Although the Florida peninsula was probably sighted by earlier navigators, the Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León is credited as the first European to visit the area. Landing near the site of Saint Augustine in 1513, he claimed the area, which he thought was an island, for Spain, naming it Florida, probably because it was then the Easter season ( Pascua Florida ). The legend that he was seeking the fabled fountain of youth was fabricated after his death by an enemy at court who sought to discredit him. Other Spanish adventurers, notably Pánfilo de Narváez and Hernando De Soto, later explored the region and established that Florida was not an island. The vast region that comprises most of the SE United States was claimed for Spain, the whole being known as Florida.
It was the activity of the French in the area, however, that led to actual Spanish settlement of the Florida peninsula. In May, 1562, Jean Ribaut had discovered the St. Johns River, and two years later René de Laudonnière built Fort Caroline at its mouth. Alarmed at this encroachment by the French, Philip II of Spain commissioned Pedro Menéndez de Aviles to drive the French out of the area; this he did ruthlessly. Spanish colonization began when Menéndez founded St. Augustine in 1565. Florida had no precious metals to spur conquest (as in Mexico and Peru), its soil seemed infertile (Spanish Florida was never self-sufficient agriculturally), and the Native Americans resented their encroachment. However, the Spanish were compelled to hold Florida because of its strategic location along the Straits of Florida, through which rich treasure ships from the south sailed for Spain.
In the 1600s the English, who were trying to expand their American colonial holdings after 1607, began to threaten Florida. St. Augustine was attacked several times by English corsairs and in 1702–3 was besieged by a force from the English colony in South Carolina. In 1742, English colonists from Georgia under James E. Oglethorpe, Georgia's founder, defeated the Spanish in the battle of Bloody Marsh on St. Simons Island, making Florida's northern boundary the St. Marys River. Spain's last-minute entry (1762) into the Seven Years War cost her Florida, which the British acquired through the Treaty of Paris (1763).
Under the British (1763–83), Florida was divided into two provinces, and St. Augustine and Pensacola were respectively made the capitals of East Florida and West Florida. Under the Treaty of Paris (1783), Florida was returned to Spain. Many colonists in Florida abandoned the region and moved to British possessions in the West Indies. Spain's hold over Florida, however, was extremely tenuous. Boundary disputes developed with the United States (see West Florida Controversy). In the War of 1812, Pensacola served as a British base until captured (1814) by U.S. General Andrew Jackson.
In 1819, after years of diplomatic wrangling, Spain reluctantly signed the Adams-Onis treaty ceding Florida to the United States in return for U.S. assumption of $5 million in damages claimed by U.S. citizens against Spain. Official U.S. occupation took place in 1821, and Andrew Jackson was appointed military governor. Florida, with its present boundaries, was organized as a territory in 1822, and William P. Duval became its first territorial governor.
Settlers poured in from neighboring states, settling especially in the area around the newly founded capital of Tallahassee. A plantation economy flourished there, with cotton and tobacco the chief crops, and slavery became widespread. Settlement expanded southward and displaced the Seminoles, and wars with them seriously impeded Florida's development. A group of Seminole, under Osceola, resisted attempts to move them to the West, but eventually most of them were transported out of the region at the end of the Second Seminole War (1835–42). However, a small band fled to the wilderness of the Everglades and their descendants live on reservations in the Lake Okeechobee area.
Florida was admitted to the Union in 1845 as a slaveholding state. After Abraham Lincoln was elected President in 1860 proslavery sentiment in Florida led the state to secede from the Union in 1861 and join the Confederacy. Florida furnished vital supplies (particularly salt and cattle) to the Confederacy. The most important Civil War engagement fought in Florida was the battle of Olustee (Feb. 20, 1864), a Confederate victory.
After the war Florida was placed under military rule by Congress. A constitution was drafted providing for black suffrage, and the state was readmitted to the Union in 1868. The constitution had been drafted by moderate Republicans, some of whom were from the North, and these same Republicans held most political offices until 1876, when the Democrats were returned to power and African Americans were once again relegated to an inferior position. In 1885 a new constitution replaced the Reconstruction charter of 1868.
In 1881 Florida sold 4,000,000 acres (1,618,800 hectares) of land to real-estate promoters. Northern capitalists such as Henry M. Flagler built railroads and hotels, and Florida began to develop. The drainage of the N Everglades, begun in 1906, precipitated one of the state's periodic land booms. Because of environmental degradation due to farming these drained lands, areas are now being restored to their natural state. The most famous of Florida's land booms started after World War I and reached its peak in 1925 when land values achieved fantastic heights, only to collapse completely the following year.
Florida weathered the depression of the 1930s with the help of the federal government, and during World War II prospered from army, navy, and air force installations. After the war the state enjoyed phenomenal growth. Virtually unlimited water resources, as well as the pleasant climate, were important factors in attracting new industries. Manufacturing, particularly industries related to aeronautics, developed at an extraordinary rate.
Close to Cuba, Florida has often been involved in the affairs of that island. During the latter half of the 19th cent., Cubans rebelling against Spain received sanctuary and aid in Florida, and the state enthusiastically supported and profited economically from the Spanish-American War (1898), in which Tampa was the chief U.S. base. Florida's relationship with Cuba has become even closer in the 20th cent. Political refugees from the Cuban revolution of 1958–59 poured into Florida by the thousands, creating acute resettlement problems. In 1980 more than 100,000 Cuban refugees came to the United States, mostly through Florida, after Fidel Castro briefly opened the port of Mariel to a flotilla of privately chartered U.S. ships (see Cuba).
In the early 1990s, Florida was again the receiving ground for thousands of refugees, this time from Haiti, following the 1991 military coup in that country, as well as another wave from Cuba in 1994. Miami has been profoundly influenced by the massive influx of Cubans and other Caribbean people, both culturally and commercially. The city functions as the trade center of Latin America.
Florida has been one of the fastest growing states in the country for many decades. During the 1980s it surpassed Ohio, Illinois, and Pennsylvania to become the fourth largest state, and has retained that position. Thousands of retired persons have settled in the state, particularly in St. Petersburg on the west coast and on the eastern coast from West Palm Beach to the vicinity of Miami, nicknamed the "Gold Coast." The central interior of the state is the fastest growing region, particularly the corridor along Interstate 4, which connects the Tampa Bay–St. Petersburg area through Orlando to Daytona Beach.
Florida is subject to hurricanes, and the extensive development during the late 20th cent. has led to an increase in the damage caused by such storms. Hurricane Andrew devastated much of S Florida in 1992, leaving over 200,000 people homeless and costing property insurers more than $15 billion. In 1995, Hurricane Opal raged along the Panhandle coast. Four hurricanes struck Florida in 2004, resulting in widespread damage, and Hurricane Wilma also caused extensive damage in S Florida the following year. In 1994 the state approved a $685 million program to restore the deteriorating Everglades ecosystem, and in 1996 the federal government substantially enlarged the Everglades plans. Those plans, however, were complicated by expenses associated with the state's 2008 decision to purchase sizable farmland acreage in the N Everglades, but in 2010 the proposed purchases were scaled back significantly.
In Nov., 2000, Florida became the focus of unlooked-for national attention when George W. Bush and Al Gore found themselves separated by a thin margin in the contest for the state's electoral votes, which both needed to win the presidency. With Bush holding a lead of a few hundred out of several million, the outcome was fought over in the state government, state and federal courts, and the media. Ultimately, the U.S. Supreme Court weighed in on Bush's side in December, but deficiencies that were exposed in voting systems, recount methods, and even ballot design guaranteed that victory would be tarnished no matter who won (and led to an overhaul of Florida's election system).