A Florida State of Mind: An Unnatural History of Our Weirdest State

A Florida State of Mind: An Unnatural History of Our Weirdest State

by James D. Wright


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A witty history of the state that's always in the news, for everything from alligator attacks to zany crimes.

There's an old clip of Bugs Bunny sawing the entire state of Florida off the continent—and every single time a news story springs up about some shenanigans in Florida, someone on the internet posts it in response. Why are we so ready to wave goodbye to the Sunshine State? In A Florida State of Mind: An Unnatural History of Our Weirdest State, James D. Wright makes the case that there are plenty of reasons to be scandalized by the land and its sometimes-kooky, sometimes-terrifying denizens, but there's also plenty of room for hilarity.

Florida didn't just become weird; it's built that way. Uncharted swampland doesn't easily give way to sprawling suburbia. It took violent colonization, land scams to trick non-Floridians into buying undeveloped property, and the development of railroads to benefit one man's hotel empire.

Even the most natural parts of Florida are unnatural. Florida citrus? Not from here, but from China. Gators? Oh, they're from Florida all right, but that doesn't make having 1 per every 20 humans normal. Animals...in the form of roadkill? Only Florida allows you to keep anything you kill on the road (and anything you find).

Yet everyone loves Florida: tourists come in droves, and people relocate to Florida constantly (only 36% of residents were born there). Crammed with unforgettable stories and facts, Florida will show readers exactly why.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250185655
Publisher: St. Martin's Publishing Group
Publication date: 04/30/2019
Pages: 240
Sales rank: 495,333
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

JAMES D. WRIGHT is a sociologist at the University of Central Florida and a Florida resident for nearly two decades. He lives in St. Pete Beach with his wife and an assortment of cats and dogs. A Florida State of Mind is his first book.

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The lies begin at the border. When you cross over into Florida from Georgia or Alabama, there are large signs that read WELCOME TO THE SUNSHINE STATE. (They also announce that Florida is OPEN FOR BUSINESS, an addition at the behest of the very conservative Governor Rick Scott.) But contrary to the implication of the state's famous motto, Florida is not the nation's sunniest state. Not even close. The state's percent-sun number (the average percentage of time between sunrise and sunset that the sun reaches the ground) is a respectable 66 percent, but that is exceeded by Arizona (85 percent), Nevada (79 percent), New Mexico (76 percent), Colorado (71 percent), Hawaii (71 percent), California, Wyoming, and Oklahoma (68 percent each). Florida averages only ninety-seven clear days annually (days with no clouds, a number that depends in part on where in Florida you live), which is fewer than the number of clear days in twenty-two other states. Where we do shine, so to speak, is in the number of hot and humid days, but somehow, "Welcome to the Muggy State" or "Florida: The Partly Cloudy State" just don't work as marketing slogans.

Also contrary to popular perception, Florida was not named for its abundant flowering species. Florido is the Spanish word for "flowery" (also "florid," incidentally), so many people assume that Florida means "the land of flowers." Not so. The name Pascua Florida was bestowed upon the state by the Spanish explorer Ponce de León on Easter Day, 1513, as Ponce and his crew sailed into what is now Matanzas Bay. In Spain, the Easter Celebration is known as the Feast of the Flowers, and a literal translation of Pascua Florida is therefore "Flowery Easter." The name Ponce chose for the state was not intended to refer to the orchids, violets, wild petunias, and other flowering plants that are native to Florida, but rather to the Catholic celebration of the death and resurrection of Christ.


Juan Ponce de León led the first Spanish expedition into what is now Florida, and so he is often said to have been the state's "discoverer." Of course, Florida was occupied for twelve thousand years or so before Ponce and his hardy band of conquistadores showed up. Ponce did not "discover" the state, he only initiated (or rather, tried to initiate) the European conquest of Native American lands in the region.

Ponce's 1513 expedition came ashore somewhere near present-day Saint Augustine. This was when the name Pascua Florida was bestowed. He then sailed south and eventually came upon what we now know as the Florida Keys, the outermost of which are the Dry Tortugas. Tortuga is Spanish for "turtle," and Ponce evidently chose the name because of the turtles he observed there. (It was "dry" because there seemed to be no fresh water anywhere on the island.) He then turned north, landed near what is now Port Charlotte, ran into some very unfriendly natives, and hightailed it back to Puerto Rico.

