Finding Florida: The True History of the Sunshine State

Finding Florida: The True History of the Sunshine State

by T. D. Allman


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Longlisted for the National Book Award and a Kirkus Reviews Best Nonfiction Book of the Year

Over the centuries, Florida has been many things: an unconquered realm protected by geography, a wilderness that ruined Spanish conquistadors, “god’s waiting room,” and a place to start over. Depopulated after the extermination of its original native population, today it’s home to nineteen million. The site of vicious racial violence, including massacres, slavery, and the roll-back of Reconstruction, Florida is now one of our most diverse states, a dynamic multicultural place with an essential role in 21st-century America.

In Finding Florida , journalist T.D. Allman reclaims the remarkable history of Florida from the state’s mythologizers, apologists, and boosters. Allman traces the discovery, exploration, and settlement of Florida, its transformation from a swamp to “paradise.” Palm Beach, Key West, Miami, Tampa, and Orlando boomed, fortunes were won and lost, land was stolen and flipped, and millions arrived. The product of a decade of research and writing, Finding Florida is a highly original, stylish, and masterful work, the first modern comprehensive history of this fascinating place.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780802122308
Publisher: Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
Publication date: 02/25/2014
Pages: 544
Sales rank: 366,986
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.70(d)

About the Author

T.D. Allman is the author of Miami: City of the Future , and Rogue State: America at War with the World. A native Floridian, Harvard graduate, and former Peace Corps volunteer in Nepal, Allman was for many years the foreign correspondent of Vanity Fair , and is credited with uncovering the CIA's "secret war" (a phrase he coined) in Laos. He has written about Florida for Esquire and National Geographic , and his work has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Harper's, The New Republic, Rolling Stone, The Guardian, Le Monde, and The Economist , among other publications. He divides his time between Miami, New York, and the south of France.

Read an Excerpt



You don't need a GPS to search out the meaning of Florida, though it helps. To get started, tap in the following address: 11 Magnolia Avenue, St. Augustine. You'll know you're drawing close to the wellspring of Florida's identity when you reach the intersection of Ponce de Leon Boulevard and Matanzas Avenue. Those names mark a traffic intersection. They also describe an intersection of myth and reality. Generations of Americans have grown up believing Ponce de León discovered Florida while searching for eternal youth, but what does "Matanzas" mean? As they drive along Matanzas Boulevard, or power-boat along the Matanzas River, few understand that this mellifluous-sounding Spanish name means "slaughter" or "massacre." Thus, in English, St. Augustine's marina-fringed harbor, Matanzas Bay, could be rendered "Slaughter Bay."

You'll know you've almost reached your destination when you find yourself peering up at an ancient-looking arch. Across the top you'll see displayed, in Ye Olde English–type lettering, an inscription. It reads: fountain of youth. The lettering is meant to evoke long-vanished times of chivalry and derring-do, but one detail marks it as indubitably Floridian: the sign is made of neon tubing. In the gathering subtropical twilight, the fountain of youth sign glows and sputters like the vacancy sign on a state highway motel. According to press releases provided by the Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park, which is what this venerable tourist attraction currently calls itself, this is the very spot where "Ponce de León landed in St. Augustine in 1513 searching for a Fountain of Youth." The local ruler "welcomed the Spanish as guests," the official Fountain of Youth History of St. Augustine relates. "The Spanish were impressed with the beauty and strength of the natives," it adds; "they asked the Timucua to tell them the source of their physical vigor. The natives pointed to the spring."

Juan Ponce de León never visited and never could have visited St. Augustine: St. Augustine was not founded until forty-one years after his death, in 1565. Ponce did not discover Florida. Many Europeans had been to Florida before he got there; many more knew of its existence. The first European to sight Florida may not have been Spanish at all, but Portuguese or Italian. According to long-standing belief, the Italian Giovanni Caboto (better remembered as John Cabot), who discovered Newfoundland in 1497, was the first European to lay eyes on Florida after he failed to discover a Northwest Passage to China. Finding "that there was no appearance of passage, he tacked about, and ran [south] as far as Florida. ... Here, his provisions failing, he resolved to return to England," according to a history of the United States published in 1830.

