Florida Family History Research
This entry was originally written by the Florida Pioneer Descendants Certification Program Committee of the Florida State Genealogical Society, Inc. for Red Book: American State, County, and Town Sources.
History of Florida
No man would immigrate into Florida—no, not from Hell itself,” declared the Honorable John Randolph of Roanoke, Virginia, in the 1821 United States House of Representatives. The newly annexed territory was, he declared, “a land of swamps, of quagmires, of frogs and alligators and mosquitoes.” Nonetheless, Florida’s 2000 census would show it to be the nation’s fourth most populous state at that time.
The Spanish colonial presence began with the landing of Juan Ponce de Leon at Eastertide in 1513, ninety-four years before the British settlement in Jamestown, Virginia. Spanish Florida ultimately embraced all of the present state and much of the Gulf Coast, including large parts of Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana.
In 1564 French Huguenots settled Fort Caroline on the St. Johns River near present-day Jacksonville. The Spanish reacted immediately, by establishing St. Augustine in 1565 as the first permanent European settlement in America, immediately destroying Fort Caroline. After further hostilities, France soon abandoned designs on peninsular Florida. Elizabethan England, however, was not to be so easily intimidated.
Spain was to spend much of the seventeenth century attempting to dissuade the English by scattering its own colonists across Florida. By the 1680s, San Marcos de Apalache (now St. Marks) on the Gulf coast had grown to noteworthy proportions. In the final third of the century, pressure from the French to the west and the English and their Native American allies to the north prompted Spain to fortify St. Augustine and to re-establish a former settlement at Pensacola in 1698. In 1702 and 1703, there were numerous British raids. Seventeen years later, the French took and briefly held Pensacola before relinquishing the town, joining with Spain against England, and finally retiring further westward along the Gulf Coast.
Following an indecisive treaty in 1748 and a decade of peace with Spain, England was again at war with France. By 1761, Spain, fearful that a French defeat could damage its own colonial interests, finally took sides with France, but it was too late. The Treaty of Paris, ending the Seven Years War in 1763, saw Spain cede Florida to England in exchange for the captured city of Havana, Cuba.
British East Florida reached from the Atlantic to the Apalachicola River; British West Florida ran from the Apalachicola to the Mississippi. In 1765, England sent Surveyor General William Gerard de Brahm and Royal Botanist John Bartram to the new possession and offered bounties, land grants, and other inducements to settlers. Thus, East and West Florida remained loyal to Britain during the American Revolution, and St. Augustine became crowded with Tory refugees from Georgia and the Carolinas.
In 1781, Spain captured Pensacola from Britain, which two years later exchanged both Floridas for the Bahama Islands. For a decade after the American Revolution there were sporadic Spanish-American border disputes until the Pinckney Treaty of 1795 fixed the 31st parallel as the northern boundary of West Florida and gave the United States undisputed control of an area that now comprises nearly a third of Alabama and Mississippi.
Spain supported the British in the War of 1812 but never declared war on the United States. Nonetheless, Andrew Jackson seized and then abandoned Spanish Pensacola in 1814 and helped convince Spain of the folly of trying to hold an overseas colony contiguous to a large and unfriendly nation already coveting its lands. Under the terms of the Adams-Onis Treaty, which took effect in 1821, Spain gave up East and West Florida in exchange for claims by U.S. citizens, of up to five million dollars against Spain.
In 1821 Congress provided for a territorial governor, territorial courts, and a thirteen-member legislative council. Florida’s first two counties were established on 21 July 1821. By its first territorial census in 1830, three years before the skeptical Honorable John Randolph of Roanoke died, Florida boasted 34,730 inhabitants. By statehood fifteen years later, its population had surpassed 66,500.
The massacre of Army Major Francis Langhorne Dade and two companies of soldiers in December 1835 marked the opening hostilities of the Second Seminole War, which would end seven years later after an expenditure of more than $20 million and the loss of 1,500 soldiers. By the end of the third Seminole War (1855–58), over 3,800 Native Americans, free African Americans, and runaway slaves were relocated to the Indian Territory, which is now Oklahoma.
In 1842, a wave of immigrants was enticed by the Armed Occupation Act to bear arms and protect their land against the Indians. After five years, the land became theirs as long as they cultivated and built a home on it. Florida attained statehood on 3 March 1845, the first among the Atlantic coast colonies settled, but the last admitted to the Union. By then, Florida’s people had lived under the flags of four sovereign nations: Spain, France, Great Britain, and the United States.
Researchers should be aware that county boundaries changed frequently during three time periods: after the change of ownership from Spain to the U.S. in 1821; after 1900, when the railroad was completed on the East Coast of Florida; and during the “Land Boom,” which began right after World War I. The last four counties were created in 1925, followed by five years in which Florida suffered a series of financial disasters caused by the weather—extreme cold in the winter of 1925, extreme heat in the summer, and several major hurricane disasters. Florida experienced its own depression from which it took many years to recover. However, Florida did recover, and by 2000 its “swamps and quagmires” were inhabited by more than 15.9 million Americans—making it the fourth most populated state in the nation.