Florida is America's tropical paradise, a vast peninsula surrounded by the balmy Gulf of Mexico on one side and the Atlantic Ocean on the other. Perpetual sunshine and over 600 miles of beaches make this state a popular destination for spring breaking college students, retired senior citizens, and everybody in between. However, the wetlands that occupy much of Florida's interior provide a fascinating counterpoint to it coastal regions. These untamed swamps and marshes have come to be represented by the alligator, a creature so iconic in Florida that it was named the official state reptile in 1987. Between the beaches and the swamps can be found the cattle ranches, dairy farms, and citrus fields where the world-famous Florida oranges are grown.
The land was named La Pascua Florida (Spanish for "Flowery Easter") by Juan Ponce de León when he landed on the east coast in 1513, during the Spanish Easter feast. According to legends, he was searching for the Fountain of Youth when he discovered the tropical peninsula. De León returned with settlers and equipment in 1521 with the hopes of starting a colony, but he and his fellow colonists were eventually driven away by repeated attacks from the Native Americans. Other explorers, such as Pánfilo de Narváez and Hernando de Soto, made ill-fated expeditions to Florida to search for the fabled wealth of the native people. No great treasure troves were discovered, but tales about Florida began to circulate and it was only a matter of time before another nation took notice.
In 1562, the French explorer Jean Ribault sailed to Florida, hoping to establish a haven for Protestant Huguenots. Two years later, René Laudonnière established Fort Caroline at the mouth of the St. Johns River (near present-day Jacksonville). These French incursions prompted Spain to accelerate its plans for colonization. In 1565, Pedro Menéndez de Avilés set out to drive the French Protestants from Florida and create a Spanish settlement. He established San Augustín (Saint Augustine), the first permanent European settlement in the U.S. He then led his soldiers in attacks on the French settlement, attacking and killing all settlers except for non-combatants and those who professed belief in the Roman Catholic faith. Menéndez captured Fort Caroline and renamed it San Mateo. In 1567, a French gentleman named Dominique de Gourgues sold all of his possessions to raise a fleet of three vessels and an army of 200 men, hoping to avenge the deaths of his countrymen at the hands of the Spanish. When he arrived in Florida, he negotiated an alliance with the Native Americans, who were openly at war with the Spanish. De Gourgues, his soldiers, and his allies attacked San Mateo, slaughtering the Spanish defenders and razing it to the ground. With the destruction of San Mateo, Saint Augustine became the most important Spanish settlement in Florida. Roman Catholic missionaries used it as a base of operations while establishing their missions throughout the area. The town that grew around the central fort was particularly vulnerable to the constant attacks from Native Americans, as well as assaults from pirates. English privateer Sir Francis Drake launched a particularly devastating attack on Saint Augustine in 1586, plundering and burning the village.
During the 17th century, Florida was beset by English settlers pushing down from the north. Colonel James Moore, allied with the Creek and Yamasee natives, attacked Saint Augustine in 1704. The town was once again destroyed, but Moore and his army were unable to capture the fort. Moore continued his reign of terror through Florida over the next few years, burning Spanish missions and massacring the Apalachee natives, one of the few tribes that was friendly with the Spanish. Over the next few decades, Britain warred openly with the Spanish colonists, finally capturing Saint Augustine in 1740. Eventually, Spain decided to cut its losses in Florida and, in 1763, traded the territory to Britain in exchange for Havana, Cuba (which had been captured by the British during the Seven Years' War).
Britain divided Florida into two territories - East Florida, with its seat at Saint Augustine, and West Florida, with its capital at Pensacola. Both Florida territories remained loyal to Great Britain during the American Revolutionary War. Spain entered that war on the side of the patriots in 1779, and ironically found itself allied with France. As the British struggled in their war against the patriots, the Spanish took advantage of the turmoil and recaptured Pensacola in 1781. In 1784, the Treaty of Paris ended the Revolutionary War and returned Florida to Spanish control. Eager to see the land settled, Spain offered lucrative land grants, which attracted a number of settlers from within the U.S. The territory also became a haven for escaped slaves, fleeing to a place safely beyond the reach of their U.S. masters. The American settlers grew to outnumber the Spanish, and in 1810, a group of rebels announced their independence from Spanish rule and proclaimed the Free and Independent Republic of West Florida. The rebellion only lasted 90 days, but served as an indicator to the Spanish that their hold on Florida was slipping. President James Madison called for the annexation of portions of West Florida that same year, claiming they were a part of the Louisiana Purchase. In the War of 1812, Spain again found itself allied with a former enemy - Great Britain. Hoping to curtail the encroachment of the U.S. into Florida, Spain agreed to let Britain use Pensacola as a naval base. American troops, led by General Andrew Jackson, captured Pensacola in 1814.