Ponce returned to the Port Charlotte area in 1521 with the intention of establishing a colony but again ran afoul of the local tribesmen, the Calusa. Ponce was fatally wounded in this confrontation, and the Spanish colonization effort was abandoned until 1565. After the face-off with the Calusa, the conquistadores withdrew to their base in Cuba, where Ponce de León died from his wounds. His remains were interred and subsequently moved to Puerto Rico, where his burial crypt can be viewed today in the Cathedral of San Juan Bautista in Old San Juan.

It is often said that Ponce came to Florida to find the mythical Fountain of Youth. More lies, of course — not that you would know it if you went to Saint Augustine to visit a tourist attraction called Ponce de León's Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park. The park houses practically nothing of genuine archaeological significance, and one assumes that the reference to archaeology in the park's name is intended to impart a faux impression of scientific merit or importance. In fact, there is no legitimate historical evidence to suggest that Ponce was looking for anything like a Fountain of Youth. As was true of all the Spanish explorers of the New World, he was looking for gold and silver to seal his favor with the Spanish Crown. The whole Fountain of Youth business is a myth likely perpetrated by one Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés, who is said to have despised Ponce and cooked up the Fountain of Youth story to depict Ponce as a gullible, dimwitted fool. Even in sixteenth-century Spain, the idea that water could reverse aging was considered pretty unlikely.

As for the park, it showcases a primitive fountain (a stone well from which hundreds of tourists imbibe daily), a number of reconstructions ("historically correct examples") of native Timucuan villages (the Timucua were another tribe that inhabited Florida at the time of the European "discovery"), a reconstruction of a 1587 church, a Founders Riverwalk, miles of natural beauty, and a new three-thousand-square-foot pavilion "perfect for weddings and other events."

Between 1513 and 1559, there were numerous efforts to colonize the region for Spain, but they all ended in abject failure. Hernando de Soto and his conquistadores, for example, wandered around the region near present-day Tallahassee for four years searching for silver and gold, found nothing, gave up, and headed west toward the Mississippi, where the explorer died in 1542. In 1559, another Spanish adventurer, Tristán de Luna y Arellano, tried to establish a colony near present-day Pensacola, but this effort came a cropper when a hurricane blew through and destroyed a supply ship. After the 1559 failure, King Philip II of Spain ordered a halt to all further colonization efforts, but the moratorium lasted only six years.

Colonization began anew in 1565 when Pedro Menéndez de Avilés came ashore at what is now known as Matanzas Bay and founded the Presidio of San Agustin, America's first and oldest continuously inhabited European-origin city. Saint Augustine was established decades before the founding of the first English settlement in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607, or the landing of the Mayflower at Plymouth Rock in 1620.

Matanzas is Spanish for "slaughters," and that alone tells us something about the city's violent origins. French Huguenots (Protestants) had established a colony near the mouth of the Saint Johns River in territory claimed by Spain, and Menéndez had been dispatched by the Spanish Crown to dislodge the French settlers and kill any Protestants he came across. He landed near Saint Augustine, then marched his army of a thousand soldiers overland for a surprise attack on the French Fort Caroline near present-day Jacksonville. The surprise was successful, and virtually all the French men were slaughtered (the women and children were spared). Menéndez also got word of a band of French castaways who had shipwrecked farther south along the coast and dispatched a force to hunt them down. Once found, the castaways surrendered immediately since they had neither arms nor strength nor will to resist. They too were killed. These slaughters occurred near the banks of the river that opens into the bay, so both the river and the bay were named Matanzas.

Menéndez chose the name San Agustin for his Presidio because his force sailed into the bay on August 28, 1565, which happened to be the feast day of Saint Augustine. Augustine is remembered mostly as the theoretician of the "just war," a doctrine invoked repeatedly by the conquistadores to justify the forcible conversion of heathens to Christianity and the wanton slaughter of those who resisted. Saint Aug was a big fan of Romans 13:4: " … rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God's servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer."

Saint Augustine (the city) rapidly became the center of Spanish Florida and was a frequent target of attack. The city (really, little more than a fort in the early years) was burned to the ground in 1586 by the British explorer Sir Francis Drake, then burned numerous times by pirates (and occasionally by the British) in succeeding years. In most cases, the town's residents were killed or driven away. The city remained vulnerable until the Spanish completed the Castillo de San Marcos in 1695 and Fort Matanzas in 1742.

