FLORIDA HISTORY When people think of Florida, they think of Disney World, Miami, Key West, Everglades but also of great beaches, resorts and hurricanes too.
Miami is the 27th State of the United States, shaped as a ‘Panhandle’ that runs along the coastline of the Gulf of Mexico and a long peninsula that stretches from the State of Georgia in the north all the way south to the islands in Key West. The State Capital of Florida is Tallahassee in the north.
Holiday makers from across the United States and Canada, as well as International Tourists head to Florida for the sun, beaches, resorts, Disney World and Theme Parks, while retirees from Northern States head to Florida to retire and escape the cold in the winter months.
Cubans and Spanish speaking people from across the Caribbean and South America also head to Florida as the closest entry point to the United States. In Miami you are just as likely to hear Spanish being spoken in the streets and cafes as you are to hear English and just as likely to see “Pero Caliente” listed on a menu as you are to see “Hot Dog”!
The Explorer, Christopher Columbus (c.1451-1506) first sailed from Spain to the Caribbean Islands in 1492, discovering what became known as the “New World” though he never set foot on North American soil. He did however trade with natives in the Bahamas, taking some of their gold jewellery back with him to Spain to the Royal Court. Voyages of discovery were both risky and expensive, and the thought of finding a fortune in Gold became an incentive to fund his further voyages and those who followed. This was the start of the great Spanish conquests, voyages and establishment of the Spanish Empire in the New World, with Gold Treasure and the wealth that flowed to Spain being the biggest incentive in the creation of the Spanish Empire.
Florida’s Spanish connection goes right back to the early 1500’s when Spanish Explorer, Juan Ponce de León (1474-1521) first came ashore near today’s St Augustine on the north-east side Florida coastline in 1513, returning again in 1521 to try and establish a settlement on the west side of the peninsula. Attack by local Indian tribes forced the Spaniards to abandon the settlement and Juan Ponce de León in the attack was hit by an Indian arrow and later died of his wounds.
In his second return to St Augustine he also brought horses and livestock with him from Hispaniola (Haiti), and this was probably the first time that horses were be seen in North America, horses having been extinct in North America since pre-historic days. The horses in Hispaniola had been brought there in 1493 by Christopher Columbus. In the early 1800’s feral horses and cattle were found, and in all possibility some of these may have been descendants from that time. He is also credited as planting the first orange tree in Florida.
Further exploration followed in 1539 led by Hernando de Soto (1496-1542) and another attempt to establish a settlement was made in 1559 by Tristάn de Luna Y Arellano (1519-1571) at Pensacola on the Gulf of Mexico which also failed when his ships and the new settlement were hit by a Hurricane, with only a small group of soldiers remaining there until 1561. It would not be until 1698, one hundred and thirty nine years later that the Spanish returned to re-establish a settlement in Pensacola.
The 1500’s to 1800’s was a time of great rivalry between the major European powers – Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, French and English as they fought between each other to build their empires, settlements and colonies in Africa, Asia, Australia and the Americas. It was also a time when Kings, Queens and Royal Courts ruled over their subjects, as the ‘Divine rulers of God’.
With each new conquest, the European Powers sought to find wealth but also to bring civilisation, law, order, language, their religion and convert ‘heathen savages’ and local tribes to their way of life.
During the 1500’s French Huguenots – the religion based on Calvinist thinking, were under violent attack in France, challenging the main Catholic Religion, its pomp and ceremony and allegiance to the Pope. As a result many Huguenots during the 1500’s fled France seeking their religious freedom.
In 1562 one hundred and fifty Huguenots under the leadership of Jean Ribault (1520-1565) sailed from France to establish a new colony on the east coast of Florida, first landing at St John’s River, where Jacksonville is now located. Here they erected a stone pillar to signify French occupation before sailing further north to establish a French Colony on Parris Island in what is now South Carolina, where they build a fort, calling it Charlesfort.
Having established the fort, Jean Ribault returned to France for fresh supplies, but by the time he arrived back in France a war had broken out between French Catholics and the Huguenots and he fled to England, where he was arrested as a spy and placed in the Tower of London. The Charlesfort settlers while he was away quickly became disillusioned and the soldiers left there mutinied and then abandoned the Charlesfort settlement and headed back to France, most dying on the way, with those who survived being rescued off the coast of England.
