A Rich Heritage
From swashbuckling tales of Spanish adventurers to Civil War battles and US astronauts’ first ventures into space, Florida’s history is an intriguing one. Visit coastal forts and lighthouses, museums, mansions and vintage hotels. Explore a variety of Native American, African American and Hispanic cultural sites that bring Florida’s past to life. Myriad historic treasures are waiting to be rediscovered throughout the state.
Thousands of years before the first European explorers arrived, Florida was populated by Native Americans such as the Tequesta people, who lived near the mouth of the Miami River. After an excavation uncovered the remains of a village, the state Division of Historical Resources has preserved the site as the Miami Circle Park.
Other Native American tribes survived the incursion of northern settlers in the 1800s by moving into the Everglades, where they gradually rebuilt their societies. Now, visitors can learn about the Seminole and Miccosukee tribes, sample native cuisine, take a ride on an airboat or watch alligator wrestling at Billie Swamp Safari and other attractions along US 41 (Tamiami Trail) and I-75 (Alligator Alley). Clewiston’s Ah-TahThi-Ki Museum (meaning “a place to learn”) is a living village of early Seminole culture and definitely worth a visit.
To help mariners avoid rocks and reefs, several lighthouses, erected in this region in the 1800s, are open to visitors. For fascinating glimpses into Florida's past, tour the Garden Key Lighthouse at Fort Jefferson National Monument and nearby Loggerhead Key Lighthouse (both in Dry Tortugas National Park); the Cape Florida Lighthouse on Key Biscayne near Miami; and the 155year-old Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse and Museum in Palm Beach County, where outdoor exhibits include the Lighthouse Keeper’s Workshop, the Tindall Pioneer Homestead and a Seminole chickee.
The Museum of Art & History at the Custom House in Key West is South Florida’s most important historic building. Built in 1891, the red brick national landmark has been returned to its former glory following a nine-year, US$9-million restoration project. Exhibitions within expose visitors to a Florida they may have never known. Clinton Square Market, now a bi-level shopping mall, is housed in an 1800s building that was once a US Navy coal depot. Historic Key West also offers the Harry S. Truman Little White House, a favorite vacation spot for the president in the late 1940s and early ’50s, and The Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum.
Other cultural sites in the region include Miami’s historic Lyric Theater, which was a major entertainment center for African Americans in the state’s segregated society. A few blocks to the south, Little Havana reflects Miami’s Cuban heritage, with restaurants, clubs and shops where you can buy hand-rolled cigars.
Pioneer homes and historic hotels are found in Fort Lauderdale, Boca Raton and West Palm Beach. Two examples are Stranahan House on the New River in Fort Lauderdale and the Bonnet House Museum & Gardens near the Intracoastal Waterway. In Palm Beach County, the Boca Raton Resort and Club, the Colony Hotel & Cabana Club in Delray Beach and the world-famous Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach are examples of Florida architecture from the 1920s. The Breakers actually dates back to the late 1890s when railroad magnate Henry Flagler began bringing northern visitors to Florida, but after the hotel’s second disastrous fire, it was rebuilt in 1926.
In Fort Myers, inventor Thomas Edison and friend Henry Ford built Florida homes, known today as the Edison & Ford Winter Estates with a museum, laboratory and botanical gardens. To the north, not far from another historic landmark, the Boca Grande Lighthouse in Gasparilla Island State Park is the Gasparilla Inn & Club, which has attracted visitors since 1913.
Koreshan State Historic Site in Estero was the scene of one of the most unusual chapters in Florida history. In 1894, Cyrus Reed Teed founded the Koreshan Unity, a community for his followers who believed the universe existed within a giant, hollow sphere. Today, the site has 11 wellmaintained historic structures dating from 1882–1920 as well as landscaped grounds with exotic ornamental plants from around the world.
In Bradenton, the Gamble Plantation is the only remaining antebellum plantation house in southern Florida. Nearby, the historic town of Palmetto boasts its own historical park for a peek back in time, as well as an ancient Native American location, the Madira Bickel Mound State Archaeological Site.
Farther north in Sarasota, the Ringling Estate is a standing legacy to the rich history of the American circus and houses a wealth of circus artifacts, including the world’s largest miniature circus. Surrounding gardens feature an extensive variety of native and exotic trees, as well as the oldest rose garden in Florida, founded by Mable Ringling. Next door, the historic Asolo Repertory Theatre is an active performance space, presenting the best in theater, music, dance and film.
In 1949, Cape Canaveral became a test site for the US missile program. A decade later, the Cocoa Beach-Titusville area was the heart of the nation’s space program, including Apollo 11, the 1969 mission that carried astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the moon. Now, the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex allows guests to experience the glory years of the US space program.
Located on the US Air Force Base is the historic Cape Canaveral Lighthouse; be sure to check tour information before planning your trip.
To the north, the Ponce de Leon Inlet Lighthouse & Museum, Florida’s tallest, guards the waterway at the southern end of the Daytona Beach area.
For a survey of Central Florida’s fascinating past, visit the Orange County Regional History Center in Orlando to view exhibits such as a “cracker cabin,” a typical pioneer home from the 1800s.
