Juan Ponce de León, on the hunt for the legendary Fountain of Youth, landed on the east coast of Florida on April 2, 1513. This is widely considered to be the first European landing in Florida, although Ponce de León claimed to have met an Indian who already spoke Spanish. The land was named “La Pascua Florida” (the flowery Easter) in honor of the date on the religious calendar. Spanish exploration of Florida continued in earnest for the next half century, although attempts at settlement were continually thwarted by native people who wanted nothing to do with these interlopers. The first European settlement in what is now the United States was in Pensacola, but it only lasted for two years (1569–1571). The Spanish had better luck with the establishment of St. Augustine in 1565, which is now regarded as the oldest city in the continental United States. It was the point from which the Spanish began launching Catholic missions throughout the region.
By this time, the Spanish exploits in Florida had caught the attention of other European powers. French explorers Jean Ribault and René Goulaine de Laudonnière founded Fort Caroline near modern-day Jacksonville, and the English launched an ill-fated expedition to colonize the area that never even made it across the Atlantic. This left the French and Spanish to duke it out for the next half century, all the while contending with assaults from Native Americans. English settlers finally began arriving in the mid-17th century, although they were migrating south from colonies in Carolina and Virginia.
By 1702 the English government took a much more concerted interest in Florida, and Colonel James Moore banded together with the Yamassee people to attack the Spanish fort at St. Augustine. Although the attack failed, it signaled the beginning of the end of exclusive Spanish rule over Florida. The French captured Pensacola in 1719, extending their sovereignty from Louisiana, and the British continued their attacks on St. Augustine and other Spanish outposts in North Florida, finally wresting control of the region from Spain in 1763. The outbreak of the Revolutionary War diverted Britain’s attention from Florida, and Spain was able to regain control in 1783; this last reign was both unenthusiastic (there were no settlements or missions established) and temporary (the Adams-Onís Treaty of 1819 ceded control of Florida to the United States in exchange for all claims that the United States had to Texas).
American control brought organization to the frontier land. The separate colonial states of East Florida and West Florida were merged, and the capital was established at Tallahassee, midway between the two former state capitals of Pensacola and St. Augustine. Migration of Americans from the north soon began in earnest, but early settlers were greeted none too warmly by Native Americans. In particular, the Seminoles had grown increasingly powerful in between the colonial powers’ tugs-of-war and had increasingly irritated the leaders of Southern states by providing refuge to escaped slaves who had made their way to Seminole land. Among other conflagrations, this ignited the Second Seminole War (the first had happened when Spain had control of Florida), and it wound up being the costliest and bloodiest war in history between the U.S. government and a native tribe. The war lasted nearly seven years and ultimately resulted in the permanent establishment of the expansive Seminole Reservation as well as the exodus of thousands of Native Americans out of Florida into Oklahoma.
© Jason Ferguson from Moon Florida, 1st Edition