The first repeat visitors to Florida were Spaniards. They came hunting for people to kidnap and enslave in the new Spanish dominions of the Caribbean. In one early foray from Santo Domingo, five hundred people were lured onto Spanish ships with gifts of ribbon and jewelry. Two-thirds of those abducted died before the ships returned to port. Every one of the surviving captives also died soon after being enslaved. Ponce himself came upon proof of earlier European landings when he encountered a native inhabitant who already spoke Spanish, but the greatest proof of earlier contact is the hostility he met wherever he landed. People learned quickly that these vessels with ghost-white sails carried horror and death in their holds. "In all his attempts to explore the country, he met with resolute and implacable hostility on the part of the natives," observed one chronicler. "He was disappointed also in his hopes of finding gold."

Documentary evidence of prior European exploration can be found in early maps. The Juan de la Cosa Map, published in 1500, depicts Florida in a rudimentary fashion a full thirteen years before its supposed discovery. The 1507 Waldseemüller Map, today housed in the Library of Congress, shows a southward-projecting peninsula so clearly that anyone familiar with a modern road map would recognize it immediately as Florida. The most famous of them, known as the Peter Martyr Map, was circulated in Europe in 1511, two years before Ponce made his "discovery."

If anyone whose name we know deserves specific credit for having reached Florida first, it could be the Portuguese navigator Gasper Côrte-Real. He first sailed to America via the North Atlantic route in 1500, then made two more voyages in 1501 and 1502. The third time his luck ran out; he disappeared along with his ship. A second ship did return safely to Portugal, providing a scenario in which at least three ships from three successive voyages return with new knowledge of the Atlantic coast of North America. Decades before the official "discoveries," sailors ranging from cod fishermen to pirates ventured into North American waters deliberately, or because their ships were blown off course, then mapped the coasts as they sailed along them. Back in Europe a mapmaker fitting together the resulting bits of geographical data as though they were pieces of a jigsaw puzzle would have perceived Florida growing from the southeast corner of North America like a physical appendage.

Today hardly anyone in Florida is aware Gaspar Côrte-Real, existed but nearly two thousand miles northeast of St. Augustine, in St. Johns, Newfoundland, a statue of the Portuguese navigator stands in front of the House of Assembly, one of the oldest parliaments in the New World. The statue is a reminder that, right from the beginning of the European era, Florida's destiny was shaped by forces converging on it from both north and south. Why were there no further Portuguese efforts to colonize North America? Portugal was barred by solemn treaty from colonizing what today are the United States and Canada. Only two years after Columbus reached the New World, the Spanish and Portuguese had split the world up between themselves. Their agreement, called the Treaty of Tordesillas, followed at least one papal bull or decree that delineated which parts of the world Portugal and Spain could colonize.

At that time Portugal and Spain were the only European powers capable, in today's parlance, of projecting naval power globally. The aim was to prevent conflict between the two Catholic superpowers. This the pope did with thesimplicity of cutting the Gordian knot — splitting the world north to south with an imaginary line of longitude running the length of the Atlantic Ocean. Everything east of the pope's line (that is, the whole of Africa and Asia) was made Portugal's preserve. Everything to the west was allotted to Spain. At first this partition suited the Portuguese fine. By excluding Spain from Africa and Asia, it gave them a monopoly of the East Indies trade. The explorations in America changed the balance of the bargain by giving Spain a monopoly on the New World's newly discovered riches. Portugal wanted a piece of the new action, so the new treaty was negotiated. It shifted the global dividing line farther west — from 100 to 370 leagues beyond the Azores. Even with this adjustment, these early maps show, the whole of North America lay beyond the pope's dividing line — therefore beyond Portugal's right to colonize it.

Even before Florida was discovered, its destiny was a by-product of great power politics. It was also an early example of the impact of the law of unintended consequences. Because of the 370-leagues provision, Newfoundland and Virginia would never become Portuguese dominions, but Brazil did protrude sufficiently far to the east to be eligible for Portuguese colonization. By getting the papal line shifted, Portugal hit the imperial jackpot in South, though not North, America. Another unintended consequence: in the Far East, as a result of the papal line being moved, the Philippines came under Spanish rule for four hundred years.