As the American settlers spread through Florida, attacks on Native American villages became commonplace. The Seminole Indians in East Florida began conducting retaliatory raids on Georgia settlements, which gave the U.S. an excuse to send its army into Florida. The U.S. claimed that the Spanish had orchestrated the Seminole attacks, a charge which Spain denied vehemently. General Jackson led the campaign in 1817 that became known as the First Seminole War. By 1818, East Florida was effectively under U.S. control. Once again, Spain decided Florida was perhaps more trouble than it was worth. In the Adams-Onís Treaty, signed in 1819, Spain ceded the Florida territory to the U.S. In exchange, the U.S. promised to renounce all claims to Texas. As more settlers poured into the Florida territory, the U.S. government attempted to relocate the Seminole natives. Some of the chiefs agreed to move west of the Mississippi and signed the Treaty of Payne's Landing in 1832. However, many natives refused to acknowledge the treaty and remained behind to defend their land in the Second Seminole War. Led by a charismatic warrior named Osceola, the Seminole ambushed U.S. troops in 1835's Dade Massacre and continued to plague the Army with guerrilla attacks until 1842, when the rebellious Seminole were rounded up and forcibly exiled.
In 1845, Florida joined the U.S. as the 27th state. However, after the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860, Florida seceded from the Union and became a founding member of the Confederate States of America. While Florida was an important supply route for the Confederate Army, the state wasn't ravaged by the Civil War like so many of its Confederate neighbors. A few of the major ports, such as Jacksonville, Key West, and Pensacola, were occupied by Union troops, but the only major battle to take place within Florida was the Battle of Olustee in 1864, where Confederate troops managed to repulse and scatter the Union attackers. Following the Civil War, Florida met the requirements of Reconstruction and was readmitted to the Union in 1868.
The late 19th and early 20th century were prosperous times for Florida, which began to come into its own as a tourist destination. Henry Flagler built his Florida East Coast Railway from Jacksonville to Key West, and had a number of luxury hotels built along the route. Henry Plant, another developer and railroad magnate, constructed a luxury hotel in Tampa that would eventually become the campus for the University of Tampa. The arrival of the railroads led to a land boom in Florida, with investors paying high prices to purchase plats in the newly developed Miami and Palm Beach communities. Unfortunately, the number of buyers dwindled and, by 1925, the bottom fell out of the real estate market. The 1926 hurricane that devastated Miami just made things worse. By the time the Great Depression hit in 1929, Florida was already four years into its own economic decay.
During the 1930s, the first theme parks began to emerge in Florida. Cypress Gardens, a botanical garden near Winter Haven, opened in 1936 and Marineland, the "world's first oceanarium," was built in 1938 near Saint Augustine. These parks drew tourists to Florida and helped to bolster the state's stagnant economy. However, it was the Walt Disney World Resort, constructed in the 1960s and opened in 1971, that turned Orlando into a resort destination and cemented Florida's status as the theme park capital of the world.
Florida's economy was also reinvigorated by the military and space industry, which rose to prominence in the state during World War II. Fearful that Florida would be the target of another Pearl Harbor-style attack, the U.S. Armed Forces established a number of naval stations and air force bases throughout the state. During the Cold War, Florida's coastal access and proximity to Cuba led to another spurt of military bases. Because of the state's low latitude, it was selected in 1949 as a test site for the nation's fledgling missile program. The Cape Canaveral launch site grew to prominence during the Space Race of the 1960s, and became a major center of the aerospace industry. Today, the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral is responsible for the launching of all manned space flights.
Florida is the fourth most populous state in the U.S., with most of its population gathered in cities along the coast, from the massive metropolis of Jacksonville to the international cultural center of Miami. Florida's reputation as the "Sunshine State" has made it a popular destination for immigrants as well as folks within the U.S. Generally, the state of Florida can be divided into eight distinct geographic provinces: Northwest, North Central, Northeast, Central West, Central, Central East, Southwest, and Southeast.
The Northwest (Panhandle) Region is known for its powder white beaches and emerald green waters. Located along the Gulf of Mexico, this region features a number of national parks and gardens. The Gulf Islands National Seashore is a series of barrier islands stretching all the way to Mississippi, while the Blackwater River State Park features one of the purest sand bottom rivers in the world. Pensacola's Naval Air Station, known as the "Cradle of Naval Aviation" is located in this region, and is home to the legendary Blue Angels flight team and the National Museum of Naval Aviation.
The North Central Region is home to forests, wetlands, and wildlife refuges, as well as a number of small fishing villages. The Okefenokee Swamp spills over the Georgia-Florida border, and occupies the northernmost part of this region. The Apalachicola National Forest lies to the west, with black bears, alligators, and bald eagles dwelling among the dense cypress, oak, magnolia, and dogwood trees. The Osceola National Forest is also found here, and includes Big Gum Swamp and the Suwannee River. The state capital of Tallahassee lies amidst the rolling hills of this region.
The Northeast Region lies along the Atlantic Coast, just south of the Georgia state line. Jacksonville (the most populous city in Florida) and Saint Augustine (the oldest city in America) are located here. The St. Johns River is the self-proclaimed "Bass Capital of the World." However, this region is perhaps best known for the world-class golf courses of Flagler Beach, designed by Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, and Gary Player.
Hailed as the cultural center of Florida, the Central West Region falls along the Gulf of Mexico and offers a wide variety of museums and historic locations, from Sarasota's Ringling Museum of the Circus to the De Soto National Memorial in Bradenton. The Egmont Key National Wildlife Refuge lies on a barrier island and provides a habitat for migratory birds, while Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park allows visitors to view manatee year-round. Tampa Bay, a massive, natural harbor is located along the coast of this region. The cities of Tampa, Saint Petersburg, and Clearwater all lie along its shores.