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Florida joined the Union as the 27th state in 1845 and is nicknamed the Sunshine State for its balmy climate and natural beauty. Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon, who led the first European expedition to Florida in 1513, named the state in honor of Spain’s Easter celebration known as “Pascua Florida,” or Feast of Flowers. European settlers, mainly from Spain, arrived in the 17th and 18th centuries. The Spanish, French and English battled over Florida until it became a U.S. territory in 1819. 

Florida has long been a state of migrants. While European colonists quickly decimated the Indigenous population, Florida became home to a Seminole community of Indigenous and enslaved people who migrated from nearby states in the 18th century. Beginning in the late 19th century, residents of Northern states flocked to Florida to escape harsh winters. Many Cubans also immigrated to Miami throughout the late 19th and 20th centuries, establishing a vibrant Latin American culture.

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Native Americans in Florida

Hunter-gatherers first arrived in the area now known as Florida more than 12,000 years ago. The dominant Native American communities that emerged included the Calusa, Tequesta and Jeaga tribes in southern Florida and the Apalachee and Timucua people in the north. They lived along the coasts as well as near rivers in the interior of Florida. When the Europeans arrived in the 16th century, they started selling Indigenous people and brought disease and warfare that decimated the native population. Nearly all local Indigenous people were gone by the mid-1700s. 

In the mid to late 1700s, Native Americans from Georgia, Alabama and other states, including tribes of the Creek Nation such as the Miccosukee, migrated to Florida to escape European expansion. They were joined by escaped enslaved people, as Spain had announced that anyone who made it to Florida was free. By the end of the century, this diverse community collectively became known as the Seminoles. The name most likely originates from the Spanish word “cimarron,” or “wild runaway.”

Florida's Early Colonial History

Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León was the first known European to set foot on the area now called Florida when he landed near present-day St. Augustine in 1513. His second expedition in 1521 failed to colonize Florida due to attacks by Indigenous people, although it piqued Spanish interest in the area. Other Spaniards to visit Florida included Hernando de Soto, in 1539, and Tristán de Luna y Arellano, in 1559.

The French also explored Florida, with Jean Ribault landing in 1562 and René Goulaine de Laudonnière establishing Fort Caroline in 1564. However, it was Spanish explorer Pedro Menéndez de Avilés who established the first permanent European settlement in the United States at a place he called St. Augustine in 1565. Menéndez de Avilés expelled the French and captured Fort Caroline, renaming it San Mateo. Although the French fought back over the years, the Spanish military and Catholic missionaries dominated the area and expanded their territory.

During these early years, English colonizers showed limited interest in Florida. But in the 17th and 18th centuries, English colonists began migrating south and set their sights on Spanish holdings in Florida, attacking missions and St. Augustine. At the end of the Seven Years’ War, in 1763, Spain handed Florida to the British in exchange for Cuba, which England had taken from Spain. The British split the land into East Florida and West Florida, both of which remained loyal to England throughout the Revolutionary War. The 1783 Treaty of Paris ended the American Revolution and handed Florida from England to Spain, which acted as an ally to the Americans in exchange for the Bahamas.

The Seminole Wars

As Americans expanded their territory in the 19th century, they coveted Spain’s fertile land in Florida and saw the promise of freedom for escaped slaves there as a threat. The Seminole Wars began when American militias first attacked and seized Spanish and Seminole lands in 1812. In 1817, the U.S. government officially invaded Florida. In 1819, Spain ceded Florida to the United States with the signing of the Florida Purchase Treaty. As part of the agreement, the U.S. paid Spain $5 million for damages incurred.

After the U.S. government failed to displace Indigenous people, including Seminoles in Florida, to modern-day Oklahoma and Arkansas, President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act in 1930. The law forced the Indigenous peoples east of the Mississippi to modern-day Oklahoma on what became known as the Trail of Tears. Many Seminoles in Florida refused to leave. In 1835, the Seminoles attacked American troops, launching seven more years of bloody battles between the two sides. More than 3,000 Seminoles were forcibly moved before the U.S. government withdrew in 1842 without signing a peace treaty.

A third phase of the Seminole War broke out in 1855 when the Seminoles attacked U.S. troops for sending patrols into their territory. The Seminole Wars concluded three years later when a treaty was signed giving land to Seminoles in Oklahoma. Most of the remaining Seminoles in Florida moved to Oklahoma, but about 300 people remained. Today, these “Unconquered People” comprise two federally-recognized tribes: the Seminole Tribe of Florida and the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida, both of which belong to the Creek Confederacy.

