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Information Connection: Florida

States of the USA Article Index

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Florida History

The Florida coast along the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico was very different 12,000 years ago, when people first arrived there. The sea level, for example, was so much lower that the peninsula was more than double its present size. The land was populated by many of the same animals that are there today, but also by camels, giant armadillos, mastodons, and saber-toothed tigers. Today, the land is populated with giant SUVs, as well as native animals and RVs with Minnesota plates.

In 1513, Juan Ponce de Leon arrived on the northeast coast of Florida—and there is where we begin to have a written record of Florida history. He named the land Florida after Pascua Florida, which was the Feast of the Flowers—Spain’s Easter celebration.

In 1521, de Leon landed on the southwestern coast. He brought with him 200 people and 50 horses, in hopes of colonizing the area. These hopes came to ruin, in the face of attacks from native inhabitants. But, de Leon brought fame to the area, and it soon became a destination for explorers, fortune-seekers, and missionaries.

In 1539, Hernando de Soto launched an expedition in search of gold and silver, trekking through Florida and on westward for four years. In 1542, De Soto died near the Mississippi River. Four people did survive this journey, and they pushed on into Mexico.

In 1559, Tristán de Luna y Arellano took a stab at colonizing Florida. He established a settlement at Pensacola Bay, but that failed after a series of small disasters.

In 1562, the French began to try their hand at colonization. First, it was Jean Ribault. Two years after his mission failed, René Goulaine de Laudonničre established Fort Caroline at the mouth of the St. Johns River. Activity from the French was enough to motivate Spain to up the ante.

In 1565, Pedro Menéndez de Avilés arrived in Florida, with the intention of removing the French and creating a Spanish settlement. He accomplished his goal of expelling the French, attacking and killing all settlers except for non-combatants and Frenchmen who professed belief in the Roman Catholic faith. Menéndez renamed Fort Caroline San Mateo.

Two years after this, the French sent Dominique de Gourgues, who recaptured San Mateo killed the Spanish soldiers. Yet, the Spanish continued to build forts and Roman Catholic missions establish Spanish missions. The English, of course, weren’t sitting idly by.

In 1586, the English captain Sir Francis Drake looted and burned the tiny village of St. Augustine. But, the English feared the Spanish and did not seek an all-out contest for Florida. In fact, early English settlers purposely avoided the Spanish by settling far north, in Virginia and Massachusetts. The English push on Spanish control was gradual. Simultaneously, the French explorers were moving east from the Mississippi River. Spain eventually caved under this pressure.

In 1763, the Brits exchanged Havana, Cuba (which they captured from Spain in 1763) for Florida. When Spanish settlers evacuated on the heels of that agreement, Florida was practically free of European occupation.

The first act of the Brits was to split Florida into East Florida and West Florida. They also tried to develop relations with the Seminole Indians, who were moving into the area from the north. However, British rule lasted only two decades.

From 1776 to 1783, The War for American Independence raged. But, the two Floridas were not among the 13 original colonies and so remained under British rule during that time.

In 1781, Spain (now an ally of France) captured Pensacola from the British.

In 1784, Spain regained control of the rest of Florida as part of the peace treaty that ended the American Revolution. 

This time, it was the Brits who were forced to evacuate. When they did, settlers from Spain and the new United States flocked there. Many of the new settlers responded to favorable Spanish land grants. Others were just escaped slaves.

In 1821, after many skirmishes and a cultural invasion from the U.S., Florida changed hands again. Spain formally ceded Florida to the United States, per the Adams-Onís Treaty.

Andrew Jackson, who had commanded troops during the First Seminole War in 1818, returned to Florida in 1821 to establish a new territorial government—which merged the two Floridas into one entity. This territory consisted of a wilderness sparsely dotted with settlements of native Indians, Africans, and Spaniards. Plantation folks began to arrive in large numbers.

In 1824, Tallahassee became the capital because it was halfway between the existing governmental centers of St. Augustine and Pensacola.

