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Prehistoric Florida

Fourteen thousand years ago, Florida would have made an ideal location for the show Land of the Lost -- that is, if there were actually dinosaurs down here. Not so much. During the age of dinosaurs, the Florida peninsula was underwater and did not exist as a landmass. Therefore, no dinosaur remains were deposited in the area that became Florida. After the land developed, Paleo-Indians arrived from about 13,000 B.C., and they got here by crossing over to North America from Asia. Most of their activity was around the watering holes, and sinkholes and basins in the beds of modern rivers.

Paleo-Indian culture was replaced by, or evolved into, the Early Archaic culture around 7,900 B.C. There were now more people in Florida, and as they were no longer tied to a few water holes in an arid land, they left their artifacts in many more locations.

The Early Archaic period evolved into the Middle Archaic period around 5000 B.C. People started living in villages near wetlands, and favored sites may have been occupied for multiple generations. The Late Archaic period started around 3000 B.C., when Florida's climate had reached current conditions and the sea had risen close to its present level. People now lived everywhere fresh- or saltwater wetlands were found. Many people lived in large villages with purpose-built mounds. Fired pottery appeared in Florida by 2000 B.C. By about 500 B.C., the Archaic culture that had been fairly uniform across Florida began to fragment into regional cultures.

The post-Archaic cultures of eastern and southern Florida developed in isolation, and it is likely that the peoples living in those areas at the time of first European contact were descendants of the inhabitants of the areas in late Archaic times. The cultures of the Florida Panhandle and the north and central Gulf coast of the Florida peninsula were strongly influenced by the Mississippian culture, although there is continuity in cultural history, suggesting that the peoples of those cultures were also descended from the inhabitants of the Archaic period. Cultivation of maize was adopted in the Panhandle and the northern part of the peninsula, but was absent or very restricted in the tribes that lived south of the Timucuan-speaking people (that is, south of a line approximately from present-day Daytona Beach to a point on or north of Tampa Bay).

Native Americans

Spanish explorers of the early 16th century were likely the first Europeans to interact with the native population of Florida. The first documented encounter of Europeans with Native Americans of the United States came with the first expedition of Juan Ponce de León to Florida in 1513, although he encountered at least one native who spoke Spanish. In 1521, he encountered the Calusa Indians, who established 30 villages in the Everglades, during a failed colonization attempt in which they drove off the Europeans.

The Spanish recorded nearly 100 names of groups they encountered, ranging from organized political entities, such as the Apalachee, with a population of around 50,000, to villages with no known political affiliation. There were an estimated 150,000 speakers of dialects of the Timucua language, but the Timucua were organized only as groups of villages, and did not share a common culture. Other tribes in Florida at the time of first contact included the Ais; Calusa; Jaega; Mayaimi; Tequesta, who lived on the southeast coast of the Everglades; and Tocobaga. All of these tribes diminished in numbers during the period of Spanish control of Florida.

At the beginning of the 18th century, tribes from areas to the north of Florida, supplied, encouraged, and occasionally accompanied by white colonists from the Province of Carolina, raided throughout Florida, burning villages, killing many of the inhabitants, and carrying captives back to Charles Towne to be sold as slaves. Most of the villages in Florida were abandoned, and the survivors sought refuge at St. Augustine or in isolated spots around the state. Some of the Apalachee eventually reached Louisiana, where they survived as a distinct group for at least another century.

The few surviving members of these tribes were evacuated to Cuba when Spain transferred Florida to the British Empire in 1763. The Seminole, originally an offshoot of the Creek people who absorbed other groups, developed as a distinct tribe in Florida during the 18th century, and are now represented in the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma, the Seminole Tribe of Florida, and the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida.

Spanish Rule

Once Ponce de León laid his eyes on Florida in 1513, a slew of competitive conquistadors made futile efforts to find gold there and colonize the region. The first to establish a fort in Florida were the French, actually, but it was ultimately destroyed by the Spanish, who introduced Christianity, horses, and cattle to the region. Unfortunately, they also introduced diseases and conquistador brutality, which ultimately decimated Indian populations. Eager to expand its own American colony collection, Britain led several raids into Florida in the 1700s to overthrow Spanish rule. Among the most notable Spaniards in Florida were the aforementioned de León; Hernando de Soto, the most ruthless of the explorers, whose thirst for gold led to the massacre of many Indians; Panfilo de Narvaez, whose quest for El Dorado -- the land of gold -- landed him in Tampa Bay; and Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, who founded St. Augustine after defeating the French.