The Civil War

In the 1800s, Florida’s economy was based around crops, cattle and enslaved people—putting it at odds with northern states that opposed slavery. In 1861, Florida became the third state to secede from the Union. The next month, it joined with six other southern states to form the Confederate States of America, which soon incited the Civil War.

While most men in the state fought for the Confederacy, and the state supplied the Confederate troops with food and other important provisions, only two major Civil War battles were fought in Florida. On April 26, 1865, Florida officially surrendered to the Union.

Immigration

While Cubans had already migrated to nearby Florida for many years, immigration accelerated at the end of the 1800s, when many people who no longer wanted to be under Spanish rule left for the U.S. Cuban workers also moved to Florida to work in the sugar, coffee and tobacco industries.

In 1898, the Spanish-American War started and ended within months, when Spain ceded Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippine Islands and Guam to the United States. After the war, Cuba became its own country with increasingly repressive policies, leading more people to leave Cuba for Florida. 

From the late 1950s through the 1990s, waves of people emigrated from Cuba to the United States, with most settling in Miami. Along with immigrants from Colombia and Nicaragua, they established a strong Latin American community in the area. Florida has been a destination for Americans moving from neighboring and northern states since the late 1800s for its citrus industry and warm weather.

Tourism

Thanks to its mild weather, Florida started to develop as a resort vacation destination in the late 1800s. In the 20th century, tourism became one of the state's most important industries, attracting millions of visitors annually. Theme parks started cropping up all over Florida, including Walt Disney World Resort. Opened near Orlando in 1971, Disney World is the world's largest and most visited recreational resort. Spread over some 30,500 acres (about the same size as San Francisco, California), Disney World attracts approximately 46 million annual visitors.

Space Center

Initially a missile testing site in the 1940s, Florida's Cape Canaveral became a hub for the U.S. space program in 1950. On February 20, 1962, John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth when he blasted off from Cape Canaveral. Seven years later, Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon after Apollo 11 launched from the nearby Kennedy Space Center on July 16, 1969. To this day, the Kennedy Space Center remains an active launchpad.

Date of Statehood: March 3, 1845

Capital: Tallahassee

Population: 18,801,310 (2010)

Size: 65,758 square miles

Nickname(s): Sunshine State

Motto: In God We Trust

Tree: Sabal Palm

Flower: Orange Blossom

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Bird: Mockingbird

Interesting Facts

  • Constructed over a 21-year period from 1845 to 1866, Fort Zachary Taylor in Key West was controlled by Federal forces during the Civil War and used to deter supply ships from provisioning Confederate ports in the Gulf of Mexico. The fort was also used during the Spanish-American War.
  • In 1944, airman and pharmacist Benjamin Green from Miami developed the first widely-used sunscreen to protect himself and other soldiers during World War II. He later founded the Coppertone Corporation.

Sources

Florida's Earliest Peoples, nps.gov

"Teacher’s Guide to Florida’s Native People," floridamuseum.ufl.edu

The Timucua: North Florida’s Early People, nps.gov

16th Century Settlements, dos.myflorida.com

Seminole History, dos.myflorida.com

History, miccosukee.com

The Long War, semtribe.com

Seminoles, nps.gov

European Exploration and Colonization, dos.myflorida.com

Florida Frontiers “Florida in the American Revolution,” myfloridahistory.org

Florida: As a British Colony, fcit.usf.edu

Acquisition of Florida: Treaty of Adams-Onis (1819) and Transcontinental Treaty (1821), history.state.gov

Florida's Native American Tribes, History & Culture, visitflorida.com

Seminole Indian Wars, seminolecountyfl.gov

Florida Migration History 1850-2018, depts.washington.edu

Spanish-American War for Cuba's Independence, fcit.usf.edu

Crossing the Straits, loc.gov

Cuban Exiles in America, pbs.org

Transforming a City, loc.gov

Florida's Economy Booms, fcit.usf.edu

Tourism in Florida, fcit.usf.edu

Cape Canaveral: Launchpad to the Stars, fcit.usf.edu

Apollo 11 Mission Overview, nasa.gov

Facts About Florida Oranges & Citrus, visitflorida.com

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