Florida is a state whose land has at times been described as incredibly devoid of any contrasts. Certainly, anywhere you go in Florida, you’ll find the hot touch of the sun, flat land all around, and more water and wetlands than you can imagine. After all, Florida is not nicknamed the “Sunshine State” for nothing, its highest elevated point in the entire state is only a mere 345 feet above sea level, and water is seen everywhere – from the Everglades and its swamplands, to the 30,000 lakes, 11,000 miles of rivers, and 8,425 miles of coast fringed by the endless Atlantic Ocean! But while Florida may be uniform geographically and climate-wise, its heterogeneity in other measures abound. For one, it claims the oldest city in America in St. Augustine only a couple hour’s drive from the modern Space Age headquarters of Cape Canaveral; while right in the middle of an ancient Indian territory sits the 28,000-acre resort known as Walt Disney World. Consider Magic Kingdom and its cartoon characters pit against Busch Garden and its living and active wildlife; the Southern charms of antebellum Tallahassee as opposed to the Latin rhythms of Miami; the “literati of Key West” versus the “glitterati of Palm Beach”. And while other states have generation gaps, Florida has a chasm – picture young college students flocking to wild Spring Break parties, not too far from the elderly living out their twilight in their retirement condos. Clearly, Florida is not the homogeneous “Sunshine State” some like to think it is, but rather chalk full of color, variety, and flair.
And it should come as no surprise that Florida is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world, much less in the U.S. When a state boasts year-round sun, warm coastal beaches, hundreds of golf courses, thousands of hotels and resorts, national parks and wilderness reserves, sumptuous fresh seafood from amberjack to oysters, and one-of-a-kind theme parks, movie studios, and water parks, 60 million visitors each year seems like a fair number. From the Everglades National Park, to the Marco Islands, from Busch Gardens and Sea World, to Walt Disney World, Magic Kingdom, and Epcot Center, from the resort beaches of Key West to the traditional spring break sands of Daytona and Fort Lauderdale – Florida is all about sun, fun, and thrills.
Florida is divided into eight tourist regions: the Southwest, Southeast Florida & the Keys, Central West, Central, Central East, Northwest, North Central, and Northeast. The southwest region of Florida is home to Naples, which is a popular seaside resort that faces the Marco Island, an ecological preserve off the mainland. Miami and Miami Beach sit on the southeastern tip of the state and is a favorite hangout of the rich and famous. Palm Beach is just as glamorous in this regard. Fort Lauderdale is popular among families, offering various sports and recreational activities. In the southeast, the Florida Keys provide the most tropical of climates, the clearest of blue waters, and the most beautiful of the beaches in the state.
In the Central West region, the main cities are Tampa and St Petersburg with Sarasota serving as the region’s de facto cultural capital; it hosts a massive collection of impressive art thanks to the bequest of John Ringling, the 19th century circus performer. Daytona, the spring break capital of Florida, is the heart of the Central East region. Its beach and city features a famous 1,700 feet boardwalk that is lined with amusements, snack bars, and rides – an attraction that no doubt helps draw the 8 million visitors who look for sun in Daytona each year.
In North Central Florida sits Tallahassee, the state’s capital. This region is very different from the southern parts of Florida. It is often called “the other Florida” because of its more southern feel and its oak forests, rolling hills, and cooler climate. The main city of the northeast region is Jacksonville, which is not too far from America’s Oldest City, St. Augustine and its more than 60 historic sites. Amelia Island nearby and its mouth-watering shrimp is known as the “Isle of Eight Flags” because it has been governed by eight different countries since 1562. The heart of the island is Fernandina Beach, the second oldest city in the U.S.
Florida is the most visited vacation spot in the world. It is fitting then that most of its inhabitants are new arrivals themselves. In fact, only one third of the state’s 16 million were actually born there. And none of them are descendants of the original Native Americans who had been living in Florida for thousands of years before they were exterminated systematically by the Europeans.
The first European to discover the state was English cartographer, John Cabot. Commissioned by King Henry VII in 1498, Cabot sailed up and down the east coast of America, but never set foot in Florida. In 1513, however, Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon did, landing in present-day St. Augustine in 1513. He was looking for the legendary “fountain of youth” or “Isle of Bimini”, but found Florida instead. Arriving on the day of Easter, he named the new land “Pascua Florida” or “Feast of Flowers” in honor of Spain’s Easter celebration. Ponce then continued his journey around the Florida Keys and back up the west coast, reaching as far north as Fort Myers. In 1521, he returned with 200 settlers and tried to establish a colony near Fort Myers, but the settlement party was attacked by the Indians. In the course of battle, Ponce was wounded. The entire party retreated to Cuba, where the illustrious explorer died from his wounds.
