USF Libraries | Special & Digital Collections | Exhibits

Introduction

When Ponce de Leon arrived in Florida in 1513, he found a peninsula inhabited by more than 100 distinct Indian communities and covered in forest and swampland. Several early attempts at colonization by the Spanish and French, primarily in the panhandle of the peninsula, failed because of violent responses from those indigenous tribes, extreme weather, and fighting between the European settlers. Finally, a lasting settlement was founded in 1565 in St. Augustine, the oldest continually inhabited European-founded city in the continental United States.

In this exhibit, we will explore the history of what is now the state of Florida, including the culture of the Indian tribes that predated European presence by thousands of years, the technological advances that allowed the peninsula’s population and economy to develop into one of the largest of the 50 states, and the development of the tourism industry (and other related fields) that became the state’s trademark into the 21st century. We will present a narrative of Florida’s development based on historical photos and documents, as well as modern texts and accounts of the state’s history.

Much of Florida’s recorded history focuses on Europeans' discovery and settlement of the region, and the state boasts a globally-recognized history, rich with European influence that is still present in the architecture and landscapes of today. What may be less evident, but no less important, is Florida's pre-Columbian heritage. As part of the presentation, we will explain how the discovery of burial mounds, stone quarries, and other archaeological sites and materials provide a glimpse into the complex indigenous societies that existed in the region before the European takeover.

After Europeans arrived in the region, their settlements were heavily concentrated in and around Florida’s panhandle for more than 300 years. We will explain how the development of transportation in the state – which relied heavily upon canoes and other small boats for centuries before the advent of the steamship, railroad, and automobile – reflects a dramatic population boom. Industrialization reshaped the state and its future, beginning in the late 19th century and continuing through much of the 20th century, prompted largely by the vacation resorts and other business interests developed by pioneers Henry Flagler and Henry Plant in St. Augustine and Tampa, respectively.

What do tourists flock to Florida to see? Vacations to bask in the Sunshine State’s long summer date back to the days of Flagler and Plant. Visiting the beach, exploring the natural beauty of the Everglades, and seeing some of the oldest European settlements in North America are classic attractions. A wide variety of local festivals and celebrations, such as Tampa’s Gasparilla parade, are also popular. However, perhaps none of these can compare with the fame and attraction of Orlando’s theme park scene. Walt Disney World Resort’s Magic Kingdom is the most-visited theme park in the world, with more than 16 million patrons annually, with Epcot, Animal Kingdom, and Universal Studios Florida not far behind. Other popular tourist draws we will describe are spring training baseball and other culturally significant sporting events. The exhibit will detail some of the oldest evidence of sport in Florida before moving into the modern day.

We will also detail the history of architecture in the state, from the railroad moguls’ hotels in the 19th century to the homebuilding of waves of Northerners escaping the cold during the 20th century. The exhibit will also describe how building design aimed to cope with the harsh, humid heat of Florida’s summers and how technological developments, such the introduction of electric air conditioning, made the state more hospitable. The exhibit will describe the waves of pioneers that came to Florida after the U.S. acquired the territory from Spain, and how these pioneers paved the way to the Florida we know today.

From there, the exhibit will examine the history of immigration to Florida: the causes of waves of immigration, the economic and cultural impact of this migrants, and the day-to-day lives of members of Florida’s immigrant community past and present. This portion of the exhibit will focus on the cultural hotbeds of Miami, Tarpon Springs, and Ybor City. Each of these communities is known for its sizable and vibrant immigrant communities, albeit with very different stories behind each. The exhibit will also detail the development of music associated with these communities, along with other genres that have emerged in association with the state’s tourism industry.

The exhibit will then describe the history of widespread illness in the state, focusing on the spread and struggle with three major diseases: yellow fever, tuberculosis, and HIV/AIDS. We have chosen these three diseases as our focus because they represent three distinct eras in the state’s history, painting a picture of evolving issues in pathology.

Finally, we will close the exhibit with a look at three major technological developments that have shaped Florida’s past, present, and future. The first is the development of dredging and other land-clearing techniques, which proved necessary for negotiating the state’s swampy, heavily forested terrain. The second is the aforementioned introduction of modern air conditioning, which made living in the state’s hot, humid south more practical for a greater number of people. The third is the introduction of the U.S. space program at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, which is an important employer, as well as a tourist and technological center, for the state and the country.