A second French Expedition, led by René Goulaine de Laudonnière (c.1529-1574) who had sailed with Jean Ribault, was organised in 1564 and they managed to set up a new colony on St John’s River where Jacksonville is now located, naming the new settlement, Fort Caroline. This settlement also struggled to survive too, but in 1565 Jean Ribault, having been released from the Tower of London and returned to France, set out on a new voyage to Fort Caroline with sailors, soldiers and settlers on-board three ships.
By this time, the Spanish had become well aware of the French settlement at Fort Caroline and a Spanish Admiral, Pedro Menéndez de Avilés (1519-1574) also in 1565 set out to establish a settlement at St Augustine, where the Timucua Indian village of Seloy was located just south of Fort Caroline. He had been responsible for protecting the convoys of Spanish Galleons shipping their gold and other treasures to Spain. The Admiral was well accustomed to destroying Pirate ships that attempted to take gold from the Spanish, the whole Caribbean area being regarded as a Spanish domain, and any interlopers considered as invaders.
A short battle at sea between the French and Spanish followed, but then a Hurricane sealed the fate of the French when their ships were torn apart at sea, and Fort Caroline was left almost defenceless, allowing the Spanish who had sheltered their fleet, to head overland to Fort Caroline and destroy it, killing almost all the ‘Heretics’ who were there, and then killing the sailors who returned, including Jean Ribault, and renaming Fort Caroline as San Mateo. A few French survivors, including René de Laudonnière managed to escape execution, and they returned to France, while some of the captured women and children were sent to Puerto Rico.
It was however the end of French settlements in West Florida, although a revenge attack was mounted in 1568 on St Augustine and the San Mateo Fort by the French pirate adventurer, Dominique de Gourgues (1530-1593), who with Timucuan Indian support attacked, killed in battle and hung the Spaniards they found there to avenge French Honor and destroy the San Mateo Fort.
St Augustine however remained in Spanish control, and over coming years it was also attacked by Buccaneer Pirates including Sir Francis Drake in 1586, who looted and burned the town.
St Augustine was again attacked by pirates over the coming century, right up to 1668 and so in 1672 construction began on building the Castillo de San Marcos using Coquina rock quarried from the nearby Island of Anastasia, the earlier forts having been built using logs of timber. The building of the Castillo proved very effective and additional forts were also built nearby around 1738-40 – Fort Matanzas and Fort Mose – all coming under attack from British forces coming south from their colony in Georgia.
While St Augustine and the Spanish had successfully defended the town and fort, it was the signing of the Treaty between Spain and Britain in 1763 following the Seven Year War (French and Indian War) that saw St Augustine come under British control with Spanish Florida ceded to the British in exchange for Cuba. It would again change in 1821 coming under United States control following the War of Independence.
Today, St Augustine is seen as the oldest town in the United States, based on it being established in 1565. Pensacola also claims this title based on the first but failed attempt to establish a settlement there in 1559 while St Augustine claims the title on the basis that it has been continuously “occupied”, whereas Pensacola was abandoned for a number of years. Both settlements however pre-date Jamestown, Virginia – established in 1607 and Plymouth Rock and the Mayflower Pilgrims who arrived there in 1620.
Florida also had a seesaw of ownership being under Spanish control until 1719 when the French briefly took control for a few months in Pensacola, then Spanish again, then British (1764 -1783) who divided Florida into two halves – East Florida and West Florida, again Spanish (1783-1821) then Spain under the Onis- Adams Treaty of 1819 ceded Florida to the United States in 1821. Battles, treaties, wars in Europe, the American War of Independence, slavery, Indian uprisings, land grants, land claims, independence struggles all played a part in these early years, but that would not be the end of confrontation.
For thousands of years Florida had been the home of a large number of Native American tribes living throughout Florida prior to the Spanish arriving in the 1500’s. It was inevitable that clashes would occur between the Conquistadors and Spanish missions and Forts were built mainly for protection from Ship attack, but also from Native American attack too. Many of the Native Americans were also captured and taken as slaves, while large numbers also succumbed to European diseases, including Measles, Smallpox and even common colds to which they had no resistance. Equally diseases such as Malaria and Cholera also took a toll on both the Native American and European sailors, settlers and explorers.
