although after 1630 and throughout the 18th century, Tegesta (after the Tequesta tribe) was an alternate name of choice for the Florida peninsula.
Spain vs Great Britain over Florida
Over the following century, both the Spanish and French established settlements in Florida with varying degrees of success. In 1559, Don Tristán de Luna y Arellano established a colony at present-day Pensacola, one of the first European attempts at settlement in the continental United States. It was abandoned by 1561. French Protestant Huguenots founded Fort Caroline in modern-day Jacksonville in 1564. The following year, the Spanish colony of St. Augustine (San Agustín) was established, and forces from there conquered Fort Caroline that same year. The Spanish maintained tenuous control over the region by converting the local tribes to Catholicism.
The area of Spanish Florida diminished with the establishment of English colonies to the north and French colonies to the west. Florida was attracting a large number of Africans and African Americans from British-occupied North America who sought freedom from slavery. Once in Florida, the Spanish Crown converted them to Roman Catholicism and gave them freedom. Those ex-slaves settled in a community north of St. Augustine, called Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose, the first freedom settlement of its kind in what became the United States. Many of those slaves were also welcomed by Creek and Seminole Native Americans who had established settlements there at the invitation of the Spanish government.
Great Britain gained control of Florida and other territory diplomatically in 1763. The British divided their new acquisitions into East Florida, with its capital at St. Augustine, and West Florida, with its capital at Pensacola. Spain received both Floridas after Britain’s defeat in 1783, continuing the division into East and West Florida. They offered land grants to anyone who settled in the colonies, and many Americans moved to them.
The Seminole Wars
After settler attacks on Indian towns, Seminole Indians began raiding Georgia settlements, purportedly at the behest of the Spanish. The United States Army led increasingly frequent incursions into Spanish territory, including the 1817–1818 campaign against the Seminole Indians by Andrew Jackson that became known as the First Seminole War. Following the war, the United States effectively controlled East Florida. Spain ceded Florida to the United States in 1819.
In 1830, the Indian Removal Act was passed and as settlement increased, pressure grew on the United States government to remove the Indians from their lands in Florida. Clashes between whites and Indians grew with the influx of new settlers. In 1832, the United States government signed the Treaty of Payne’s Landing with some of the Seminole chiefs. Many of the Seminoles left at this time, while those who remained prepared to defend their claims to the land. The U.S. Army arrived in 1835 to enforce the treaty under pressure from white settlers, and the Second Seminole War began at the end of the year with the Dade Massacre. Between 900 and 1,500 Seminole Indian warriors employed guerrilla tactics against United States Army troops for seven years until 1842. The U.S. government is estimated to have spent between $20 million and $40 million on the war, at the time an astronomical sum.
On March 3, 1845, Florida became the 27th state of the United States of America. White settlers continued to encroach on lands used by the Seminoles, and the United States government resolved to make another effort to move the remaining Seminoles to the West. The Third Seminole War lasted from 1855 to 1858, and resulted in the removal of most of the remaining Seminoles. Even after three bloody wars, the U.S. Army failed to force all of the Seminole Indians in Florida to the West. Though most of the Seminoles were forcibly exiled west of the Mississippi, hundreds remained in the Everglades and refused to leave the native homeland of their ancestors. Their descendants remain there to this day.
The Civil War and after
White settlers began to establish cotton plantations in Florida, which required numerous laborers. By 1860 Florida had only 140,424 people, of whom 44% were enslaved. There were fewer than 1,000 free African Americans before the Civil War.
On January 10, 1861, before the start of the American Civil War, Florida declared its secession from the Union; ten days later, the state became a founding member of the Confederate States of America. The war ended in 1865. On June 25, 1868, Florida’s congressional representation was restored. After Reconstruction, white Democrats succeeded in regaining power in the state legislature. In 1885 they created a new constitution, followed by statutes through 1889 that effectively disfranchised most blacks and many poor whites over the next several years. Disfranchisement for most African Americans in the state persisted until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s gained federal legislation to protect their suffrage.
Until the mid-20th century, Florida was the least populous Southern state. In 1900 its population was only 528,542, of whom nearly 44% were African American. A record number of forty thousand African Americans left the state in the Great Migration to northern and midwestern industrial cities due to early 20th century lynching and racial violence. National economicprosperity in the 1920s stimulated tourism to Florida. Combined with its sudden elevation in profile was the Florida land boom of the 1920s, which brought a brief period of intense land development. Devastating hurricanes in 1926 and 1928, followed by the stock market crash and Great Depression, brought that period to a halt.
Florida’s economy did not fully recover until the buildup for World War II. The climate, tempered by the growing availability of air conditioning, and low cost of living made the state ahaven. Migration from the Rust Belt and the Northeast sharply increased the population after the war. In recent decades, more migrants have come for the jobs in a developing economy. With a population of more than 18 million according to the 2010 census, Florida is the most populous state in the Southeastern United States, the second most populous state in the South behind Texas, and the fourth most populous in the United States.