The following article was written by my friend, William Dollarhide, and is excerpted from his new book, Florida Name Lists, 1759 – 2009.
For genealogical research in Florida, the following timeline of events should help any genealogist understand the area with an historical and genealogical point of view:
1513. Spaniard Juan Ponce de Leon explored and named Florida (Pascua La Florida, after the Feast of Flowers).
The fountain of youth he was looking for did not happen until Disney World arrived 458 years later.
1539. Spaniard Hernando DeSoto, on a quest to find gold and a route to China, landed on Florida’s West Coast, somewhere between present Cape Coral and Bradenton, traveled on land towards Tampa Bay and then further north to present-day Tallahassee. Looking for gold, he left La Florida disappointed, but he became the first European to travel on land into present Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, and Arkansas.
1565. The first colony at St. Augustine Bay was founded by the Spanish. Although the fort was sacked, burned, pillaged, and generally not treated very well by the French or English, St. Augustine survived and is now acknowledged as the first permanent settlement in North America by Europeans.
1586. British seafarer, Sir Francis Drake, raided and burned St. Augustine, but the fort was rebuilt again by the Spanish soon after, along with several more missions in Florida over the next century.
1682. French explorer René-Robert Cavelier (Sieur de la Salle) erected a cross near the confluence of the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico, after floating down rivers from the Great Lakes. He claimed the entire Mississippi basin for Louis XIV of France, for whom Louisiana was named. The French believed that Louisiana included the present areas of Biloxi, Mobile, and Pensacola.
1698. Pensacola was founded by the Spanish, as the Presidio Santa Maria de Galve.
1719. The French captured Pensacola and about the same time occupied all of the gulf ports to New Orleans, but as a result of an alliance with Spain against England, the French soon returned Pensacola to Spain.
1754. The Spanish built the Presidio San Miguel de Panzacola, within what is now downtown Pensacola’s historical district.
1763 Treaty of Paris. Until this year, many cross-claims to territory in North America existed between the French, English and Spanish, and it took a war to settle the issue of land ownership. In Europe and Canada it was called the Seven Years War, but in colonial America it was called the French and Indian War. At the 1763 Treaty of Paris ending the war, France was divested of all of its large North American claims, except the town of New Orleans and some fishing rights near Newfoundland. The British gained undisputed title to Nova Scotia, Quebec, their thirteen Atlantic colonies from present Maine to Georgia, and all other lands east of the Mississippi River. Spanish lands were recognized as those west of the Mississippi. Also part of the 1763 treaty, the Spanish ransomed Florida to the British in exchange for Cuba. The British immediately divided the area into West Florida with a capital at Pensacola, and East Florida, with a capital at St. Augustine. The dividing line was the Apalachicola – Chattahoochee Rivers.
1780-1783. During the Revolutionary War, the British hold on East and West Florida came to an end. With the Spanish as allies of the French, the British lost West Florida to Spanish forces, who captured Mobile in 1780 and Pensacola in 1781. The British then returned East Florida to Spain in 1783, causing many American loyalists who had fled the Revolutionary War to St. Augustine to flee again, this time heading for the Bahamas or West Indies.
1783. The treaty of Paris of 1783 first recognized the United States as an independent nation. Its borders were described generally from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi River, and from present Maine to Georgia. Spain continued to possess East and West Florida after the 1783 Treaty of Paris. However, Spain and the U.S. both claimed the area between Latitude 31o and Latitude 32o 30’ of present-day Mississippi and Alabama. This disputed area was left out of the U.S. in the Treaty of 1783, and remained in dispute with Spain until 1796.
1790 Federal Census. The present-day area of Alabama and Mississippi was part of Georgia, part of the disputed area, and part of Spanish West Florida at the time of the 1790 federal census. Although there were American settlements around Mobile and Natchez, no census was taken there.
1796-1798. In the 1796 Treaty of San Lorenzo (also called Pinckney’s Treaty), the U.S. resolved the Spanish-U.S. disputed area by purchasing the area from Spain. The lands above West Florida (Latitude 31o up to 32o 30’) became U.S. territory. The purchase did not include East Florida or West Florida. In 1798, Congress created Mississippi Territory in the purchased area.
