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Overview of Florida History

Florida: Empire of the Sun


Adventurous sea rovers, intrepid Spanish explorers, courageous French colonists and sturdy English settlers have left their imprint on more than four centuries of colorful Florida history. The mystery of the tropics, enhanced by the magic allure of breeze-swept shores and moss-hung forest depths, has drawn to Florida the pioneer spirits of many countries and races, weaving a mosaic background for her dramatic growth and development.

Today, with all her modern progress, her smooth-paved highways, her splendid hotels, busy harbors and bustling cities, Florida still retains that delightful atmosphere of elusive tropic enchantment possessed by no other section of the United States.

Everywhere in Florida there is the startling contrast of an ancient past and a vivid present; traces of old Spanish ruins peer from dense palm thickets at the endless parade of modern motor cars; pirate treasure is still occasionally unearthed almost within the shadow of tall skyscrapers, orange seeds carelessly tossed into the jungle by armored soldiers of the Old World now represent a great citrus industry and the vast fossil deposits of prehistoric fish in Florida today supply eighty-four per cent of the phosphate used in this country.

The climate of Florida owes much of its charm to an almost perfect equability. In summer, the unfailing trade winds blow shoreward, cooled and cleansed by their journey over thousands of miles of open sea. In winter, the glorious sunshine brings constant warmth for outdoor living and the enjoyment of those sports which in other regions are limited to the summertime. Each season blends so gently into the other that sudden changes in temperature or unpleasant climatic conditions are unknown.

Americans have only recently learned to appreciate the therapeutic value of the actinic rays of the sun. Physicians prescribe periodic exposure to sunlight for certain ailments, and it is now more generally realized that outdoor activities under the direct rays of the sun will develop keener, more energetic and mentally active bodies. Even "sun rays lamps" are being used indoors and in climates where plenty of sunshine is not available.

These fundamental principles of health were known and practiced in Florida centuries before the advent of the white man. The native Floridians called themselves "Children of the Sun," and offered their first-born as a sacrifice to the Sun God. Each spring, the annual feast to the Sun God was celebrated by the Timuquan Indians, most prosperous of the Florida natives, with a dance and ritualistic ceremony, held in a large open space. A stag skin, stuffed with fruits and garlanded with flowers, was placed in the center, mounted upon a tall pole and facing toward the east. As the first rays of the rising sun appeared, the entire tribe bowed to the ground and prayed for the continued growth of crops and a greater abundance of game.

The ceremony of the Sun Festival continued through the day as, unclad, the worshippers played their ball games in the full rays of the sun. Records of the customs and rites of these early natives have been handed down by Florida's first explorers and missionaries who, considering the scanty attire of the Indians a menace to health, continued to wear the heavy clothing and quilted jackets of the Old World. These early explorers failed to learn that the secret of health could be found in the beneficent sunshine of the new land and was not the result of bathing in the magic waters of some imaginary spring.

The legend of the Fountain of Youth was first told to Ponce de Leon by the natives of the Bahama Islands who, envious of the great stature and strength of the Florida tribes, had made many voyages to the Florida mainland in search of the "magic spring," in which they felt certain the Floridians bathed.

Ponce de Leon was so impressed by their tales that his voyage to the new land was planned, its discovery and exploration being actuated by his search for health, rather than the greed for gold which had sent so many Spanish voyageurs to the shores of South America. When he first saw the low, white sand dunes and rolling surf of the mainland, he named it Florida, after Pascua Florida, the Easter Sunday, March 27, 1513, on which he landed.

During his explorations in Florida, Ponce de Leon bathed in many of the springs which are famous tourist resorts today, trying in vain to find the one with magical powers. Upon his return to Spain, he asked the king for permission to found a colony in Florida but it was eight years before his expedition could be organized. The adventurous Spaniard, with four hundred men and a shipload of horses, cattle and sheep, sailed for the New World, only to have his project end in disaster when he was mortally wounded by an Indian arrow shortly after his arrival. The first permanent Florida settlement was thus postponed for a period of fifty years.

During the years following Ponce de Leon's landing, Florida was often visited by roving pirate ships. These fierce sea robbers, preying upon the Spanish treasure fleets, found ideal hiding places in the bays and inlets of Florida's long, lonely coast. Later, in the eighteenth century, such famous pirates as Blackbeard, La Fitte, Black Caesar and Gasparilla also made their headquarters in Florida waters.

