The first people to live in what is now Florida arrived more than 12,000 years ago. They hunted small animals and gathered wild plants for food. Over the centuries, Native American tribes including the Timucua, Apalachee, Calusa, and Creek lived in the area.
Spanish conquistador (that’s Spanish for “conqueror”) Ponce de León sailed to Florida in 1513 searching for gold and silver. He didn’t find it, but he did discover fertile farmland and lots of coastline—excellent for shipping. No wonder Great Britain, France, and Spain all tried to establish settlements in Florida. In 1763, the British took control of Florida from Spain in exchange for the land that is now Havana, Cuba. But just two decades later, as part of the peace treaty that ended the Revolutionary War, Spain took charge again. That didn’t last long—new U.S. settlers began flooding in, and in 1821, Spain gave up Florida to the United States in exchange for Spanish rule over Texas. Florida officially became the 27th state in 1845.
Today Native Americans called Seminoles still live in Florida. The people come from a combination of tribes who migrated to the area in the 1700s to avoid conflict with the Europeans and with other tribes.
WHY’S IT CALLED THAT?
Florida’s original Spanish name is La Florida, which means “place of flowers.” Some historians think Ponce de León chose the name to honor the blooming flowers he saw there, or in tribute to Spain’s Easter celebration called Pascua Florida, or “Feast of Flowers.”
GEOGRAPHY AND LANDFORMS
Florida is a peninsula—that means it’s almost completely surrounded by water. Its northernmost edge is connected to Alabama in the northwest and Georgia in the northeast. Take a swim off Florida’s west coast, and you’ll be in the Gulf of Mexico. Dive in off the east coast, and you’ll be splashing in the Atlantic Ocean. Off the south coast, you’ll be swimming in the Straits of Florida.
The northern “upland” part of the state is hilly, but you’ll find caves and sinkholes in the northwestern Marianna lowlands. The coastal plains contain sandy beaches, islands, and coral reefs. In the south, you can canoe through the famous Everglades National Park—swampy, wildlife-filled marshland that covers 1.5 million acres. Off the southernmost tip of the state are the Florida Keys, a group of about 1,700 tiny islands called an archipelago. Want to island-hop? No problem. A causeway and 42 bridges connect the various keys.
Florida’s wildlife includes mammals like armadillos, black bears, and the Florida panther; reptiles such as alligators, crocodiles, and snakes; sea life like manatees, sea turtles, dolphins, and whales; and birds such as raptors, owls, cranes, and Florida’s state bird, the mockingbird. More than 300 types of native trees grow in the state, from apple and cherry trees in the north to mangrove forests in the swamps. Tall sawgrass is a common sight in marshes, though Florida’s most famous plant may be the orange tree—the orange blossom is the state flower.
Many believe that Ponce de León was the first to plant orange seeds in Florida. Three centuries later, newly-built railroads allowed growers to ship oranges across the United States. Today the state provides oranges for most of the orange juice sold in the country.
Sugarcane, fish, petroleum, and phosphate (used for fertilizer) are also top natural resources from Florida.
—Florida can make an excellent vacation spot, thanks to its 663 miles of beaches and—of course!—Disney World. The 40-square-mile park in the city of Orlando has more than 60,000 employees and welcomes more than 62,000 visitors every day.
—The state can even take you out of this world … literally! You can see an actual rocket launch from Cape Canaveral, where rockets have been taking off since 1950.
—Florida isn’t just a great place to visit. Many have called the state home. Author Ernest Hemingway chose to live in Key West. Zora Neale Hurston, a member of the Harlem Renaissance, author of Their Eyes Were Watching God, and a collector and publisher of African-American and Afro-Caribbean folklore, also lived here. Singer Ariana Grande and former Attorney General of the United States Janet Reno were also born in Florida.