British Rule

The Brits weren't interested in gold: They were all about Florida's bounty of hides and furs. After taking control in 1763, the Brits divided Florida into two. Because Florida was subsidized by the English, Floridians remained loyal to Mother England during the American Revolution -- that is, until the Spanish returned and regained West Florida in 1781 and, 2 years later, East Florida. During the Spanish reconquest, American slaves fled to Florida, causing major turmoil between Spain and the U.S. Combined with Indian raids in the north and an Indian alliance with runaway slaves, Florida was, well, a mess, until General Andrew Jackson invaded Spanish Florida, captured Pensacola, and occupied West Florida. Then it was a disaster. Jackson's invasion kicked off the First Seminole War in 1817. Finally, to settle Spain's $5-million debt to the U.S., all Spanish lands east of the Mississippi, including Florida, were ceded to the U.S. in 1819.

American Rule

Florida became an organized territory of the United States on March 30, 1822. The Americans merged East Florida and West Florida (although the majority of West Florida was annexed to Orleans Territory and Mississippi Territory), and established a new capital in Tallahassee, located halfway between the East Florida capital of St. Augustine and the West Florida capital of Pensacola. The boundaries of Florida's first two counties, Escambia and St. Johns, approximately coincided with the boundaries of West and East Florida, respectively.

At this time, the plantation system was adopted by north Florida and because the settlers wanted the best possible land, the federal government tried moving all Indians west of the Mississippi, resulting in the Second and Third Seminole Wars. When Abraham Lincoln was elected president in 1860, Florida became the third state to secede from the Union. Florida saw little action during the Civil War -- its main role was to supply beef and salt to the Confederates.

After meeting the requirements of Reconstruction, including writing a new state Constitution, Florida was readmitted to the United States on July 25, 1868.

The Seminole Wars

Wartime ravaged Florida during the Seminole Wars, a trio of wars between the United States Army and the Seminole Indians and their African-American allies, also known as the Florida Wars. The First Seminole War (ca. 1817 or thereabouts -- different history books give different dates) was sparked by American slave owners looking for runaway slaves of African and Native American descent who traded weapons with the Brits during the War of 1812. Andrew Jackson led the American response in Florida, commanding an army of 3,000. Jackson divided Florida into two counties, Escambia and St. Johns, and, after establishing county courts and mayors in St. Augustine and Pensacola, left William Pope DuVal as governor.

On March 30, 1822, Florida became an official territory. The Second Seminole War (1835-42) erupted as Northern settlers had their eyes on Tallahassee, a Seminole settlement, and in a futile effort to calm the tension, DuVal asked the Seminoles to move south to a 4-million-acre reservation south of present-day Ocala. While their former home became the territory's capital, Jackson became president and again asked the Indians to move, this time west of the Mississippi. They refused and what ensued lasted longer than any war in the U.S. between the American Revolution and the Vietnam War.

The Third Seminole War (1855-58) was a sporadic one following Florida's entry into the union and laws sending Indians into reservations in the west. After this final confrontation, many Seminoles retreated to the Everglades, where some of their descendants still live today.

The Civil War

Following Lincoln's election in 1860, Florida became the third of the original seven states to secede from the Union. But because Florida was so sparsely populated, it contributed more in goods than manpower. The large coastline served as a barrier to the Union Navy, who had a hard time curbing runners from bringing in supplies and materials from foreign suppliers. Union troops occupied major ports like Cedar Key, Jacksonville, Key West, and Pensacola. With the exception of Fort Zachary Taylor and Fort Pickens, Confederate forces seized control of every U.S. Army fort in the state.

Confederates put more than 61,000 Florida slaves to work as teamsters transporting supplies, and as laborers in salt mines and fisheries, and many escaped and served the Union, providing them with intelligence on Confederate activity. In 1862, the Union military encouraged slaves in plantation areas to flee their owners.

Increasingly dissatisfied by oppressive drafting policies, Confederate soldiers began to desert to some Florida counties that served as havens for deserters from all Confederate states. These bands of deserters began attacking Confederates and, though many skirmishes did happen in Florida, the only major one to take place during the War's duration was the Battle of Olustee near Lake City, in which Union forces eventually retreated, causing the North to question the further Union involvement in what was deemed a "militarily insignificant" Florida.