During the British Rule (1763-1783) and Spanish control (1783-1821) land grants in the East and West Florida Territory to encourage settlement of Florida and many Americans from Georgia and Louisiana headed to Florida to take advantage of this.
Runaway slaves from the southern states also headed for Florida in the hope of avoiding capture, with the promise of freedom too and possible land grants too. Native Americans also from Georgia and Alabama (Maskókî ) or what the Spanish called all native Americans ‘Cimarrones’ (Free People) also headed to Florida, when they were driven off their land and forced onto reservations.
Though there were many tribal groups including Yamassee, Youchi, Tequesta, Choctaw, Hitchiti, Tocobaga and others, they began to be all known simply as ‘Seminole’ people, or very simply as ‘Indians’.
What followed was a series of wars in Florida, what became known as the ‘Seminole Wars – the first Seminole War being between 1816 and 1819 when General Andrew Jackson (1767-1845) from Tennessee attacked the Seminole strongholds and forts in West Florida in reprisal for them attacking settlers and others both within Florida and north in Georgia. General Andrew Jackson was fresh from fighting the Maskókî in the ‘Creek War’ in Alabama and Georgia (1813-14), and the year before in 1812 the Battle of New Orleans against the British. His success as a leader in these battles would later lead to him becoming the 7th President of the United States from 1829 to 1837. There is also no doubt that this first Seminole War was also staged as a way of proving that the Spanish did not have real authority over Florida, as a pre-curser to the Americans themselves gaining control over the Spanish Territory through the Onis-Adams Treaty that followed in 1819.
The second Seminole War occurred between American forces and the Seminole between 1835 and 1842 and a third Seminole War occurred between 1855 and 1858, during which time there were on-going battles, murders, hangings, burnings, imprisonments, ambushes, forced evictions and removals, treaties and bribes paid to secure the land with both sides having casualties. At one stage the US army, US navy and US Marines were all doing battle with the Seminoles whose guerrilla fighters fought back using their knowledge of the swamplands and territory to keep fighting.
Legislation was even brought to bear through Congress, including the infamous ‘Indian Removal Act’ of 1830, championed by then President Andrew Jackson which led in 1832 to some 3000 Seminole people being forcefully taken from Florida to Oklahoma, over a thousand mile journey from their homeland. The Seminole people were not the only ones affected by these laws, with the infamous ‘Trail of tears’ resulting in Choctaw, Creek, Chickasaw and Cherokees and other non-native Americans, an estimated 40,000 people, forced to leave all their lands east of the Mississippi River. A further piece of legislation ‘The Armed Occupation Act’, enacted in 1842 provided free land to settlers on the basis that they improved the land and defended themselves from Indian attack!
Florida forts were also used as prisons too during the 1800’s with even Apaches from Arizona transported here as late as 1898.
The Seminoles who had been able to escape capture and remain in Florida never signed a Peace Treaty and there was a very real possibility that their nation might become extinct. Today, the Seminole people have emerged from this dark period of history and are once more taking pride in their culture and traditions, with some 90,000 acres of land under their control in six reservations in Florida, with enterprises in Hotels, Casinos, orange orchards, fishing, safaris, museums, craftworks and other enterprises.
While Native Americans prior to Spanish occupation grew crops and hunted game and fished, Florida’s first significant industry was in cattle ranching, which began when the Spanish first came to its shores bringing with them cattle from Cuba and Spain. When Ranchers from Georgia and other states came to Florida after it became American territory they found both wild horse and cattle roaming freely in the grasslands, and also a small number of established ranches. They also brought with them their cows too of British origin, and skills in horsemanship. The wild Spanish horses when tamed were called ‘Cracker Horses’, the name given to them on account of the whip cracking that the cowboys used when rounding up cattle. There are still ‘cracker horses’ being bred in Florida.
