How did Florida become a State?

Figure 1. Florida was divided into two administrative regions before it became united as one territory and state.

Florida was perhaps the first place in what is now the United States to have been reached by European settlers in 1513. The state was named for its verdant landscape by Spanish explorers. Over the next few centuries, Florida was mostly controlled by the Spanish Empire, although British control occurred between 1763-1783. In the early 19th century, Florida was controlled by the Spanish again. Still, it became a region the United States saw as problematic as it became a refuge for runaway black slaves, and native Seminoles began to raid parts of the United States from the area. Soon this led to clashes and the beginning of how Florida became incorporated into the United States.

What was the First Seminole War?

In 1763, during British rule in Florida, the region that became the state was divided into two administrative areas, East and West Florida (Figure 1). The Apalachicola River was used as a dividing line, and the region was seen as too large to be administered by one local government. In the early 1800s, Florida became a refuge for runaway slaves. Florida had no slavery policy, and slaves saw Florida as a good refuge.

Between 1783–1821, Spain regained Florida. Still, it was unable to have very effective control given the region was of little consequence to Spain, and limited resources were available, making the region a de facto self-administered region. This upset the United States because Spain could not control the Seminoles and return runaway slaves. Over time, as more slaves ran away to Florida, the Black Seminoles developed into another cultural group.

While some Seminoles did keep slaves, Black Seminoles and other slaves were generally free to live where they wanted even if they were technically slaves, with the Black Seminoles often living in separate villages from Seminole settlements. In fact, since the 17th century, black slaves were running away to Florida to escape plantations, and over time many black slaves intermarried with Seminoles and other native groups. This process only accelerated as the United States retained slavery in its southern states.[1]

The continued practice of slaves finding refuge in Florida served as one motivation for the First Seminole War. The second problem was the raids by Seminoles, although farmers and militia from southern states also raided Florida. The First Seminole War was effectively cross-border raids and an invasion led by Andrew Jackson between 1816-1819, with the conflict having no clear date when it actually began. The United States had wanted to acquire Florida during the time of the War of 1812. In fact, a detachment of soldiers had occupied St. Augustine, causing tensions with Spain. Black Seminoles had fought US soldiers and militia who had invaded, fearing they would take away their relatively greater freedom in Florida.

A fort was created in northern Florida to help defend the territory and the so-called Scott Massacre of civilians, committed by native Creeks who conflicted with the United States. Soldiers started the war that Florida's to Florida by Andrew Jackson. Jackson led a series of raids in 1818 against native civilians and various tribes and their warriors. Jackson led the militia and military unit did not discriminate against who they attacked, and in May 1818, his forces took Pensacola, which was the capital of West Florida.

Eventually, Jackson withdrew after being condemned within the United States and abroad, including Spain, which did not participate in the war. However, a brief canon exchange occurred between US and Spanish forces, but the war took place mainly on Spanish territory. During the time of the conflict, the US had been in negotiations to acquire Florida from Spain as its own territory, and for a while, Jackson's actions caused Spain to stop negotiations. The conflict also left a stain on Jackson's reputation for having executed two British citizens without an adequate trial.[2]

When did the United States acquire Florida?

Figure 2. The Dade Massacre showed Seminole tactics using guerilla warfare were effective and eventually led to the United States changing its war strategy.

Florida was eventually purchased by the United States in 1819 and became a territory in 1821. Jackson, despite the earlier condemnation of his actions, was appointed military governor of Florida. The Seminole tribes continued to be a problem, at least seen by the now emigrating white settlers, in that there was no treaty governing where Seminoles and white settlers could settle. The Treaty of Moultrie Creek was supposed to give central Florida an area for Seminole tribes to settle. Still, tribes were generally unhappy as the United States effectively controlled goods, trade, and provisions needed to settle there. Runaway slaves continued to come to native lands, and relations between Seminoles and the US government became worse.

Many Seminoles refused relocation, and skirmishes broke out between settlers, soldiers, and Seminoles. The conflict that became the Second Seminole War started in 1835-1842 and became very costly. Seminoles fought against the United States and now also their Creek allies. The Dade Massacre and other guerilla attacks by the Seminoles proved effective in the early stages of the war, and the massacre effectively escalated the conflict (Figure 2).