In January 1865, Union General William Tecumseh Sherman ordered set aside a part of Florida as a home for runaway and freed former slaves, but the order was never enforced and was eventually repealed by President Andrew Johnson. On May 13, 1865, Colonel George Washington Scott surrendered what was left of his active Florida Confederate troops. On May 20, slavery was officially ended in the state as troopers raised the U.S. flag over the state capitol building. Tallahassee was the last Confederate state capital to fall to the Union army.

Unlocking the Keys

No one knows exactly when the first European set foot on one of the Florida Keys, but as exploration and shipping increased, the islands became prominent on nautical maps. The nearby treacherous coral reefs claimed many actual seafaring "martyrs" from the time of early recorded history. The chain was eventually called "keys," also attributed to the Spanish, from cayos, meaning "small islands."

In 1763, the Spanish ceded Florida to the British in a trade for the port of Havana. The treaty was unclear as to the status of the Keys. An agent of the King of Spain claimed that the islands, rich in fish, turtles, and mahogany for shipbuilding, were part of Cuba, fearing that the English might build fortresses and dominate the shipping lanes. The British also realized the treaty was ambiguous, but declared that the Keys should be occupied and defended as part of Florida. The British claim was never officially contested. Ironically, the British gave the islands back to Spain in 1783, to keep them out of the hands of the United States, but in 1821 all of Florida, including the necklace of islands, officially became American territory.

Many of the residents of Key West were immigrants from the Bahamas, known as "conchs" (pronounced conks), who arrived in increasing numbers after 1830. Many were sons and daughters of British Loyalists who fled to the nearest crown soil during the American Revolution.

In the 20th century, many residents of Key West started referring to themselves as "conchs," and the term is now generally applied to all residents of Key West. Some residents use the term conch to refer to a person born in Key West, while the term freshwater conch refers to a resident not born in Key West but who has lived in Key West for 7 years or more.

In 1982, Key West and the rest of the Florida Keys briefly declared their "independence" as the Conch Republic in a protest over a United States Border Patrol blockade. This blockade was set up on U.S. 1, where the northern end of the Overseas Highway meets the mainland at Florida City. This blockade was in response to the Mariel Boatlift. A 17-mile traffic jam ensued while the Border Patrol stopped every car leaving the Keys, supposedly searching for illegal aliens attempting to enter the mainland United States. This paralyzed the Florida Keys, which rely heavily on the tourism industry. Flags, T-shirts, and other merchandise representing the Conch Republic are still popular souvenirs for visitors to Key West, and the Conch Republic Independence Celebration -- including parades and parties -- is celebrated every April 23.

Boomtown, Florida

After the Civil War, Florida met its best friend -- tourism. Although the state's economy was in the dumps, its warm climate and smallish population called out to investors and developers. Railroad barons Henry Flagler and Henry Plant laid their tracks down the east and west coasts of Florida during the late 1880s, offering tourists a not-so-quick escape to paradise, or something close to it. As tourists started pouring down, the economy was stimulated. In February 1888, Florida had a special tourist. President Grover Cleveland, the first lady, and his party visited Florida for a couple of days. He visited the Subtropical Exposition in Jacksonville, where he made a speech supporting tourism to the state; then, he took a train to St. Augustine, meeting Henry Flagler.

Florida's new railroads opened up large areas to development, spurring the Florida land boom of the 1920s. Investors of all kinds, mostly from outside Florida, raced to buy and sell rapidly appreciating land in newly platted communities such as Miami and Palm Beach. A majority of the people who bought land in Florida were able to do so without stepping foot in the state, by hiring people to speculate and buy the land for them. By 1925, the market ran out of buyers to pay the high prices and the boom became a bust. The 1926 Miami hurricane further depressed the real estate market. The Great Depression arrived in 1929; however, by that time, economic decay already consumed much of Florida from the land boom that collapsed 4 years earlier.

Variations on a Theme (Park)

Florida's first theme parks emerged in the 1930s and included Cypress Gardens (1936), near Winter Haven, and Marineland (1938), near St. Augustine. Walt Disney chose Central Florida as the site of his planned Walt Disney World Resort in the 1960s and began purchasing land. In 1971, the first component of the resort, the Magic Kingdom, opened and began the dramatic transformation of the Orlando area into a major resort destination. The Everglades were finally granted National Park status. Thanks to the work of the Everglades' foremost supporter, Ernest F. Coe, Congress passed a park bill in 1934. Dubbed by opponents as the "alligator and snake swamp bill," the legislation stalled during the Great Depression and World War II. Finally, on December 6, 1947, President Harry S Truman dedicated the Everglades National Park.