With the influx of white folks, pressure to remove the Indians (who lived on desirable land) grew. Seminoles, already noted for their fighting abilities, won the respect of U.S. soldiers for their bravery, fortitude, and ability to adapt to changing circumstances during the Second Seminole War (1835–42).

In 1840, Florida had 54,500 people and the citizens wanted statehood.

On March 3, 1845, Florida became the twenty-seventh state. William D. Moseley was the new state’s first governor, and David Levy Yulee, one of Florida’s leading proponents for statehood, became a U.S. Senator.

In 1850, the population was 87,445. This included about 1,00 free blacks, but also 39,000 black slaves. Slavery became a major issue in the state’s politics. Plantation owners, concentrated in the middle of the state, vehemently opposed an end to slavery. At this time, blacks did not have the right to vote. No Floridian voted for Lincoln, but right after his election a special convention drafted an ordinance of secession.

In 1861, joined other southern states to form the Confederate States of America. No major Civil War battles took place in Florida, though Florida provided about 15,000 troops. When the Union defeated the south, only then did federal troops occupy Tallahassee. Florida also provided massive amounts of supplies to the Confederates—and about 2,000 troops to the Union Army.

. During the 1876 presidential election, federal troops still occupied Florida. The state’s Republican government and new black voters helped put Rutherford B. Hayes in the White House.

In the waning years before the 20th century, large-scale commercial agriculture became important in Florida. In fact, it became a mecca for cattle-raising and to this day has more cattle than any other state.

Beginning in the 1870s, residents from northern states visited Florida as tourists to enjoy the state’s natural beauty and mild climate. Steamboat tours were quite popular.

In 1855, the legislature passed the Internal Improvement Act, which afforded public land to investors, especially folks involved in transportation, for little or no money. Between the Civil War and World War I, railroad construction went on at a blistering pace.

Development projects had a huge impact on agriculture and manufacturing. For example, citrus farmers could pick oranges in south Florida and have them in New York markets in a matter of days.

In 1898, the Spanish-American War began. This was a war to liberate Cuba from  Spanish rule. Florida played an essential role, due to its proximity.

Following World War I, automobile-owning tourists flocked to Florida. Visitors often stayed, and this spurred development. The Real Estate market went nuts. With land being sold from buyer to buyer rapidly, and price inflation became ugly.

In 1926, money and credit ran out. As in the dotcom implosion of 2001, banks and investors suddenly stopped trusting "paper millionaires.” That year, and in 1928, severe hurricanes compounded the damage to the economy.

In 1929, the rest of the country sank into the Great Depression.

In 1929, the Mediterranean fruit fly invaded Florida and the resulting 60% drop in Florida’s citrus production dealt another blow to the economy.

World War II then arrived. Florida’s year-round mild climate made it a major training center for soldiers, sailors, and aviators of the United States and its allies. The training facilities required roads and airports, so when the war ended Florida had an efficient transportation system in place for existing and incoming residents.

Since World War II, migration from within the U.S. and from western countries such as Cuba and Haiti made it a major force in the electoral college. In fact, Florida rapidly moved up through the ranks to become the fourth most populous state in the U.S. This influx of people has resulted in a diversity of culture and industry.

Florida Facts

  • Statehood: Mar. 3, 1845; the 27th state.
  • Nickname: Sunshine State.
  • Bird: Mockingbird.
  • Flower: Orange blossom.
  • Tree: Sabal palmetto palm.
  • Motto: In God We Trust.
  • Song: "Old Folks at Home" ("Swanee River").
  • Area: 155,214 sq mi (59,928 sq km); rank: 23d.
  • Capital: Tallahassee.
  • Largest city: Jacksonville.
  • Counties: 67.
  • Elevations: highest: 105 m (345 ft), in Walton County; lowest: sea level, at the Atlantic coast.

Government

  • Electoral college votes: 25.
  • State legislature: 40 senators, 120 representatives.

Check out these Florida posters:

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