In 1528, Spaniard Panfilo de Narvaez landed in Tampa Bay. With a party of 300 settlers, he marched up the Panhandle in search of gold. Instead, he found hostile Indians. The entire party never made it out of Florida.
In 1539, Hernando de Soto became the third Spaniard to arrive in Florida in search of something of value. Landing at Tampa Bay, he marched north using the same route as Panfilo de Narvaez and looking for the same gold. He couldn’t find it, but kept going, convinced it was there somewhere. He died three years later after reaching the Mississippi.
In 1559, the conquistador Don Tristan de Luna came with 1,500 men and tried to establish a colony at Pensacola Bay. After two years, de Luna and his men gave up and returned home.
In 1562, the Spanish finally set up a successful colony in Florida, and they had the French to thank. Frenchman Jean Ribault ventured into the St. Johns River in 1562 and claimed it for France. Two years later, he founded a colony of 300 Huguenots there and built Fort Caroline. The Spanish were upset about this encroachment onto “their” territory and dispatched Pedro Menendez de Aviles in 1565 to establish a settlement nearby and rid the French. He succeeded with both tasks. Landing somewhere south of Fort Caroline in 1565, he named the settlement St. Augustin in honor of the patron saint. Menendez then set sail north to oust the French. Interestingly, Jean Ribault and his Huguenots had the same plans for the Spanish and their colony at St. Augustin. Unfortunately for Ribault and his crew, they ran into a storm at sea and were shipwrecked. Meanwhile, Menendez arrived in Fort Caroline and found it virtually undefended. He killed the settlers, ransacked the settlement and returned home to find the survivors of Ribault’s shipwreck. He slaughtered them, taking no prisoners.
For the remainder of the 16th century, the Spanish consolidated and expanded their control of the peninsula. They established a chain of forts and a network of Franciscan missions aimed at converting the Indians. Throughout the 17th century, the English and the French declined to challenge Spain’s colonial supremacy in Florida. Meanwhile, Indian resistance was growing weaker and weaker. Those who weren’t killed died from European diseases, mainly smallpox. Many of the natives were forced into slavery and sent to the West Indies to work the plantations.
By 1700, however, Spain’s grip of Florida was loosening. English colonies up north were flourishing and proliferating, while the French dominated the entire Mississippi River valley. In the War of the Spanish Succession in 1702, English troops allied with the Creek Indians to destroy Spain’s military outposts and missions in the north. And in 1719, France captured Pensacola before handing it back to Spain, purely to keep it from the English.
Spain’s final blow came in 1763 when the French were defeated in the Seven Years War and forced to cede the entire American continent to the English. Not too long afterwards, the English captured Havana and traded it back to Spain in exchange for Florida.
By the time the English got their hands on Florida, the native Indians had all but vanished. Many of them were replaced by Creek Indians from neighboring territories called Seminoles. The English had a good relationship with them, cultivating a trading partnership with them instead of enslaving or exterminating them. Unfortunately, the English never got around to their ambitious plans for developing Florida, distracted by the rebellion of the 13 colonies and the American Revolutionary War.
After losing the war with the Americans in 1783, the British traded Florida back to Spain in exchange for the Bahamas. In the ensuing years, the citizens of United States became increasingly interested in acquiring the Spanish-owned territory. The Seminoles living there remained loyal to their previous British landlords and mistrustful of the Americans. They made themselves violent nuisances to the American squatters who were encroaching into Florida. In 1817, Andrew Jackson decided to punish the Indians by leading an army into northern Florida, triggering the First Seminole War. The Spaniards were unable to protect their territory during the entire ordeal, which forced them into selling the territory to the United States in 1821.
Andrew Jackson was named the new military governor of Florida and Tallahassee was designated the territory’s capital. Settlers from the north began migrating into the new land, but were met with increasing resistance from the Seminoles. In 1830, Congress passed the Removal Law, authorizing the removal of Indians to the Arkansas Territory west of the Mississippi. In 1835, the Seminoles resisted and ambushed a detachment of U.S. troops near Tampa. Now President, Andrew Jackson used the incident to justify ridding the Seminoles once and for all. The Second Seminole War lasted seven years, ultimately ending in a costly American victory.