In 1836, the United States sent General Thomas Jesup to fight the Seminoles. Realizing he could not defeat the Seminoles fighting their guerilla tactics, he decided to attack civilians in their villages and farmlands the Seminoles used for food. This starved and led to the Seminole population to be decimated. Finally, tricking the Seminole chiefs Osceola and Micanopy that Jesup wanted to make a peace treaty with them, Jesup instead captured the chiefs and had them executed, forcing the eventual surrender of the Seminoles. Many Seminoles were then relocated to Oklahoma (Indian Territory), with a few remaining behind. Large numbers of Seminoles died trying to reach Indian Territory in the Trail of Tears events.

Eventually, the conclusion of the war led to an influx of white settlers into Florida. However, the state remained sparsely settled until after the Civil War.[3]

When did Florida Become a State?

In 1845, Florida finally became a state. By this time, almost half the non-native population were enslaved blacks. William Dunn Moseley became the first governor, and he saw a period of increased white settlement, but many of these were plantation farmers and small-scale farmers who sometimes had slaves. By the 1850s, there was greater pressure to remove the remaining Seminoles to Indian Territory. Tensions between remaining Seminoles and settlers increased, while the presence of the US army scouts created tensions. Ft. Myers was also attacked by Seminoles in a raid, but the main incident that starts the Third Seminole War was when Billy Bowlegs, a Seminole chief, led a rain near Ft. Myers against a plantation in 1855.

By this time, the Seminoles were accusing settlers of encroaching on their land. The last Seminole war lasted from 1855-1858, which was mostly raids rather than formal battles. Once again, the US resorted to attacking settlements and destroying farmland to effectively starve the Seminoles, who would often hide after a raid or guerilla attack. This worked, and the Seminoles surrendered in 1858, with the remaining population removed to Indian Territory. Only a few Seminoles remained in the Everglades.

By 1860, 44% of Florida's population were slaves, with the state focusing on a plantation economy. During the Civil War, the Union-occupied most of the major port towns of Florida, including Cedar Key, Jacksonville, and Key West. The only major battle was the Battle of Olustee in Baker County that resulted in a Confederate victory. However, it proved inconclusive in affecting the outcome of the war and the presence of Union forces. Florida was readmitted into the Union in 1868 after accepting the 13th and 14th Amendments to the Constitution. Florida was about 44% African American by this time, but voter suppression effectively meant that nearly the entire African American population was disenfranchised.

During the Great Migration in the 20th century, the population began to change as the state continued to disenfranchise blacks and northern cities became a many attraction for the African American population.[4]


Florida's rise as a state was turbulent and was mostly characterized by conflict with initially Creek and later Seminole populations. The Seminoles were effective in practicing guerrilla warfare tactics. Still, the destruction of their civilian infrastructure and population led to their eventual removal from Florida, leading to the state becoming a major plantation state. Florida was heavily populated by slaves and eventually freed African Americans, but African Americans were mostly disenfranchised and segregated until the 1960s civil rights movement.


  1. For more on the Black Seminoles and early history of Florida, see: Porter, Kenneth Wiggins, Alcione M. Amos, Thomas P. Senter, and Rosalyn Howard. The Black Seminoles: History of a Freedom-Seeking People. Rev. ed. Gainesville: Univ. Press of Florida, 2013.
  2. For more on the period up to the First Seminole War in Florida's history, see Wasserman, Adam. A People’s History of Florida, 1513-1876: How Africans, Seminoles, Women, and Lower Class Whites Shaped the Sunshine State. Sarasota, Fla.: A. Wasserman, 2010.
  3. For more on the period when the state becomes a territory and up through the Second Seminole War, see: Knetsch, Joe. Florida’s Seminole Wars, 1817-1858. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Pub. Co., 2003.
  4. For more on how Florida became a state and development after the Civil War, see: Gannon, Michael, ed. The History of Florida. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2013.