A Brief


Behind Florida’s modern veneer lies a long and rich past, molded by many different nationalities and cultures. Tourism has driven development since the mid-20th century, but not without consequences for the Sunshine State’s rich natural environment.

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t An illustration of West Palm Beach from 1915.

First Inhabitants

Humans first arrived in Florida after the last Ice Age and for some 11,500 years were split into many small groups. Some remained nomadic hunter-gatherers, while others developed permanent settlements along Florida’s rivers and rich seaboard.

Spanish Florida

After sighting Florida in 1513, the Spanish were the first Europeans to colonize the region, introducing Christianity, horses, and cattle. The brutality of the conquistadors, plus European diseases, decimated the indigenous population. Florida changed hands several times between the Spanish and British throughout the 18th century, returning under Spanish control by the end of the American Revolution.

The Seminole Wars and Civil War

During the 1800s, the US saw conflict with Florida’s native Seminoles three times. In 1816 American Andrew Jackson attacked the Seminoles for harboring runaway slaves, a war that led to Florida becoming part of the US by 1822. As American settlement quickened pace, the government passed the Indian Removal Act, which aimed to move all American Indians west of the Mississippi River. The resulting conflicts developed into the Second and Third Seminole Wars.

By the mid-1800s, enslaved people formed over a third of Florida’s population, most working on cotton plantations. After Abraham Lincoln – an opponent of slavery – was elected president in 1860, Florida seceded from the Union, helping to form the Confederate States. The ensuing Civil War saw victory for the Union and the end of slavery in Florida.

Antebellum Florida

American settlement proceeded quickly, and the plantation system was firmly established in northern Florida. The settlers wanted good land, so the Federal government tried to move all Indians west of the Mississippi. The resulting conflicts developed into the Second and Third Seminole Wars (1835–42 and 1855–8 respectively). After Abraham Lincoln – an opponent of slavery – was elected president in 1860, Florida became the third state to secede from the Union, and helped to form the Confederate States. During the ensuing Civil War (1861–5) between the Union and the Confederacy, Florida saw little action; its chief role was to supply food to the Confederates.

Florida’s Golden Age

Florida’s economy was devastated after the Civil War, but its fine climate and small population made it ripe for investment. Railroad barons Henry Flagler and Henry Plant forged their lines down the east and west coasts of Florida during the late 1880s and 1890s, and luxurious hotels attracted tourists in increasing numbers, stimulating the economy. A diverse agricultural base also sheltered Florida from the depression of the 1890s. Paradoxically, during this period Ku Klux Klan violence grew, and segregation was the norm.

Boom, Bust, and Recovery

During the first half of the 20th century, Florida experienced both rapid growth and depression. Northerners poured in, excited by the rampant development during the 1920s land boom but a real estate slump ruined many in the state in 1926, followed by further financial disasters during the Great Depression a few years later. Economic recovery came earlier than in the rest of the US, however, with the growth of tourism and the introduction of Federal relief schemes.

The 1960s and Beyond

Tourism expanded at an unprecedented rate from 1960. Attractions such as Walt Disney World®, Universal Studios®, and the Kennedy Space Center – home to NASA’s space program – brought worldwide fame and crowds of visitors. The population also grew rapidly, through migration from within the US and from abroad, particularly Cuba, as many Hispanic people fled to Florida during the Castro regime (1959–2016).

Florida Today

Tourism continues to boom, with the state welcoming record numbers almost every year. Economic inequalities have led to social problems, however, and the state’s urbanization has put a severe strain on the environment. Conservation has become a major issue, as year-on-year the state witnesses the results of climate change – all of which have immediate and long-term effects on the state’s economic foundations: tourism and agriculture. Despite this, Florida is still known for fun, beaches, and sunshine, and draws in vacationers from near and far.

Did You Know?

In the 20th century Florida became the largest citrus producer in the country, helping it to survive the Great Depression.

A Golden Age OF Tourism

Tourists first explored Florida’s interior by paddlesteamer, and steamboats plied scenic rivers such as the Oklawaha and the St. Johns. Later, railroads were used by rich tourists wanting to escape the northern winters; these “snow- birds” would spend the winter season in style, in resort towns such as Tampa and St. Augustine.

DISCOVER A Brief History

Timeline of events

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Ponce de León becomes the first European to find Florida; he unsuccessfully tries to establish a Spanish colony eight years later.


Spanish Conquistador Pedro Menéndez de Avilés establishes St. Augustine, the first permanent European settlement in the “New World.”


The Spanish trade Florida with Britain in return for Havana, Cuba.

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The American Revolutionary War; British-held Florida is ceded to the Spanish once again.


American patriots demand that the US annex East Florida from the Spanish; their attempt fails but instils the feeling that Florida should belong to America.


The First Seminole War. The Second and Third Seminole Wars followed in 1835–42 and 1855–8 respectively.

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On July 4 Florida becomes the 27th state of the USA.

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The American Civil War, during which Florida saw little action.

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Flagler starts construction of the Florida East Coast Railway.


Florida land prices crash, two banks collapse, and a hurricane hits the southeast and the Everglades, devastating Miami.


World War II; in 1942 German U-boats torpedo a tanker just off the coast of Florida, in full view of bathers.

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Civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. is arrested and imprisoned in St. Augustine.


The first Earth satellite, Explorer I, is launched from Florida after NASA chooses Cape Canaveral as the site of its NASA satellite and rocket programs.

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The Magic Kingdom®, Walt Disney’s first venture in Florida, opens in Orlando at a cost of $700 million.


Florida becomes the focus of the entire nation during the presidential election; various controversies result in a vote recount in several counties.

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Hurricane Irma wreaks havoc in Florida; over 6 million people evacuate their homes, the largest evacuation in the state’s history.

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