In 1842, the Seminoles were removed and sent to Oklahoma in what has been dubbed the “Trail of Tears”. Even then, hundreds of Seminoles refused to go. Many of them escaped to the Everglades in Florida, where they and their descendants lived defiantly in independence.
In 1845, Florida joined the union, becoming the 27th state. The population at the time was 80,000, half of which were black slaves. During the Civil War, Florida sided with the Confederacy. None of the major battles were fought in the state, however. Near the end of the war, the Union marched in and captured the state with little resistance.
Florida had a much easier time reconstructing than the other Confederate states. The state’s debt, in fact, was erased with one stroke of the pen when Philadelphia industrialist, Hamilton Disston, purchased 4,000,000 acres of swampland in the Everglades for $1 million.
During the latter half of the 19th century, several developments helped Florida become the world’s premiere holiday playground that it is today. The American Medical Association named St. Petersburg the healthiest city in the U.S.; inventor Thomas Edison gave up his home in New Jersey for sunnier days in Fort Myers and built an estate with the country’s first modern swimming pool; Henry Bradley Plant built the Atlantic Coastline Railroad, which ran from Richmond to Tampa, and threw in the state’s greatest attraction at the time – the Tampa Bay Hotel with its quarter of a mile of lavish-looking cupolas, minarets, and domes; retired Standard Oil executive Henry Morrison Flagler built the Florida East Coast Railroad, which ran along the other side of the coast from St. Augustine, to Ormond Beach, to Palm Beach, to Miami, and then to the Florida Keys and Key West with the aid of arched bridges. Flagler also left behind a stunning hotel at every major stop along the railway and in the process created two future resort cities: Palm Beach and Miami.
The next big break for Florida came in 1912 when Carl Fisher discovered a sandbar in Biscayne Bay. He bought the land and with the aid of a dredge, added to it hotels, tennis courts, and golf courses, creating Miami Beach. In the south, George Merrick was responsible for creating Coral Gables, while the eccentric architect Addison Mizner made Palm Beach into what it is today by putting up rows of mansions. He also bought up scrubland in what is Boca Raton today. The Everglades swampland, meanwhile, was drained and transformed into rich farmland.
In the early 1920s, Florida experienced an incredible land boom. People from all over the country wanted a piece of the action. Prices spiraled. At one point, investors were buying land and reselling it the very next day. Some were buying land they had never even seen before, only to discover they had purchased land underwater. By 1925, 2.5 million people had invested in Florida’s real estate market. The bottom fell out the following year.
The collapse of the market was fueled by several factors. The railways couldn’t handle the load of building materials, resulting in the bankruptcy of many builders. Moreover, one boat bringing in materials into Miami harbor capsized, blocking the harbor and bankrupting more builders. The final blow came on September 17, 1926 when a hurricane ravaged Miami, destroying buildings and developments. Any hope for a recovery was put to rest when the Great Depression hit a few years later.
The recovery did eventually come, but only during WWII when the U.S. military used the state as a year-round training ground. Soldiers got a glimpse of a subtropical paradise. The government in return built roads and airports, which made it possible for Florida growers to ship their goods to the rest of the country. Military research also resulted in the development of coolants, which gave the state efficient air conditioning and a way of creating frozen concentrates for its citrus crops.
After the war, Florida once again became a hot real estate market. This time around, lessons were learned from the bust of the 1920s. The market was regulated and city planning was administered. Florida enjoyed healthy growth and was even honored in the 1950s with the decision to make Cape Canaveral the launching pad for NASA.
Today, critics quibble about the commercialization and development that has taken place over the years, arguing that it has come at the cost of the state’s natural beauty. Others nag about the swell of retirees living in Florida, ensuring high costs for health care as the elderly grow older. For now, at least, these are minor issues not significant enough to sway would-be residents and tourists from coming.
“Amelia Island.” < http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amelia_Island>
Carroll, Donald. Insider’s Guide Florida, 2nd Edition. Edison: Hunter Publishing, Inc., 1995. ISBN: 1556504527.
“Daytona.” < http://wikitravel.org/en/Daytona>
“Explore Regions.” < http://www.visitflorida.com/all_tags>
“Florida.” < http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Florida>
“Florida Travel Guide – Things to See.” < http://www.worldtravelguide.net/country/91/top_things_to_see/North-America/Florida.html>
“North Florida.” < http://wikitravel.org/en/North_Florida>
“Sarasota.” < http://wikitravel.org/en/Sarasota>
“St Augustine.” < http://www.visitflorida.com/St_Augustine>
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