One of Florida’s leading African Americans was Zora Neale Hurston, a leading 20th-century author whose works influenced such writers as Toni Morrison and Ralph Ellison. An annual festival in Eatonville celebrates her life and recognizes her contributions to literature.
Located in Tampa’s Channelside District, the Tampa Bay History Center houses 60,000 square feet of exhibits that link the region’s modern culture with sports legends, railroad tycoons, cattle drives, pioneers, Spanish conquistadors and Florida’s first native inhabitants. From the museum, it’s a short drive to Ybor City, known as Tampa’s Latin Quarter for more than a century. Visitors can enjoy Cuban coffee and cigars and dance to Latin rhythms.
To the west in St. Petersburg Beach, the Loews Don CeSar Hotel is an historic hotel known as “Florida’s Pink Castle” since it opened in 1928. Another Florida treasure is Tarpon Springs, where visitors can tour the historic sponge diving docks and sample Greek food at numerous restaurants.
Back in 1513, Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León set foot on a sandy Atlantic beach near today’s St. Augustine and christened
the new land “La Florida,” probably because of the abundance of spring flowers. Four decades later, Pedro Menéndez de Avilés founded St. Augustine, now the oldest continually inhabited city in North America. With an historic district containing more than 30 colonial-era buildings, St. Augustine provides a unique glimpse into Spanish colonial life. Highlights include Castillo de San Marcos, the oldest masonry fortification in the continental US, and the St. Augustine Lighthouse & Museum.
In 1738, in an attempt to destabilize the plantation economy of the British colonies by creating a free black community to attract slaves seeking escape and refuge, the Spanish established the fort and town of Gracia Real de Santa Terese de Mosé as the first free black community in North America. For an in-depth history of Florida’s African Americans and their contributions, request a copy of the Florida Black Heritage Trail from Visit Florida.
To the north, Jacksonville traces its roots to the French who landed at the mouth of the St. Johns River in 1562 and founded Fort Caroline two years later. However, a Spanish force soon captured the fort, and the French became a distant memory. Through the years, the Spanish maintained control of the region, establishing forts, farms and missions, including Fort Caroline and the Kingsley Plantation House (c. 1798), both of which are located in the Timucuan Ecological & Historic Preserve, one of the last unspoiled coastal wetlands on the Atlantic coast. During the 1820s, when Florida was a US territory, the plantation was the home of Zephaniah Kingsley, a slave-owner who spoke out for civil rights, and his free African wife, Anna.
One of Florida’s hidden historic treasures is Fernandina Beach on Amelia Island north of Jacksonville. Many buildings in its 50-block historic district are on the National Register, and the Amelia Island Museum of History showcases the region’s fascinating past. Visitors can also tour the Amelia Island Lighthouse property on Saturdays between 11 AM and 2 PM. Built during the Territorial Period in 1838, it is the state’s oldest lighthouse. While in the area, scout out the historic Fort Clinch and Visitor Center for a vivid glimpse into the nation’s past during the Civil War.
During the early 1800s, Florida’s population was concentrated in North Florida, where Tallahassee became the territorial capital. One of the city’s highlights from that era is The Grove, an historic mansion finished in the 1830s by Richard Keith Call, an aide and advisor to General Andrew Jackson.
When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Florida joined the Confederacy, the smallest state to secede from the US. During the war, Union troops fought the Confederates in several fights in the North Central area, including the Battle of Natural Bridge in 1865, one of the last Confederate victories in the war. To the south near Lake City, “soldiers” in Civil War uniforms annually re-enact the Battle of Olustee. The state also publishes the Florida Civil War Heritage Trail, a guidebook to Florida battle sites.
Southwest of Tallahassee, visitors can tour the unspoiled fishing community of Apalachicola, the center of the state’s oyster industry for many decades. Nearby is the St. Marks Lighthouse in St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge.
One of the nation’s oldest cities on the Gulf Coast, Pensacola has flourished under Spanish, French, British, Confederate and US rule, and today is known as the “city of five flags.” At its heart, Historic Pensacola Village includes 27 buildings and museums operated by the University of West Florida.
In the late 1500s, the Spanish first settled in the region to protect their settlements and galleons carrying gold from Mexico. Storms, battles and other accidents resulted in numerous sinkings, and divers today can explore 12 wrecks along the Florida Panhandle Shipwreck Trail between Pensacola and Port St. Joe. Visitors can also tour historic lighthouses in the region, such as the Pensacola Lighthouse and Museum, built in 1859.
In the 1700s, the British took control of the region, building Fort Barrancas and Fort George. Then, a Spanish army with US volunteers ousted the British forces during a 1781 battle—a little-known victory of the American Revolution.
TOP: Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. CENTER: Re-enactors at Fort Clinch on Amelia Island. ABOVE: Senate chamber in the Old Florida State Capitol, Tallahassee. OPPOSITE: Pensacola Lighthouse on Pensacola Naval Air Station.
OPPOSITE TOP: Ballroom at the Breakers Hotel in West Palm Beach. OPPOSITE BOTTOM: Edison and Ford Winter Estates in Fort Myers. TOP: Vintage architectural styles in Winter Park. ABOVE: Statue of early sponge diver in Tarpon Springs.