Important Figures in Florida's History

Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we explore several important figures that have helped to shape Florida, while also learning about the history of the state itself in the process.

Movers and Shakers

History is full of important people who have helped to shape human civilization. In learning about the state of Florida, we need to first examine these significant individuals and what they did that greatly impacted this state and in the process learn a little bit about the history of Florida itself.

Juan Ponce de Leon

The first European to land on Florida's shores, Juan Ponce de Leon, was a Spaniard born in Valladolid sometime around 1460. Though historians are still not entirely sure, Ponce de Leon may have made his first trip to North America with Christopher Columbus on Columbus' second voyage in 1493. He made his own trip to North America in 1508, when he landed and explored Puerto Rico.

Juan Ponce de Leon
Juan Ponce de Leon

Under the auspices of the Spanish crown, Ponce de Leon continued to search for new land with the hope of finding gold to enrich his benefactors. In 1513, he landed in Florida somewhere around modern St. Augustine, which is in the northeastern part of the state. Ponce de Leon named the region Florida in tribute to Spain's Easter celebration known as ''Pascua Florida,'' or ''Feast of Flowers.'' The following year, the Spanish crown granted him permission to colonize the area for Spain.

But unfortunately for him, plenty of people--Native Americans--already lived in Florida and had no plans to simply cede their territory to the European interlopers. When Ponce de Leon landed in Florida with his colonizing force in 1521, he was struck by an arrow shot by hostile natives. He was transported to Cuba where he died soon after.

John James Audubon

Florida proved to indeed be one of the more hostile regions in the early days of European colonization and even after American independence from England. It was also hostile to noncombatants, as our next figure, John James Audubon, found out. Born in 1785 in Haiti, Audubon was an explorer and naturalist who had excellent artistic skills. Audubon had a particular interest in drawing birds, and his ''Birds of America,'' first published in 1826, would make him famous across the entire western world.

In 1831, he arrived in Florida intent on drawing the flora and fauna of this largely unexplored region. He traveled the country mainly by land and inland waterway. The country was so rough and the undergrowth so dense, he once quipped: ''If you have not been in such a place, you cannot easily conceive the torments we endured.'' He traveled south along Florida's east coast, and was one of the first Europeans to explore the Florida Keys.

Henry Flagler

While Ponce de Leon and Audubon were men who first explored Florida, it was an American born just one year before Audubon's arrival in Florida, who paved the way for its settlement. Henry Flagler was a self-made businessman, who rose from being a common grain salesman to a partner with John Rockefeller in Standard Oil by the time he was 40 years old.

Henry Flagler
Henry Flagler

After Flagler's first wife died young, he took a keen interest in Florida where he and his ailing wife had spent a great deal of time. Frustrated by the profound lack of infrastructure--for example, as late as the 1880s, many Floridian coastal settlements were best or only accessible by boat--Flagler set to pouring his immense fortune into improving his adopted home. He bought railroads and constructed his own along the coast, improving accessibility and building hotels and resorts alongside the newly laid track. Flagler expanded the railroad as far as Miami in the 1890s, and in 1905, he even extended it as far as Key West, though the route through the Keys proved commercially unsuccessful.

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