Florida's Comprehensive Historic Preservation Plan 2012–2016

Overview of Florida's Pre-History & History

Comprehensive Perservation

The nation's earliest written history relates to events that occurred in Florida. Despite this, many perceive Florida to be a young state. While many of Florida's present-day communities developed in the 20th century, these major phases of rapid growth give Florida a legacy that sometimes belies its rich archaeology and history that spans many centuries.

...there is a perception that everything in Florida is "new" [and] therefore not worth preserving.
—Comment from survey

People have lived in Florida more than 12,000 years. From the earliest Paleoindian hunters at the end of the last ice age to the powerful chiefdoms encountered by Spanish explorers, Florida's first inhabitants were Native Americans. Adapting to changing climates and widely varying environments, Florida Indians spread to every part of the peninsula. Along the coasts and the St. Johns River, shellfish constituted an important resource. Huge mounds of shell still attest to the presence of pre-European villages and towns. On the richer soils in the Florida panhandle, farming people grew corn, beans and squash, and settled villages. About 1,000 years ago, the well-known Mississippian chiefdoms began to construct large pyramids of earth, some more than 40 feet high, organized in regular patterns around a central plaza. The Apalachee, the Timucua, the Tocobaga, and the Calusa ranked among the largest and most powerful chiefdoms encountered by European explorers of Florida's peninsula. From initial European contact in the early 1500s, in less than 200 years these great native societies were virtually extinct, victims of disease, warfare, and slavery. The Florida landscape is rich with remains of their mounds, canals, plazas, villages, and other sites. These sites are often the only source of information on what Florida was like thousands of years ago and deserve stewardship and protection in the 21st century.

Florida was named by Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León when he first saw this land during Pascua Florida, the Feast of Flowers, at Easter 1513. Ponce was followed by another Spaniard, Hernando de Soto, who came to Florida in search of gold in 1539. He and hundreds of soldiers wintered in Tallahassee, departing in March 1540 to continue his quest in other parts of the Southeast. Although there is a substantial written record of de Soto's travels, the only known site with any physical evidence of his expedition is the De Soto Winter Encampment Site, located within blocks of the State Capitol. These remains, including a coin and bits of chain mail, were found by state archaeologists in 1987. Research at the site continues today. Among the members of de Soto's contingent were three Roman Catholic priests, and it is believed that they must have conducted a Christmas Mass in 1539, the first such celebration in what is now the United States.

De Soto's efforts to find gold in Florida were unsuccessful, but it was another Spaniard, Pedro Menéndez de Aviles, who established St. Augustine in the land of the native Timucuan Indian people in 1565, in response to the French settlement of Fort Caroline (located in present-day Jacksonville). St. Augustine is the oldest continuously occupied city in the United States. To the west, Pensacola was Florida's only other major Spanish settlement. The Spanish initially attempted to colonize their newfound land by establishing missions among the native peoples. Mission San Luis de Apalachee, at present-day Tallahassee, was the western headquarters for a chain of missions that spread west from Mission Nombre de Dios in St. Augustine. Due to its location next to the strongest Spanish fortification in North America, the Mission Nombre de Dios was the first and last mission in Florida.

Over the next two-and-a-half centuries, Florida was an arena of colonial rivalry between the French, Spanish, British, and Americans. There was a brief British Period (1763-1783) after the Spanish lost the French and Indian War. The British administratively divided Florida into East and West Florida. These two colonies did not join the other 13 British colonies in the American Revolution and were returned to Spanish control after the war.

Florida became a United States Territory in 1821. In 1824, Tallahassee was established as the territorial capital, midway between St. Augustine and Pensacola, which had been the capitals in East and West Florida. Today's Tallahassee stands on the site of what once was Anhaica, the capital of the native Apalachee Indian people. Settlers were attracted to the rich agricultural lands around Tallahassee. The land was especially suitable for growing cotton, and a prosperous slave-labor plantation economy developed in the area. Settlement in Florida brought conflicts with the Seminoles who had come to Florida from Georgia and Alabama in the late 18th century. The Second Seminole War (1838-1842), according to historian John Mahon, was the costliest "Indian War" in American history. The wars resulted in Indian removal, furthered settlement of the Southeast, and established the reputations of important military and political leaders. Some Seminole War forts developed into communities such as Fort Myers and Fort Lauderdale, and roads built by the military on old Indian trails brought more settlers to the land.