In that same year, Marjory Stoneman Douglas first published The Everglades: River of Grass. She understood its importance as the major watershed for South Florida and as a unique ecosystem.

Road-Tripping Through Florida's Fabulous '50s

Despite the fact that in 1950, frozen concentrate of citrus juice became a major industry in the state, things were motoring toward a different trend beginning in 1954 with the completion of the Sunshine Skyway stretching 15 miles across Lower Tampa Bay. In 1955, the state Legislature authorized plans for a state-long turnpike. And in what sealed the deal for the '50s being the decade of Florida transportation, in 1958 a second major federal agency, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), began operations at Cape Canaveral.

The Space Race & Cuban Influx

With the space race in full blast, Cape Canaveral brought even more of a boom to Florida in the '60s -- especially when Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong blasted off from the so-called Florida Space Coast and onto the moon. Sixties Florida also saw another kind of race, as more than 300,000 Cubans fled to Florida when Fidel Castro took over Cuba in 1959. Early arrivals landed in Florida via Freedom Flights, but later, refugees risked -- and lost -- their lives as they made the dangerous 90-mile trip from Cuba to Key West on flimsy rafts. Florida was again in the spotlight in 1962 as the world was on edge during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The large wave of Cubans into South Florida transformed Miami into a major center of commerce, finance, and transportation for all of Latin America. Immigration from Haiti and other Caribbean states continues to the present day.

The So-So '70s

After being over the moon about the space race, the '70s had Florida in a bit of a depression beginning in 1971, when Richard M. Nixon ordered a halt to the Cross Florida Barge Canal after $50 million had been spent on the 107-mile structure. On a positive note, Amtrak began operation of service into Orlando as Walt Disney World opened its gates on October 1. Things were looking up in '73 when, despite fuel shortages, Florida set an all-time record for influx of visitors, as 26 million people visited the Sunshine State. And after 7 1/2 years and nearly 260,000 refugees, the "freedom flights" from Cuba came to an end on April 7, 1973. The airlifts, bringing refugees into Miami at the rate of 48,000 a year, transformed the ethnic makeup of Dade County by adding at least 100,000 Cubans to the 150,000 already there.

The Go-Go '80s

In 1980, race riots tore Miami apart, and the Mariel Boatlift brought 125,000 Cubans to Florida. Disney opened its $800-million EPCOT center; the next phase of the space program saw the first manned space shuttle launches from Kennedy Space Center (KSC). In 1986, the program was dealt a tragic blow when the space shuttle Challenger exploded after takeoff. All seven astronauts aboard were killed. By 1987, the U.S. Census Bureau estimate indicated that Florida had surpassed Pennsylvania to become the fourth-most-populous state in the nation. The plight of Cubans fleeing their native island was highlighted again in 1980 during the Mariel Boatlift, a mass movement of Cubans who departed from Cuba's Mariel Harbor for the U.S. between April 15 and October 31, 1980. The exodus was ended by mutual agreement between the U.S. and Cuba in October 1980. By that time, up to 125,000 Cubans had made the journey to Florida.

End of the Century

The decade started with the arrival of Panama's governor, Manuel Noriega, who was being brought to Miami for trial on drug charges. On a more gracious note, Queen Elizabeth II came to Miami and Tampa in 1991, and conferred honorary knighthood on Tampa resident Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf. In 1992, Homestead and adjacent South Florida were devastated on August 24 by the costliest natural disaster in American history, Hurricane Andrew, demanding billions in aid. Bringing the World Series championship to Florida for the first time, the Florida Marlins won it all in 1997.

This Millennium & Beyond

Florida became the battleground of the controversial 2000 U.S. presidential election when a count of the popular votes from Election Day was extremely close and became mired in accusations of fraud and manipulation. Ultimately, the United States Supreme Court let stand the official count, and George W. Bush was declared winner of the election. The Marlins won another World Series in 2003. Through the first half of the decade, Florida continued to be one of the fastest-growing states in the country, with the economy still depending greatly on tourism, but with expanding industries in business and manufacturing . . . until the economy imploded in 2008, with results that still are being felt and working themselves out.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.