Slave traders, descending upon the coast at periodic intervals, would lure the natives on board their vessels with gaudy gifts and then sail away to the West Indies, where there was a constant demand among the Spanish planters for slave labor. Often the natives were found to be wearing gold trinkets they had salvaged from wrecked ships. This gave rise to rumors of gold in Florida and several expeditions were organized to explore the interior in search of treasure.

Two of the greatest military expeditions to the New World were led by Narvaez in 1528 and De Soto in 1539, both landing on the west coast of Florida. Although ending in disaster, they left a richer harvest in golden citrus fruits than that which they so vainly sought in mineral wealth. The Spanish had stored their ships with a plentiful supply of rough-coated sour oranges and on the long marches across Florida the seeds left behind on the fertile soil soon grew into thousands of wild orange trees. Sweet oranges have since been grafted upon this wild stock to produce the luscious and juicy Florida orange of today. The value of the citrus crop of Florida is now estimated at more than fifty million dollars a year.

After numerous Spanish attempts at colonizing Florida, Jean Ribaut, the first French explorer, returned home from a voyage to this country and reported: "This is the fairest, fruitfulest, pleasantest land of all the world." This was in 156 and two years later Rene de Laudonniere established a colony of Huguenots at the mouth of the St. Johns River, naming it Fort Caroline. Unfortunately, the French settlement aroused the ire of King Philip of Spain, and Pedro Menendez de Aviles was commissioned to "fortify the Florida coast, destroy the French and convert the Indians."

Menendez established a settlement at St. Augustine in 1565 and marched north with five hundred men to Fort Caroline. He arrived at the St. Johns River shortly after Ribaut who, with reinforcements for Fort Caroline, had reached Florida a second time. A storm destroyed most of Ribaut's fleet, enabling Menendez to capture the fort and to slaughter its defenders. In 1568, Dominique de Gourges of France organized an expedition to avenge his countrymen, and after razing Fort Caroline, which had been rebuilt by Menendez, he, in turn, killed the Spanish garrison.

In the years that followed, the Spanish fort at St. Augustine was greatly strengthened. The Spaniards enjoyed a remarkable record for health, which they thought was due to their habit of drinking sassafras tea, brewed for them by the Indians. All of Europe soon began drinking the new beverage and cargoes of sassafras sold for fabulous prices. The French and English traders often risked their lives in slipping through the vigilant Spanish coast patrol to secure the precious root from the Indians.

Spain's efforts at colonization were now directed toward the conversion of the Indians. More than forty missions had been established in Florida before the first priests were sent to California. The early fathers brought figs, sugar cane, oranges, pomegranates and bananas with them, and though their great missions, built of coquina rock and oyster shell, were afterwards destroyed by the English traders and slave hunters, the Spanish fruits flourished and grew in the fertile soil and congenial climate. The horses, cattle and hogs of the Spaniards also thrived in the new land and great wild herds of these imported animals roamed Florida before the Seminoles came down from Georgia to take the place of the vanished Mission Indians.

Great plantations lined the rivers and St. Augustine was crowded with Tory refugees from the Northern colonies, for Florida was the only province south of Canada which remained loyal to England through the American Revolution. It was a dreadful blow when all of this prosperous land had to be ceded back to Spain in 1784, and more than fifteen thousand English planters left Florida.

Troubles, too, were waiting for Spain when she resumed control here, for so few Spaniards came to Florida that she offered the fine English plantations, standing tenantless, to Americans who poured over the boundary in the first great land rush, making a conquest literally by colonization. By 1821, weakened from revolutions in South America and American uprisings in Florida, Spain was forced to cede Florida to the United States. The whole great territory was sold for five million dollars, and the United States paid this by assuming the war indemnities of American citizens, claimed against Spain.

The Americans suffered tremendous handicaps in colonization due to the long and ruinous Seminole wars, which resulted in the building of a chain of forts and stockades throughout Florida. These rude log forts were the beginnings of most of Florida's cities of today, for many soldiers returned to their old barracks and took up home sites where they had lately fought against the Indians.

