Brochure images of tanning tourists and Mickey Mouse give an inaccurate and incomplete picture of Florida. Although the aptly nicknamed “Sunshine State” is indeed devoted to the tourist trade, it’s also among the least-understood parts of the USA. Away from its overexposed resorts lie forests and rivers, deserted strands filled with wildlife, and vibrant cities within reach of primeval swamps. Contrary to the popular retirement-community image, new Floridians tend to be a younger, more energetic breed, while Spanish-speaking enclaves provide close ties to Latin America and the Caribbean.

The essential stop is cosmopolitan, half-Latin Miami. A simple journey south from here brings you to the Florida Keys, a hundred-mile string of islands known for sport fishing, coral-reef diving and the sultry town of Key West, legendary for its sunsets and liberal attitude. Back on the mainland, west from Miami stretch the easily accessible Everglades, a water-logged sawgrass plain filled with alligators, a symbol of the state that can be found on college campuses (well, as a game mascot, anyway) and innumerable billboards. Much of Florida’s east coast is heavily built-up – a side effect of the migration of so-called “sunbirds” seeking to escape the cold climes of the northeast USA. The residential stranglehold is loosened further north, where the Kennedy Space Center launches NASA shuttles. Further along, historical St Augustine stands as the longest continuously occupied European settlement in the US.

In central Florida the terrain turns green, though it’s no rural idyll, thanks in mainly to Orlando and Walt Disney World, which sprawl out across the countryside. From here it’s just a skip west to the towns and beaches of the Gulf Coast, and somewhat further north to the forests of the Panhandle, Florida’s link with the Deep South.

Brief history

The first European sighting of Florida, just six years after Christopher Columbus reached the New World, is believed to have been made by John and Sebastian Cabot in 1498. At the time, the area’s one hundred thousand inhabitants formed several distinct tribes: the Timucua across northern Florida, the Calusa around the southwest and Lake Okeechobee, the Apalachee in the Panhandle and the Tequesta along the southeast coast.

In 1513, a Spaniard, Juan Ponce de León, sighted land during Pascua Florida, Spain’s Easter celebration; he named what he saw La Florida, or “Land of Flowers”. Eight years later he returned, the first of several Spanish incursions prompted by rumours of gold hidden in the north of the region. When it became clear that Florida did not hold stunning riches, interest waned, and it wasn’t until 1565 that conquistador Pedro Menéndez de Avilés founded St Augustine. In 1586, St Augustine was razed by a British naval bombardment led by Francis Drake, and the ensuing bloody confrontation for control was eventually settled when the British captured the crucial Spanish possession of Havana, Cuba; Spain willingly parted with Florida to get it back. By this point, indigenous Floridians had been largely wiped out by disease. The Native American population that was left largely comprised disparate tribes that had arrived from the north, collectively known as the Seminoles.

Following American Independence, Florida once more reverted to Spain. In 1814, the US general (and future president) Andrew Jackson – with the intention of taking the region – marched south from Tennessee, killing hundreds of Native Americans and triggering the First Seminole War. Following the war, in 1819, Spain ceded Florida to the US, in return for American assumption of $5 million of Spanish debt. Not long after, Jackson was sworn in as Florida’s first American governor, and Tallahassee selected as the new administrative centre.

Eleven years later, the Act of Indian Removal decreed that all Native Americans in the eastern US should be transferred to reservations in the Midwest. Most Seminole were determined to stay, which ignited the Second Seminole War; the Native Americans were steadily driven south, away from the fertile lands of central Florida and into the Everglades, where they eventually agreed to remain. Florida became the 27th state on March 3, 1845, around the same time that the nascent railroad system first brought prosperity to the area.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, the country’s newspapers extolled the curative virtues of Florida’s climate, and northern speculators invested their fortunes. These early efforts to promote Florida as a tourist destination brought in the wintering rich: the likes of Henry Flagler and Henry Plant extended their railroads and opened luxury resorts here. After World War I, everyone wanted a piece of Florida, and chartered trains brought in thousands of eager buyers. But most deals were only as solid as the paper they were written on, and in 1926 the banks began to default. The Wall Street Crash then made paupers of the millionaires whose investments had helped shape the state.

What saved Florida was World War II. During the war, thousands of troops arrived to guard the coastline, providing a taste of Florida that would entice many to return; postwar, the government expanded its facilities in and around Jacksonville, Tampa and Pensacola, bringing in thousands of residents and billions of investment dollars. Furthermore, in the mid-Sixties, the state government bent over backwards to help the Disney Corporation turn a sizeable slice of central Florida into Walt Disney World. Its enormous commercial success helped solidify Florida’s place in the international tourist market.

Behind the optimistic facade, however, lie many problems. Gun laws remain notoriously lax, and the multimillion-dollar drug trade shows few signs of abating – at least a quarter of the cocaine entering the US is said to arrive via Florida. Recently, too, the environment along Florida’s Gulf Coast was imperilled by 2010’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill. While the area has largely recovered from the disaster, the state filed suit against the oil company and its contractor in 2013, hoping to recoup some of the estimated billions of dollars it lost in tax income.

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