The Castillo and most of Fort Matanzas remain today and were declared national historical monuments in 1924. Often overrun by tourists, Fort Matanzas is rated by Trip Advisor as #29 of 191 things to do in Saint Augustine. The Castillo is rated #11.


Spain's troubles in colonizing Florida were of two sorts: unfriendly conditions and even less friendly natives. Wresting ownership of the peninsula from its indigenous inhabitants, both human and otherwise, was harder here than almost anywhere else in North America. All the Spanish colonies in Florida were built on the coasts and near or at the mouths of rivers, for reasons that would be obvious to today's beachgoers. In addition to the obvious transportation advantages, there are sea breezes on the coasts that keep the temperature and humidity tolerable and the mosquitoes at bay. In the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries, venturing even a few miles inland would bring you into impassible swampland, suffocating heat and humidity, vast swarms of mosquitoes, and alligators, crocodiles, bears, and snakes galore.

Contrary to popular mythology, Native Americans were not docile bands of primitives, certainly not in Florida and not in the rest of the country, either, and in no way was Florida "easy pickings" for its conquerors. Native North American technologies included quarrying, stoneworking, ceramics, grinding, lumbering, manufacture of wood products, hunting and butchering, canoe manufacture, food preservation, leatherworking, some metalworking, food processing, and weaving, among other things — hardly a "primitive" collection of skills. The native culture also included song and dance, jewelry and art, religion, calendars, medical practices, rituals and celebrations, and elaborate horticultural understandings — not really a "primitive" collection of cultural traits, either. Nor were the natives unorganized politically. Many tribes and coalitions of tribes evidenced advanced forms of social organization, and many could deploy highly capable warriors to defend their interests. The European incursion into native lands involved two centuries of wars, skirmishes, battles, clashes, and massacres between the natives and their colonizers. And it wasn't always the colonizers who came out on top. Ponce de León's troubles with the Calusa were only the beginning. Indeed, of all the Native American groups and tribes that were eventually subdued and displaced by the Europeans, the Florida natives resisted most successfully. Even today, no peace treaty with the Seminoles has ever been signed.

Although today the Seminole is a federally recognized tribe, they were originally a coalition of Native American tribes that formed specifically to fight off the Europeans. Among the tribes in the coalition were the Apalachee, Calusa, Choctaw, Creek, Miccosukee, Tequesta, Jeaga, Ais, and Timucua. (Historians think there were about sixty tribes, bands, and culturally independent groupings of Native Americans in the state when the Spaniards arrived.) Many similar coalitions were formed all over the United States, and for the same reason, to resist European (and later American) expansion into native lands. Notable in this connection are the Miami Confederacy in Indiana, the Iroquois Confederacy in New York (later known as the Six Nations), the Three Fires Confederacy in the Great Lakes region, and the Wabanaki Confederacy in Maine. The formation of the Seminole coalition was not a singular event, either, but rather a process of "ethnogenesis" that occurred in the early 1700s as more and more native groups recognized their common interests. The word "Seminole" itself is a corruption of the Spanish cimarrón, "wild."

Three full-scale wars were fought between the Seminoles and the new United States government. The first was waged in 1817–1818, and the US effort was led by Andrew Jackson two years before dominion over Florida was ceded by the Spanish to the Americans. Florida was slave territory (and later a slave state), and the willingness of the Seminoles to provide sanctuary to escaped slaves was a key issue in the First Seminole War. The second war began in 1835, as the American government moved in to stabilize the territory and relocate unfriendly natives. More and more colonists were demanding that the natives be forcibly removed and relocated on reservations west of the Mississippi, an idea of which Andrew Jackson wholeheartedly approved when he became president in 1829. The Indian Removal Act of 1830 was signed by President Jackson two days after it was enacted by Congress and was pursued vigorously from the Great Lakes to the swamplands of South Florida.

Chief Osceola led the Seminole resistance to Jackson's forcible relocation policies in what came to be called the Second Seminole War (1835–1842). The Seminoles were vastly outnumbered by the US Army and its associated local militias and thus resorted to guerrilla warfare, which they deployed to devastating effect. When Osceola finally approached the American forces, white flag in hand, to negotiate a truce, he was arrested, jailed, and died a year later. In an action worthy of an @_FloridaMan entry, he was then decapitated and his body and head were buried separately. This was not a burial custom of the Spanish, the Americans, or the natives, just sheer barbarism.