The same thing happened after the War Between the States and the Spanish-American War. Soldiers returning to their Northern homes from Florida camps told such glowing tales of the rich lands, mild climate and wonderful waterways, that their families consented to undertake pioneering in the far South.

By the early eighties, tourists were coming regularly to Jacksonville and the St. Johns river towns, and such writers as Sidney Lanier and Theodore Irving, nephew of Washington Irving, were telling an interested country about the bright sunshine, the splendid fish and game, the marvelous beaches and unfailing trade winds here. Two great pioneer financiers, Henry M. Flagler and Henry B. Plant, finally became interested in these resort features of Florida and started a friendly rivalry, Flagler developing the East and Plant the West Coast by constructing railroads and erecting great resort hotels. Though Mr. Plant did a great service for the West Coast, Mr. Flagler's achievement was considered the greatest program of resort development in the world-the construction of a railroad 522 miles long, extending through the tropic wilderness of the East Coast and beyond the mainland over the ocean to Key West, together with the erection of a great chain of resort hotels.

After the World War, the nation became suddenly Florida-conscious as never before. Its accessibility to the great eastern and mid-western centers of population, its wonderful hotel facilities, its varied resources for amusement on land and water were described by newspapers and magazines all over the country. Even the California gold rushes and Southwestern oil booms faded into insignificance in comparison with the great population trek to Florida during 1925 and 1926.

From 1920 to 1925, the population of Florida increased four times as fast as the country as a whole. Miami in 1900 had a population of 2,000, in 1920, 30,000; in 1925, 71,419; in 1930, 110,000. All other cities of the state received their quota of newcomers also, who continued to come through the summer months as well as the winter, thus discovering Florida's advantages as a year-round resort state. Although the orgy of land speculations resulted in a period of deflation, tourists have continued to come in steadily increasing numbers and the unfailing attractions of Florida-incomparable sunshine and the refreshing ocean breezes-continue to win hundreds of thousands of new friends every year.

Like a gigantic amusement pier, the great peninsula of Florida stretches out into the tempering waters of ocean and gulf, providing a natural year-round playground for the nation. Here all kinds of sports which elsewhere are played only in summer, may be continually enjoyed amid beautiful scenic surroundings-polo among the palms; horse racing and greyhound racing under an azure sky; bowling on a green which never knew the blight of snow; shuffleboard, horseshoe pitching, volley ball and hand ball in tropical parks where daily throngs meet in carefree competition.

Jai Alai, a game imported by way of Cuba and South America from Spain, adds a typical Spanish note to the list of Florida amusements. It is said to be the fastest game in the world, and is a thrilling spectacle to Northern visitors. The golfer will find it possible to play on fairways wherever he may go, throughout the entire length of the state. The tennis enthusiast finds breeze-cooled courts beside ocean, lake and stream in every resort. National tournaments, participated in by the foremost stars of golf, swimming and tennis are held in Florida during the winter months.

For birds as well as men, Florida is a refuge in winter time and great flocks of dusky mallards, geese and other migratory birds are to be found on the lakes and streams. Wild turkey, quail, deer and bear are plentiful in the Florida woods and a permanent supply is always assured as a result of ten large game preserves which have been established in different sections of the state.

Above all, Florida excels in her water sports, whose variety is as infinite as their settings are beautiful. Surf bathing and motoring on wide, white, gently-sloping beaches is unequalled anywhere else in the world. Great crystal springs, found in almost every part of the state, provide the setting for ideal health resorts. Deepsea fishing for huge silver tarpon or giant sailfish in Florida waters is considered one of the most thrilling sports ever enjoyed by amateur fishermen.

Another sport which has recently become popular is inland waterway cruising on Florida's widely distributed system of canals, rivers, and lakes. Skimming over the winding streams, it is possible to reach every portion of the state and to explore hitherto inaccessible and beautiful retreats where black bass, bream, trout and perch may be had in abundance. A fisherman could traverse these waterways for an entire season without passing the same spot twice, for Florida's thirty-five thousand lakes, with myriad rivers and canals, form a veritable network of navigable waters, unsurpassed in picturesque appeal.

Excerpt from "Florida: Empire of the Sun," published in 1930 by the Florida State Hotel Commission, Tallahassee, Florida.


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