There were, of course, already Native Americans living in Florida when it was ‘discovered, ’ and they’d already been there for thousands of years. Imagine their surprise in 1513, those Apalachee, Timucuan and Calusa Indians, when Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León hopped off his boat and onto the shores of what would become St Augustine, gestured grandly to the land he saw before him, and then, rather than asking what they called this place, declared it Pascua Florida for the Easter Feast of Flowers.
Other explorers soon followed. Pensacola was settled by Tristán de Luna y Arellano in 1559, making it the first European settlement in the US, but it was quickly abandoned with the help of a hurricane. The first European settlement to stick was St Augustine, settled in 1565 by Ponce de León’s compatriot Pedro Menéndez de Avilés – making it the oldest continuously occupied city in the US.
Florida was admitted to the Union on March 3, 1845. And then, 16 years later, at the onset of the Civil War, it seceded. It was readmitted in 1868, but still had a definite separateness from the states due to geography. But one Mr Henry Flagler solved that problem in the late 1800s when he constructed a railroad linking the east coast of Florida to the rest of the country, bringing train-carloads of people and unlocking Florida’s tourism potential.
Because of its strategic location, new naval stations brought an influx of residents during the Spanish-American War and WWI, and post-WWII Florida thrived with the first wave of retirement communities and a fledgling aerospace industry. After the 1959 Cuban Revolution, many Cuban citizens settled in Miami, and thousands more would follow here as refugees, particularly as a result of the Mariel Boat Lift in the early 1980s.
Of course, no history of Florida would be complete without mentioning the opening of Walt Disney World here in 1971, spawning hundreds of thousands of tourism-related jobs and launching a development juggernaut that continues to this day. Though savaged in 2004 by four major hurricanes in six weeks (impacting most of the state but especially the far western Panhandle), Florida’s tourism and development boom remains unstoppable.
In the last eight years, ongoing Everglades restoration efforts have been increasingly criticized for (and hampered by) a lack of funding, and then in 2008 Florida’s 44th governor, Charlie Crist, unveiled a truly stunning conservation coup: a state plan to buy and convert 300 sq miles of Lake Okeechobee sugarcane fields into wetlands. Then, hoping to gain more influence in the presidential election, Florida improperly moved its Democratic primary to January 2008. Consequently, the Democratic party stripped Florida of its delegates, so its votes do not count.
Thus, taken together, all these events gave ammunition to skeptics and optimists alike – Florida entered the 21st century sincerely trying to develop a more balanced, sustainable way of life, but like an alligator 'sleeping' on the bank, its uneasy past could lash out and bite at any moment.