The Painful Past of Paradise


 
ponce DeLeon

Most people think that Juan Ponce De Leon discovered Florida in 1513 but it was actually settled up to 14,000 years ago by the indigenous peoples of North America. Of course, the area was quite different back then due to the huge amounts of water being stored in glaciers. Because of that, the sea level was as much as 300 feet lower than it is now and Florida had about twice as much land as modern times. The climate was much drier and cooler and there were very few wetlands.

When Spanish ships did finally arrive on Florida’s shores, Ponce de Leon though it so beautiful that he christened it “La Florida” which means “land of flowers”. Then, as now, the beautiful beaches and fertile soil were highly prized, even fought over by the Spanish and the British Empire in the 17th century. When the British finally triumphed, Spain reluctantly turned over ownership to them. The future state was settled by people from all over the world, attracted by the climate as well as the fishing, agricultural and hunting opportunities.

Florida has a long and often violent history, particularly during the 18th century. During that time, people from the northern states and territories would raid and pillage Florida, taking captives that spent the rest of their lives as slaves. Villages were burned and abandoned by the survivors, who fled to St. Augustine. Many migrated to Louisiana and the Spanish moved most of the rest to Cuba in 1763. Control of Florida passed to the British Empire once more after the Seven Years’ War, allowing the Seminole tribes to establish a firm foothold.

Old Gulf map

Florida became a United States territory in 1822 and was admitted as our 27th state in 1845. Even more settlements were established and the government came under pressure to get rid of the Seminole tribes. Clashes between settlers and Seminoles became more frequent and violent when it was discovered that the tribe gave refuge to escaped slaves. The government ultimately signed the Treaty of Payne’s Landing in 1832, which promised the Seminoles land west of the Mississippi River if they vacated the state; many accepted the arrangement but some stayed to defend their lands. Thus, in 1835, the United States Army arrived to force the issue and a fierce war broke out.

The Seminoles were brave warriors and, led by the charismatic young Osceola, employed guerilla tactics that caused heavy casualties to the U.S. Army. Osceola, captured in 1837, died after three months’ imprisonment. The war continued for another five years and ultimately only about 300 Seminoles were permitted to stay in the Everglades. At the close of the war almost half the population of Florida consisted of slaves kidnapped from Africa and forced to work on sugar and cotton plantations. As more and more people settled the Seminoles were again pressured to get out, starting the Third Seminole War from 1855-1858. Only about 100 were left at the end.

Florida then was an unsettling place to be, even after the civil war—blacks were not allowed to vote even after the laws were changed; they were intimidated, bullied and murdered and treated even more cruelly than the Seminoles. Seeing no future by staying, tens of thousands of African Americans migrated north between 1910-1940, seeking better lives and jobs that paid living wages.

The railroads reached Florida in the 1920’s, leading to a tremendous land boom fueled by speculators that grabbed up choice properties in Palm Beach, Miami and other places including prime agricultural and grazing tracts. The boom became a bust a few short years later, fueled by unscrupulous financiers and a horrific hurricane in 1926. The economy further decayed as the Depression hit in 1929 and Florida began the long journey of economic recovery.

Old Canoe on lake

And recover it did! Florida had always attracted people who loved natural beauty, sunshine and a warm climate. The United States military injected new life into the economy when it realized that Florida was a perfect location for naval air stations and seaports. Theme parks like Cypress Gardens and Marineland began appearing in the 1930’s and Florida was chosen by Walt Disney for his ambitious Walt Disney World Resort.

Today Florida is major attraction for tourists from all over the world. It is a breathtakingly beautiful playground known for deep sea fishing, water sports of all kinds, hunting and camping. Its agriculture helps feed the country and tourism has never been better. Florida has become one of the most popular places in the country to live, work and play.