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General Florida State History

Parrot in a Florida tree. Photo by: Betsy McDaniels

  People first lived in Florida at least 12,000 years ago. The rich variety of environments in prehistoric Florida supported a large number of plants and animals. The animal population included most mammals that we know today. In addition, many other large mammals that are now extinct (such as the saber-



tooth tiger, mastodon, giant armadillo, and camel) roamed the land.

The Florida coastline along the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico was very different 12,000 years ago. The sea level was much lower than it is today. As a result, the Florida peninsula was more than twice as large as it is now. The people who inhabited Florida at that time were hunters and gatherers, who only rarely sought big game for food. Modern researchers think that their diet consisted of small animals, plants, nuts, and shellfish. These first Floridians settled in areas where a steady water supply, good stone resources for tool making, and firewood were available. Over the centuries, these native people developed complex cultures. During the period prior to contact with Europeans, native societies of the peninsula developed cultivated agriculture, traded with other groups in what is now the southeastern United States, and increased their social organization, reflected in large temple mounds and village complexes.

Written records about life in Florida began with the arrival of the Spanish explorer and adventurer Juan Ponce de Leon in 1513. Sometime between April 2 and April 8, Ponce de Leon waded ashore on the northeast coast of Florida, possibly near present-day St. Augustine. He called the area la Florida, in honor of Pascua florida ("feast of the flowers"), Spain's Eastertime celebration. Other Europeans may have reached Florida earlier, but no firm evidence of such achievement has been found.

French adventurers prompted Spain to accelerate her plans for colonization. Pedro Menendez de Aviles hastened across the Atlantic, his sights set on removing the French and creating a Spanish settlement. Menendez arrived in 1565 at a place he called San Augustin (St. Augustine) and established the first permanent European settlement in what is now the United States. 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. Menendez captured Fort Caroline and renamed it San Mateo.



Beautiful blooming flower. Photo by: Ludmila Popova

  Britain gained control of Florida in 1763 in exchange for Havana, Cuba, which the British had captured from Spain during the Seven Years' War (1756-63).



Spain evacuated Florida after the exchange, leaving the province virtually empty. At that time, St. Augustine was still a garrison community with fewer than five hundred houses, and Pensacola also was a small military town.

When the British evacuated Florida, Spanish colonists as well as settlers from the newly formed United States came pouring in. Many of the new residents were lured by favorable Spanish terms for acquiring property, called land grants. Others who came were escaped slaves, trying to reach a place where their U.S. masters had no authority and effectively could not reach them. Instead of becoming more Spanish, the two Floridas increasingly became more "American." Finally, after several official and unofficial U.S. military expeditions into the territory, Spain formally ceded Florida to the United States in 1821, according to terms of the Adams-Onis Treaty.

Andrew Jackson returned to Florida in 1821 to establish a new territorial government on behalf of the United States. What the U.S. inherited was a wilderness sparsely dotted with settlements of native Indian people, African Americans, and Spaniards.

Florida became the twenty-seventh state in the United States on March 3, 1845. William D. Moseley was elected the new state's first governor, and David Levy Yulee, one of Florida's leading proponents for statehood, became a U.S. Senator. By 1850 the population had grown to 87,445, including about 39,000 African American slaves and 1,000 free blacks.

During the Civil War, Florida was not ravaged as several other southern states were. Indeed, no decisive battles were fought on Florida soil. While Union forces occupied many coastal towns and forts, the interior of the state remained in Confederate hands

During the final quarter of the nineteenth century, large-scale commercial agriculture in Florida, especially cattle-raising, grew in importance. Industries such as cigar manufacturing took root in the immigrant communities of the state.