Between 1831 and 1850, most of the American Southeast was cleared of its Native American population via voluntary or forced relocation along what came to be called the Trail of Tears. Tribes vacated along the infamous trail included the Cherokee, Muscogee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, and, of course, the Florida Seminole. Nearly all of these tribes provided some resistance to relocation.

The most common estimate for the number of lives lost on the Trail of Tears is four thousand, though this figure is unverified and disputed by some. By the end of the Second Seminole War, death, disease, and relocation had drastically reduced the Seminole population and the remaining Seminoles retreated into the Everglades and continued their resistance to the Americans. The Third Seminole War broke out in 1855 when US Army scouting parties deliberately provoked a confrontation in the hopes of driving the few Seminoles that remained out of the state. This war, mainly a series of raids, skirmishes, and reprisals rather than full-scale battles, persisted until 1858, when the war-weary Seminoles agreed to be relocated to reservations in Oklahoma. Even then, a hundred Seminoles (or maybe several hundred — historians disagree) refused to leave and retreated deeper into the Everglades, at which point the US government simply gave up and allowed the few Seminoles remaining in Florida to stay.

Today, the Seminole Tribe of Florida, the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma (descendants of those relocated along the Trail of Tears), and the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida are all that remain of the aboriginal Florida population. The Seminole was recognized as a legitimate Native American tribe in 1957, the Miccosukee in 1962, and today members of the two tribes reside on six Florida reservations. Upon the grant of legal status, the tribes opened tax-free tobacco operations and high-stakes bingo games on their reservations that evolved into the large Seminole and Miccosukee casinos that the tribes operate today. They are the only land-based casinos in Florida, and according to a 2016 report, they reel in more than $2 billion annually.

The Miccosukee have proven particularly adept at marketing and tourism. Their Miccosukee Resort & Gaming hotel in Miami–Dade County has 302 rooms and rakes in hundreds of millions of dollars annually. The tribe sponsored several NASCAR race cars from 2002 to 2010. There is also a Miccosukee Indian Village Museum, founded in 1983, which offers tourists native paintings and handicrafts, photos and artifacts from the tribe's past, an "authentic" Indian camp reconstruction, alligator shows, and airboat rides. Trip Advisor rates the Miccosukee Indian Village as #1 of one things to do in Tamiami. It is, in short, the only game in town.

Today, there are some 72,000 Floridians who claim "American Indian" as their sole ethnic or racial heritage and more than twice that number who claim American Indian heritage in combination with some other ethnicity. Either way, this is a whopping increase from the numbers that remained at the close of the Third Seminole War (several hundred at best). Perhaps as compensation for the predations of the nineteenth century, the twentieth and now twenty-first centuries have been reasonably good to these "First Floridians," at least demographically.


Excerpted from "A Florida State of Mind"
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Copyright © 2019 James D. Wright.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments vii

Preface ix

Part 1 Some Bits and Pieces of History

1 The Early History 3

2 The Twelfth Happiest State in the Nineteenth Happiest Country 12

3 Henry Flagler's Railroad 18

4 Green, Yellow, Checkered: Auto Racing Gets Its Start 26

Part 2 Florida Economics: The Trillion-Dollar State

5 Theme-Park Nation: Florida's Tourist Economy 41

6 Orange Crush 60

7 Retirement Phantasmagoria: The Dissipation of Capital Accumulated Elsewhere 69

8 Florida's Beaches and Beach Culture 76

9 Fly Me to the Moon: The Florida Aerospace Industry 88

Part 3 People and Politics

10 The Three States of Florida: Cracker Culture, New Havana, and the 1-4 Corridor 99

11 The Hanging Chad and Related Mysteries of Florida Politics 115

12 The Florida Hall of Fame and Shame 126

Part 4 The Natural Environment, If You Want to Call It That

13 Stormy Weather 147

14 Monkeys, Sharks, Bears, Gators, and Snakes 155

15 Roadkill 167

16 Invasive Species 174

17 Famous Foods of Florida 183

18 Some Speculations on Florida's Weirdness 198

Index 207

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