Like Gaspar Côrte-Real, Juan Ponce de León was one of only a few thousand European sailors and soldiers who, in the late 1400s and early 1500s, changed the world suddenly and forever with their exploits. He first enters history in early 1492. That January Ponce, at the time a page boy, is said to have witnessed the triumph of Their Catholic Majesties, Isabel and Ferdinand, over the Muslim caliph of Granada. One year later, Ponce de León sailed with Columbus on the Great Navigator's second voyage across the Atlantic. Unknown and penniless, he was just one of the men, boys, and beasts crowded onto the fetid ships of Columbus' flotilla, but once in the New World Ponce transformed himself from a face in the crowd of conquest into a leader renowned for his ruthlessness. Fourteen years later, in 1507, Ponce de León reached the peak of his personal fortunes as the king of Spain issued him patents royal to explore — and, he hoped, to exploit for his own profit — Puerto Rico. In 1508 Ponce established the island's first European settlement, then set about enslaving its inhabitants and working them to death. Ponce expected he would be rewarded for his efforts with the right to rule the island as his own domain. Instead Columbus' son Diego was made governor. As a consolation prize, Ponce was given the right to colonize Florida.

By March 1513, when Ponce and his private flotilla of three ships sailed north to claim the new land, there was no need to "discover" Florida. Ponce's expedition was meant to address a quite different question: how to secure, settle, and finance the administration of this new land that had fallen within Spain's ambit? Conferring an official name on such a place was an important ritual, akin to baptizing a new land, but why "Florida"? It was not because of any profusion of flowers. Look into any Florida backyard; even today you'll see a somber palette of greens. Leafiness, not floweriness, is the hallmark of Florida's vegetation. What flowers you see are mostly imports. The significance of the name was religious. It was a custom among the conquistadors to name places according to the dates of the liturgical calendar. Columbus discovered the island of Trinidad on the feast of the Trinity, hence that island's name. Pascua Florida was a poetic name for Palm Sunday. By the time Ponce went ashore in early April 1513, Palm Sunday, which fell on March 20 that year, already had passed, but when it came to names his choices were often fanciful, and sometimes macabre. He called the Florida Keys "The Martyrs" because, poking out of the sea one after another, they reminded him of the decapitated heads of Christians who had died for their faith.

Ponce's own log of the voyage establishes that the place where he first landed on the Atlantic shore of Florida was probably south of Cape Canaveral, which was more than one hundred miles south of the future site of St. Augustine. The Gulf Stream provided one reason Ponce did not sail farther north. The Spaniards were astounded, at one point, to see two of their ships, even though their sails were full of wind, moving backward in relation to the land. Avoiding the Gulf Stream — whose northeastward-coursing current could have carried him away into the vastness of the Atlantic Ocean — Ponce sailed south, hugging a shoreline that, centuries later, would be adorned with motels, bingo halls, and boulevards bearing his name. Encounters with the native Timucua, Tequesta, and Calusa peoples were few, but from the beginning unhappy. These people treated Ponce and his men as dangerous intruders who nonetheless brought with them tools the Indians coveted. The first recorded instance of a white man shooting a gun at Indians in Florida (indeed in the whole of the future United States) occurred when a group of tribesmen tried to steal the Spaniards' longboat. Ponce himself, taking aim, fired the first shot in a war of white men's conquest that would not end in Florida until 1858.

After a two months' sail, Ponce rounded Cape Florida and headed up the Gulf coast. There for the first time he established more than glancing relations with the local people. Within a week of first contact, bitter fighting erupted. Following an attack by Indians in war canoes, Ponce made the intelligent decision to cut and run without establishing any settlement of any kind anywhere in Florida. Nothing better rebuts the Fountain of Youth claptrap than the false triumph Ponce de León orchestrated for himself when he returned to Spain following his failed expedition. What the king wanted was gold, and gold the king was given — 5,000 gold pesos. This treasure did not come, and could not have come, from Florida. The gold came from Ponce's holdings in Puerto Rico. His private wealth had financed the expedition; now his personal fortune alchemized failure into success, at least in the eyes of the court. What if Ponce de León actually had returned to Spain with vials containing a liquid he assured everyone contained the elixir of immortality? Would he simply have been considered mad? Or — darker possibility — would this have been seen as evidence of witchcraft, and Ponce de León passed into the hands of the Inquisition?