1802. In Europe, Napoleon defeated the Spanish in battle and as spoils of war, gained title to Louisiana again after trading them a couple of duchies in Europe. However, Napoleon found that his troops in the Caribbean were under siege and unable to provide much help in establishing a French government in Louisiana. A few months later, when a couple of American emissaries showed up in Paris trying to buy New Orleans from Napoleon, he decided to unload the entire tract to the Americans.
1803. Surprised and delighted that Napoleon was willing to sell the entire tract called Louisiana, President Thomas Jefferson urged Congress to vote in favor, and the U.S. purchased the huge tract from France, doubling the size of the United States. The purchase of Louisiana immediately created a dispute about ownership of lands east of the Mississippi River, since the legal description of the Louisiana Purchase was the “drainage of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers.” The Spanish did not agree that it included lands east of the Mississippi and maintained their claim to West Florida.
1810. In September 1810, a group of rebel Americans overcame the Spanish garrison at Baton Rouge, and unfurled the new flag of the Republic of West Florida. In October 1810, in a proclamation by President James Madison, the U.S. arbitrarily annexed Spain’s West Florida from the Mississippi River to the Perdido River. The area included Baton Rouge, Biloxi, and Mobile, but was not organized, and was not included in the 1810 census.
Spain did not recognize the annexation, and continued their claim to West Florida in dispute with the U.S.
1812. Congress added to Mississippi Territory the portion of the West Florida annexation from the Perdido River to the Pearl River, an area which included Mobile and Biloxi; and the portion from the Pearl River to the Mississippi River was added to Orleans Territory (an area that included Baton Rouge). Soon after, Orleans Territory became the State of Louisiana.
1819-1821 Adams-Onis Treaty. After years of refusing to negotiate with the U.S. over the ownership of Florida, Spain finally relented with the 1819 Adams-Onis treaty, also called the Purchase of Florida. Spain’s problems with colonial rebellions in Central and South America saw a change in their attitudes. By 1818, Spain had effectively abandoned Florida and was unwilling to support any more colonists or garrisons. The treaty involved Spain’s cession of Florida to the U.S. in exchange for the U.S. paying any legal claims of American citizens against Spain, up to 5 million dollars. But, the treaty also set the boundary between the U.S. and New Spain (now Mexico), from Louisiana to the Oregon Country. The treaty finally confirmed the Sabine River border with Spanish Texas; and recognized (for the first time), the American claim to the Oregon Country. The treaty was named after John Quincy Adams, U.S. Secretary of State, and Luis de Onis, the Spanish Foreign Minister, the parties who signed the treaty at Washington on February 22, 1819. Although Baton Rouge, Biloxi, and Mobile were annexed to the U.S. in 1810, then organized in 1812; they did not become U.S. territory free of dispute until the Adams-Onis Treaty was ratified by Congress in 1821.
1820-1822. At the time of the 1820 federal census, Florida was left out of the enumeration since the Purchase of Florida was not ratified by Congress until 1821. And, in 1822, Florida Territory was created by Congress, with bounds the same as the present state. The two main population centers in Florida in 1822 were Pensacola and St. Augustine, both wanting to be the new territorial capital. But, the travel time between the two cities was measured in weeks. It was decided to find a point about half-way between the two cities to locate the new territorial capital. Tallahassee was selected, at the time, an abandoned Indian village.
1845. March 3. Florida entered the Union as the 27th state.
1971. October 1. The Walt Disney World Resort opened with the first of four theme parks, called the Magic Kingdom, located dead center in an area the Spanish called Los Mosquitoes, from which Florida Territory named one of its earliest counties in 1824. Mosquito did not get renamed Orange County until 1845. It is quite possible that mosquitoes outnumbered oranges (about 10,000 to 1) in Orange County until the development of DDT during World War II.
Check out the Florida Name Lists Book