Archaeological research indicates that Florida was first inhabited by Paleo-Indians, the first human inhabitants of the Americas, perhaps as early as 14 thousand years ago.
The region was continuously inhabited through the Archaic period (to about 2000 BC). After about 500 BC the previously relatively uniform Archaic culture began to coalesce into distinctive local cultures. By the 16th century, the earliest time for which there is a historical record, major Native American groups included the Apalachee (of the Florida Panhandle), the Timucua (of northern and central Florida), the Ais (of the central Atlantic coast), the Tocobaga (of the Tampa Bay area), the Calusa (of southwest Florida) and the Tequesta (of the southeastern coast).
Florida was the first part of what is now the continental United States to be visited by Europeans. The earliest known European explorers came with the Spanish conquistador Juan Ponce de León, who spotted the peninsula on April 2, 1513. According to his chroniclers, Ponce de León named the region La Florida ("flowery land") because it was then the Easter Season, known in Spanish as Pascua Florida (roughly "Flowery Easter"), and because the vegetation was in bloom. It is possible Juan Ponce de León was not the first European to reach Florida, however; reportedly, at least one indigenous tribesman whom he encountered in Florida in 1513 spoke Spanish. From 1513 onward, the land became known as "La Florida", although after 1630 and throughout the 18th century, Tegesta (after the Tequesta tribe) was an alternate name of choice for the Florida peninsula following publication of a map by the Dutch cartographer Hessel Gerritsz in Joannes de Laet's History of the New World.
Over the following century, both the Spanish and French established settlements in Florida with varying degrees of success. In 1559, Don Tristán de Luna y Arellano established a colony at present-day Pensacola, one of the first European attempts at settlement in the continental United States. It was abandoned by 1561 due to hurricanes, famine and warring tribes, and the area was not re-inhabited until the 1690s. French Protestant Huguenots founded Fort Caroline in modern-day Jacksonville in 1564. The following year, the Spanish colony of St. Augustine (San Agustín) was established, and forces from there conquered Fort Caroline that same year. The Spanish maintained tenuous control over the region by converting the local tribes, briefly with Jesuits and later with Franciscan friars.
Bernard Picart copper plate engraving of Florida Indians, Circa 1721 "Cérémonies et Coutumes Religieuses de tous les Peuples du Monde"
The area of Spanish Florida diminished with the establishment of English colonies to the north and French colonies to the west. The English weakened Spanish power in the area by supplying their Creek and Yamasee allies with firearms and urging them to raid the Timucuan and Apalachee client-tribes of the Spanish. The English attacked St. Augustine, burning the city and its cathedral to the ground several times, while the citizens hid behind the walls of the Castillo de San Marcos.
Florida was attracting a large number of Africans and African Americans from British-occupied North America who sought freedom from slavery. Once in Florida, the Spanish Crown converted them to Roman Catholicism and gave them freedom. Those ex-slaves settled in a community north of St. Augustine, called Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose, the first freedom settlement of its kind in what became the United States. Many of those slaves were also welcomed by Creek and Seminole Native Americans who had established settlements there at the invitation of the Spanish government.
Great Britain gained control of Florida and other territory diplomatically in 1763 through the Peace of Paris. The British divided their new acquisitions into East Florida, with its capital at St. Augustine, and West Florida, with its capital at Pensacola. Britain tried to develop the Floridas through the importation of immigrants for labor, but this project ultimately failed. Spain received both Floridas after Britain's defeat by the American colonies and the subsequent Treaty of Versailles in 1783, continuing the division into East and West Florida. They offered land grants to anyone who settled in the colonies, and many Americans moved to them.
After settler attacks on Indian towns, Seminole Indians based in East Florida began raiding Georgia settlements, purportedly at the behest of the Spanish. The United States Army led increasingly frequent incursions into Spanish territory, including the 1817–1818 campaign against the Seminole Indians by Andrew Jackson that became known as the First Seminole War. Following the war, the United States effectively controlled East Florida. In 1819, by terms of the Adams-Onís Treaty, Spain ceded Florida to the United States in exchange for the American renunciation of any claims on Texas that they might have from the Louisiana Purchase and $5 million.
On March 3, 1845, Florida became the 27th state of the United States of America, although initially its population grew slowly. White settlers continued to encroach on lands used by the Seminoles, and the United States government resolved to make another effort to move the remaining Seminoles to the West. The Third Seminole War lasted from 1855 to 1858, and resulted in the removal of most of the remaining Seminoles. Even after three bloody wars, the U.S. Army failed to force all of the Seminole Indians in Florida to the West. Though most of the Seminoles were forcibly exiled to Creek lands west of the Mississippi, hundreds, including Seminole leader Aripeka (Sam Jones), remained in the Everglades and refused to leave the native homeland of their ancestors. Their descendants remain there to this day.
White settlers began to establish cotton plantations in Florida, which required numerous laborers. By 1860 Florida had only 140,424 people, of whom 44% were enslaved. There were fewer than 1000 free African Americans before the Civil War.
Winter in Florida, 1893
Until the mid-20th century, Florida was the least populous Southern state. In 1900 its population was only 528,542, of whom nearly 44% were African American. The boll weevil devastated cotton crops, and early 20th century lynchings and racial violence caused a record number of African Americans to leave the state in the Great Migration to northern and midwestern industrial cities. Forty thousand blacks, roughly one-fifth of their 1900 population, left for better opportunities. National economic prosperity in the 1920s stimulated tourism to Florida. Combined with its sudden elevation in profile was the Florida land boom of the 1920s, which brought a brief period of intense land development. Devastating hurricanes in 1926 and 1928, followed by the stock market crash and Great Depression, brought that period to a halt.