Florida became the 27th State in the USA in 1845, and in 1855 US Congress granted the State ownership over some 15 million acres of land, much of it being swamplands and the State then formed a Trust called the “Internal Improvement Fund” for the purpose of developing infrastructure, principally Railroads and Canal building to drain some of the swamplands. The Fund was designed to provide a guarantee to companies that issued bonds for their railroad or other large projects. Unfortunately some of the Railroad builders defaulted on their bond repayments, and the Fund ended up with heavy debts. Rescue came by means of a rich Philadelphian businessman, Hamilton Disson (1844-1896) who owned a saw making business, on the basis of him building canals to drain swamplands, whereby he would buy the debt from the Fund, on the basis of gaining ownership over land that would be drained. This gave him ownership over some 4 million acres of land, and while this was perhaps the deal of the century, it also soured when floods, drought and hurricanes caused havoc with the plans that had been laid down. Nonetheless this was the start of much of the canal building and draining of wetlands in Florida, and also a land boom at the time when Disston promoted sales of his real estate to investors in the north, but also through offices he set up across Europe.
The tourist industry also began around 1870 following the American Civil War (1861-65) as people from the Northern states sought to find a warm climate in which to take their holidays, or were recommended to find a warmer climate for their health. The Clyde New England and Southern Line ran Side–Wheeler steamboats from Boston, Providence and Charleston down to Jacksonville on the St John’s River, where passengers and goods were then transferred onto stern-wheelers for the journey up river.
Henry Morrison Flagler (1830-1913) a New Yorker who was a partner with John D Rockefeller in setting up Standard Oil in 1870, becoming extremely wealthy in the process also travelled south to Florida
In 1878 Flagler brought his ailing wife to Jacksonville where she unfortunately died, but seeing the small town and also St Augustine, he saw the potential of building guest hotels for holiday visitors. He went on to build a number of hotels in St Augustine and also Miami and even a grand house in Palm Beach called “Whitehall” – now the Flagler Museum at 1 Whitehall Way in Palm Beach (see www.flaglermuseum.us Tel: 561 655 2833). In 1912 he also completed building a railroad track to Key West called the Over-Sea Railroad, hoping to service the Port and ships that would head to the Panama Canal that opened in 1915. The Over-Sea Railroad was destroyed by a Hurricane in 1935, and today there is only road transport over a long series of bridges that link the islands to the mainland.
Another entrepreneur, Henry Bradley Plant ( 1819-1899) in the 1880’s also saw the potential to develop a travel holiday business, and he too was involved in building railroads, running steam ships and hotels, his biggest hotel being the opulent 500 room hotel in Tampa with minaret turrets and other grand Moorish features with a stunning décor inside and tropical gardens outside. It has been restored and is located at 401 West Kennedy Boulevard (See www.plantmuseum.com Tel: 813 254 1891).
The building of railroads, canals and steamboats provided the transport links for goods to be transported into and out of Florida to northern markets and Florida oranges, rice, sugar and other agricultural goods found a ready market.
The island of Cuba, some 90 or so miles from Florida, also has a long association with Florida from the early days of Spanish occupation to today, with Florida and particularly Miami being a center for Cuban migrants to emigrate to.
Vicente Martinez Ybor (1818-1896) was born in Spain, but settled in Cuba where he established a cigar making business. In 1885 he decided to re-locate it to Florida, coming first to Key West and then to Tampa, where the cigar making business flourished. Other cigar makers followed as did workers from Cuba and elsewhere, and by the end of the 1920’s over 500 million individual cigars were being made in Tampa and Ybor City, the town that initially began as Cigar worker’s homes.
Throughout history, people have migrated from places where they were born to new places – from farms to cities, one city and sometimes country to another for many reasons – either to leave where they have come from or to seek a new life in a new better location for themselves and their family. Reasons vary, but wars, revolutions, politics, violence, education, religion, weather, famine, food, droughts, floods, lack of jobs, security, family all play a part, but high on the list of reasons are jobs and the possibility of being better off.
Florida has attracted migrants from all over the world, but particularly it has attracted migrants from Cuba and the islands in the Caribbean, with its large Spanish speaking population and its geographical closeness to Cuba and other islands. The Cubana Americanos have brought with them their culture, food, music, dance and passion, and Florida today represents a fusion of cultures, with a tropical overlay of American fast food, surf culture, theme park resorts, tourism, retirees, business, technology and education creating a diverse economy and lifestyle.
Florida has lived through countless hurricanes, as well as the Great Depression, Wars, racial tensions, mob violence, drugs and real estate economic booms and busts, and there is no doubt that it will continue to survive and experience new challenges as time goes on. There is no doubt however that Florida plays an important part in defining what makes the United States, the United States.