His expedition had taught Ponce de León what many others would refuse to learn: Florida was no place to get rich quick. To the contrary, it was a sinkhole of wealth. Ponce might never have sailed there a second time had not another man's greater good fortune once again prodded him to act. In 1519 Hernan Cortés astonished the world with his conquest of Mexico and its gold. Suddenly all the old myths gained new force. El Dorado did exist! A less proud man, a less vigorous man might have stayed in Spain, but here we get to the fatal truth behind the future myth: Ponce de León was not the quixotic old gent the Fountain of Youth billboards later made him out to be.

Ponce de León was probably thirty-eight or thirty-nine in 1513. He was fortysix or forty-seven or so when he embarked on his second Florida expedition, about the same age as Columbus when he first crossed the Atlantic, some seven years younger than Pizarro was when he began his conquest of the Incan Empire. On his first voyage to Florida, the chronicles note, he traveled with his mistress as well as his favorite horse. The idea that local Indians informed the Spaniards of the Fountain of Youth's supposed existence also is fiction; "no Indian had ever heard of it." Like smallpox and the orange blossom, belief in the fountain was an import; "it came to the New World in the mental baggage of the conquistadors," as Samuel Eliot Morison felicitously puts it. As another historian explained nearly seventy years ago, the Fountain of Youth "is a legend that crossed the Ocean with Columbus' companions, together with the myths of the Earthly Paradise, of the Amazons, of St. Thomas' wonder-working tomb, of the Ten Tribes of Israel, of Gog and Magog, and of the monsters of which Columbus inquired after his landing." "It is possible that Ponce may never have heard of this legend," the historian David O. True concluded following a close study of the Spanish historical records. "It seems ridiculous," he added, "that a robust adventurer and explorer would have been influenced in the least by such a fable, even if he had heard it." The logs Ponce kept of his voyages describe his Florida landings as searches for fresh water, not magic fountains.

Since sailing to America with Columbus twenty-eight years earlier, Ponce de León had killed, bullied, and bribed his way into the back tier of that small group of figures who were the makers of Spain's New World empire. Now, in 1521, envy and pride impelled him into his second Florida disaster. Ponce's 1521 expedition — financed, again, at his own expense — was meant to make him into the equal of Cortés, but he was not Cortés and Florida's hostile tribesmen were not the temporizing Aztecs. Ponce reached the Gulf coast of Florida with two hundred men and some women, along with fifty horses, all crowded into two ships. Once again he went nowhere near St. Augustine. Instead he made the mistake of landing on the Gulf coast at the same place where, eight years earlier, he had been attacked.

The logistics do not seem particularly arduous, but to get an idea of the difficulties, someday at a Florida marina try to get one horse on and off a cabin cruiser. Now try it with fifty horses while Calusa warriors shoot arrows made of sharpened fish bone at you that have the projectile velocity of major league baseballs and the penetrating power of Swiss Army knives. Ponce de León's thigh wound might not have been fatal, but infection flourished in the subtropical damp and dirt, and the Spaniards were as indifferent to sepsis as they were alert to heresy. The wounded Florida land speculator was medevacuated to Cuba. There he suffered a slow death of gangrene and fever. Ponce de León expired in the all-penetrating damp of the Caribbean summer in July 1521.


Excerpted from "Finding Florida"
by .
Copyright © 2013 T. D. Allman.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
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Table of Contents

Prologue: Natures and Names ix

Part 1 Invasive Species

1 Believe It or Not 3

2 The Johnny Appleseed of Pigs 12

3 Chert 20

4 The Fort, Not the Fountain 36

Part 2 Coveting Florida

5 The West Florida Lone Star Butterfly Effect 49

6 The Unseen Foe 65

7 Americanization at Negro Fort 82

8 Florida's Fake History 99

Part 3 Osceola's Head

9 Governor DuVal's Conspiracy 115

10 Denned by Massacre 135

11 Jesup's Capitulation 159

12 Alternative Floridians 178

Part 4 Whistling Dixie

13 Metropolis of the Branded Hand 201

14 Disambiguation 223

15 Empowering the Betweenity 249

16 Triumph of Violence 276

17 King Ignorance 292

Part 5 Project Future

18 Pioneers in Paradise 311

19 Swanee 337

20 The Total Triumph of Walter P. Fraser 346

21 Location, Location, Location 365

Part 6 Florida Millennium

22 Theme Park Universe 387

23 Cities of the Future 402

24 A Fateful Convergence 431

Epilogue: No Escape from America 451

Thanks 459

Bibliography 463

Notes and Citations 481

Index 517

What People are Saying About This

"Equal parts social analysis, historical review, and jeremiad, Finding Florida is a passionate, often scathing, and remarkably comprehensive encounter with a confounding, contradictory, and ever-elusive place. If your idea of hell is being chained to a galley oar between a politician and a Chamber of Commerce exec, then you are likely to love this book." —Les Standiford, author of Last Train to Paradise

