American History

The Evolution of Florida

Florida has changed hands many times in its long history as a European colony and state. Here’s the story of Florida’s journey from Spanish outpost to 27th state.

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Florida has a long and checkered history in North America. The indigenous culture remained a uniform one from what the archaeological evidence tells, until about 500 years ago. At that time, the native people began to divide into distinctive tribes, which they remained in throughout the period of Spanish, British, and American colonization.

Florida was continuously inhabited by European colonists beginning in 1513 with the Spanish. The Spanish had a monopoly on European colonization in Florida until the late 1600s when French and British explorers began to set up rival settlements. Native American tribes took sides with the various colonists, usually whoever was fighting against their rival tribes. Attacks were made upon Spanish settlements by both the French and the British with the help of their Native allies. Yet, the Spanish managed to retain their control of most of Florida for a very long time.

Once British colonization of the Americas began in earnest, Florida also became a haven for African slaves who were looking for a place to be free. The Spanish did not practice slavery in Florida by the 1700s, and this made Florida a perfect place for runaway slaves to go and set up their own communities, which they did in droves. In fact, the Spanish invited African slaves there, with full citizenship rights and freedom if they would convert to Catholicism. It was a way to annoy the British, who coveted the Florida territory for themselves.

The British did gain temporary control of Florida in 1763 after defeating the French in the French and Indian War. Part of the resulting Peace of Paris treaty involved the voluntary exchange of some Spanish lands with Britain. Britain then divided Florida into two territories… East Florida and West Florida, and governed them as two separate colonies. However, the British occupation of Florida did not last. When they lost the American Revolution, the new United States returned Florida to Spain.

Spain continued to govern Florida as East Florida and West Florida and offered free land grants to anyone from the American colonies who wanted to use them. Many Americans moved to Florida as a result.

However, Spain was determined to increase its territory. It encouraged local natives to raid areas in Georgia, often helping them. These raids resulted in the first Seminole Wars, which the United States won. After the War of 1812 and the concurrent second Seminole Wars, the United States gained control over Florida once and for all.

The Spanish left, and Florida became a United States territory. Many people from Georgia and the Carolinas migrated there in the mid-1800s to eke out new lives in the swampy wilderness, thanks to the plentiful free land. Florida began to transform into an American farming community. By 1845, it was admitted as the 27th state.

While Florida seceded with many other southern slave states (the United States allowed slavery there when it admitted Florida as a state), it eventually reconciled with the rest of the nation after the end of the Civil War. Since then, Florida has been steadily growing, going from farming to industrial to tourist-based in nature, until it became the Florida we know and love today.

Florida records from its beginning to today are found in a variety of places. Early colonial records from Spain and France are found in Spanish and French archives overseas. Even records from the British period are found in British archives. Beginning with American control, early records of Florida and the people who helped settle it are to be found in both the National Archives of the United States, as well as in the state archives of Florida. The Florida Memory project, which is a part of the website of the Florida state archives, has a nice collection of digitized records online dating back to the early period of American settlement back in the 1830s and 1840s. Anyone with American ancestry in the early settlement period of Florida should start their search there.

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