On March 3, 1845, Florida entered the Union as a slave state. Floridians were in the Union only 16 years before they voted to secede and join the Confederacy on January 10, 1861. Approximately 5,000 Floridians died in the Civil War. The state furnished salt, beef, and other foodstuffs to Confederate forces.

Recovery after the Civil War was slow as Florida's population, including some 61,000 freed slaves, adjusted during Reconstruction. Some early tourists came to hunt and fish or to enjoy Florida's natural springs, but without a well-developed road system, most settlement was limited to coastal and river areas. By the turn of the century, railroads opened the interior and southern reaches of the state. Agriculture, including citrus; lumber and naval stores; and a fledgling tourist industry became mainstays in Florida's economy. Nevertheless, Florida remained sparsely populated until the 1920s. The Florida Land Boom of the 1920s brought rapid growth until its collapse in 1926 ushered Florida into economic depression prior to the Great Depression.

During World War II, military bases were established across the state, taking advantage of Florida's temperate climate for the training of troops and an innovative airborne military force. After the war, former military families returned to Florida, beginning a period of growth that, though slowed, continues today.

During the decades following World War II, two of the most pressing issues facing the country were the Cold War and the Civil Rights Movement, and Florida served as a stage for events affecting both. Starting in 1957, Florida's Cape Canaveral became the major launching site for manned space flights, intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), and satellites as the United States entered the space race. On July 20, 1969, the world saw live television coverage of the first landing of men on the moon, a feat that began at Cape Canaveral with the launching of Apollo XI.

Florida also served as the launching point for the ill-fated Bay of Pigs Invasion in 1961, and as the airbase for reconnaissance planes that first photographed nuclear missile silos in Cuba that nearly started a war between the United States and Russia. Following the Communist takeover of Cuba, hundreds of thousands of refugees under the auspices of federal programs such as Operation Pedro Pan (Peter Pan) came to Miami, followed later by other refugees during the Mariel Boatlift in 1980. While there is a centuries-old Caribbean presence in Florida, the dramatic influx of Caribbean and other Latin American immigrants during the last 40 years has had the most direct impact on the state's modern history.

The Civil Rights Movement also impacted the state. Two of the most notable Civil Rights events that occurred in Florida were the visit by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to the city of St. Augustine in 1964, and the Tallahassee Bus Boycott in 1957. With its many miles of segregated beaches, Florida was also the site of "wade-in" demonstrations, such as the wade-ins that occurred in Fort Lauderdale and St. Augustine.

Florida has a rich and fascinating past. It was a gateway to the New World and is now a threshold to space. Its cultural heritage embodies the presence and activities of people for more than 12,000 years. In the 21st century, Florida's heritage is reflected in historic buildings and structures, prehistoric and historic archaeological sites and artifacts, and the folk traditions and crafts of the state's diverse citizenry. All of these resources comprise Florida's cultural and historical heritage and provide continuity with the past. They create jobs, improve housing, enhance a quality of life, and, along with the state's unique natural resources, annually attract millions of visitors.

A growing appreciation of cultural and historical resources, supported by the enactment of new laws and ordinances, encourages preservation. Despite that trend, each year irreplaceable buildings are bulldozed, archaeological sites destroyed, and cultural traditions forgotten. Numerous possibilities exist for individuals and institutions to preserve Florida's heritage. "Preserving Florida's Heritage: More than Orange Marmalade, 2012-2016" [Orange Marmalade, 2012-2016] demonstrates the active preservation program in place in our state. We encourage you to become a partner in historic preservation. Only together can we continue to preserve Florida's past for the future.