Friday, April 2, 2010

Searching for the Fountain of Youth: A Brief Florida History

As a many-generation, native Floridian, I must note that today marks the 497th anniversary of the discovery of Florida by Europeans. While Native Americans have lived in the area for more than ten thousand years, sadly their history must be left to the archeologists.

On April 2, 1513, Juan Ponce de Leon, a Spanish explorer, landed somewhere along the northeastern coast of modern day Florida. The year 1513 seemed like a long time ago, until I noticed that the pub where I had dinner last evening was in a building constructed in 1434.

Old Juan came to Florida searching for the Fountain of Youth, which he never found. If he had bothered to ask, I could have directed him to Downtown St. Petersburg and a drinking fountain, enclosed by a small courtyard, with the words “Fountain of Youth” chiseled in the stone above it. Of course, the last time I checked, the city had turned off the water to the fountain.

Regardless, millions of Europeans made the journey to Florida over the subsequent centuries. In fact, while the rest of the Atlantic coast between Canada and Cuba went from British colony to statehood, Florida changed hands several times -- controlled by the Spanish, French and British, before becoming a U.S. territory with Andrew Jackson, “the old Indian hater,” serving as the first territorial governor. Jackson spent most of his time in Florida making life miserable for the few remaining Native Americans left in the region.

In 1845, Florida became the twenty-seventh state, but clearly had second thoughts, because in 1861 Florida became the third state to secede from the Union, certainly one of the dumber decisions made by the Florida Legislature, although there have been many.

A bit of Civil War trivia concern’s Florida’s Confederate Governor, John Milton, who committed suicide at the end of the war, saying "Death would be preferable to reunion." Makes one wonder about the intelligence level of politicians who only speak in sound bites.

After the war, Florida began separating itself from the rest of the South, to the point that many Deep South southerners consider Florida a “Yankee” state, and they are probably right. Instead of growing cotton, rice and cigarette tobacco, like the rest of the South, Floridians raised cattle, grew oranges and started rolling cigars.

Warm Florida winters are what made the difference. They helped Florida attract folks from the North – investors, railroad builders, developers and lots of tourists searching for the “Fountain of Youth.”


  1. Florida is really two states. The northern part that borders on the southern states isn't much different than Alabama, Mississippi, or Georgia.