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More than 480 miles at its longest and 360 at its widest, Florida's sheer dimension underlies a diversity that stretches from Deep South to tropical in temperament. While most people think beaches and Disney World, Florida yields a much wider scope of environmental, cultural, and historical heritage.
During their early explorations of North America, Europeans stopped first in Florida. Juan Ponce de Leon made the earliest recorded landing in 1513. Legend says he sought the Fountain of Youth, tantalized by the stories of Caribbean Indians. Florida's natives thwarted this and other attempts by de Leon to colonize their homeland. Still, the Spanish persisted for more than 50 years, until they successfully established the first permanent settlement at St. Augustine.
Northern Florida safeguards the state's earliest history. St. Augustine and the northeast coast have preserved fledgling Florida architecture, from the 16th century through the Civil War and Gilded Age. St. Augustine served as the capital of East Florida under British rule, while westernmost Pensacola became the headquarters for West Florida. When Florida was declared a U.S. territory in 1821, a point between the two cities, Tallahassee, was named state capital.
In years to follow, Florida was settled by a diverse, often motley, bunch. Sugar planters, Crackers, and Seminole Indians descended from the north. Cubans, outlaws, and pirates infiltrated from the south. Aboriginal populations were eventually wiped out by war and disease. The Seminoles moved south sparking new dissension between Indians and whites. The long-winded Seminole Wars, from 1817 to 1858, brought an influx of soldiers to settle the land. With the Civil War, even more soldiers descended upon Florida. Northern Florida saw the most action during the latter. In the south, enterprising types made profits by selling Florida farm goods to the enemy.
To this day, northern Florida remains more true to Southern disposition. Folks, from Pensacola's blinding white dunes to Fernandina Beach's churning Atlantic shores, speak with a Dixie twang, and serve up their fish fried with hush puppies and lots of hospitality and good manners. In between, vast tracts of protected pine forest, gurgling springs, limestone caves, and the great St. Johns River provide some of Florida's most unusual, most under-appreciated scenery.
Moving south, Florida's mid-section remembers a different era in Florida bygones, a time of steamboats, railroads, tourism, and a major mouse. Tourists were first attracted to Central Florida's incredible spring lands and lakes. Later, vacationing meccas shifted to the two coasts, and the old resort towns foundered. Then in the 1970s, Disney came to town, turning Orlando and its outreaches into the world's top vacationing destination. Away from the resort frenzy, quiet reminders of the old days survive the hubbub, and rural agriculture reigns.
Meanwhile, in southernmost Florida, the final frontier was settled as wealthy vacationers made their way down the map to the sub-tropical lands of Palm Beach, Miami, Key West, Sarasota, and Naples. The popularization of the automobile later opened up south Florida's balmy paradise to the masses. Today, southeast Florida, is the state's most populated region, with a mixed bag of tropical cultures, a seething hotbed of excitement, and finally the reality drop known as the Keys. At Miami's backdoor awaits its antithesis. From here the Everglades spread across the state in a swath of ancient, haunting wilderness that dominates the west coast, where the pulse slows and natu re rules.