“Manuscripts repeatedly find their way into print that ignore the reality of Florida’s past and, in so doing, skew our understanding of what Florida has been, what it is now, what it’s likely to become, and what that means for everyone. T. D. Allman’s book turns all that on its head. It directly challenges the existing historiography with highly intelligent insight and crafting of narrative in a way that permits the reader to immerse himself in a world far from the expected one. Finding Florida is provocative to the point of daring. Thomas Jefferson claimed a little revolution was needed about every twenty years. Florida and its historiography is long overdue for one.” —Canter Brown, Jr., Professor of History, Fort Valley State University

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Finding Florida: The True History of the Sunshine State 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 8 reviews.
Vietnam1968 More than 1 year ago
I usually do not read history books, but T.D. Allman is exceptionally funny. I really enjoyed reading this book. For example, he says Florida "attracts the criminally inclined" individuals that have come from some other state to do their "good" deeds in Florida. Anyone who gives this book a bad rating never read it, in my opinion. He also explains how the Ponce de Leon discovery of the Fountain of Youth is a myth. He was dead by the time the claim was made. Even the Gasparilla festival in Tampa, he calls "the front-runner in historical fakery". So if you think you know Florida history, compare with what you know with what he says. He also explains how Disney got to perform one the greatest land grabs in history as his lawyers helped him acquire the Disney property by first claiming it a drainage district. Then to an improvement district both with the title of Reedy Creek. And then how Disney property has no elected officials governing the two claimed cities. The city of Bay Lake, Florida, became The Magic Kingdom and the city of Reedy Creek became Lake Buena Vista. But above all they pay no taxes to the state to support all the infrastructure around the Disney property. Like I said before, anything but 4 stars means someone did not read this book. They only like to write fake evaluations, just like most of the Florida history.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Having lived in Florida during the winter months, I decided to read about the history and background of the state. I had no idea that there had been such turmoil in its past and that three foreign countries tried to establish themselves here. I also had no idea that several of our presidents were determined to bring it under their rule.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
As a lifelong 58 year resident of Florida I found this book fascinating and intriguing. Having lived in Tampa, Miami Lakes and Bartow Ive seen the immense growth of Florida personally. Ive always been fascinated as this book points out how many people outside the state believe it never freezes here. I would disagree that politics are more corrupt here than anywhere else in the US. I would have liked to see more on the history of the keys. Overall, the best book Ive evrer read on FL. 5 stars
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Allman is the Oliverv Stone of Floridology. He imagines a vast race-based conspiracy laced in the trappings of boosterism gone wild that ones back to Ponce de Leon.  His is a Florida without shame, hideous to the core. I left finished this strange narrative wondering if this wasn't simply Allman ridding vomiting up his childhood demons from the Tampa  Bay area,which he left for good in the 1960s for Harvard, the New York Times, and now France.  The first half of the book is a readable rehash of  recent histiorriogrphy of Florida's first few centuries, which portray the place as frontier extension of. deep Dixie dipped in a legacy of the Spanish Caribbean.  The last  half betrays a rush to the publisher to meet  a deadline; this part is shallow, episodic, poorly researched, error packed, and often simply bizarre.  But, Inhave to hand to this wily self-promoter--he's brought home the truth that there's no such thing as bad publicity when you're trying to sell a bill of goods.   
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A great book that cuts through the established "American Exceptionalism" lens through which history is usually taught. Those with Confederate leanings or believers in the Monroe Doctrine will not enjoy it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
While I will give it 2 stars because of the historical perspective, I will also warn the reader that this book has a very liberal slant. For example, the author portrays every civil war topic as "murder", not "battle". I finally tired of his negativity and stopped reading half way through.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Sorry i mean 15 dollers