Everyone loves a good story—especially the Spanish explorers who first discovered Florida. According to legend, famed adventurer Juan Ponce de León was seeking the Fountain of Youth in April 1513 when he waded onto Florida’s shores and dubbed the land pascua florida (“season of flowers”). Ponce de León’s expeditions—and rumors of hidden treasures from shipwrecks—set off a boom of Spanish and French exploration, which met resistance from hurricanes, pirates, coral reefs and Indians.
In 1565, Spain’s Pedro Menéndez de Avilés captured the French colony in Florida and established St. Augustine, the oldest continuously inhabited European settlement in the United States. England jumped into the fray and briefly won Florida in 1763, then divided it, with St. Augustine as East Florida’s capital and Pensacola as West Florida’s.
Spain regained control of Florida in 1784, at the end of the Revolutionary War. In 1790, to strengthen its position in Florida, Spain began offering land grants and freedom to escaped slaves. How do your Florida ancestors fit into this storied past? Let our guide help you write new chapters in your family’s history.
Florida didn’t become part of the United States until Congress ratified the Adams-Onís Treaty in 1821, requiring the US government to honor valid Spanish land grants. West Florida and East Florida set up land commissions in 1822 and 1823, respectively, to process claims. Grants often contain descriptions of land allotted, boundaries, transaction dates, and proof of residency and cultivation. Most West Florida land grant records have been lost. But the State Library and Archives of Florida (SLAF) does hold East Florida records. You’ll find research tips, a searchable database and record images on the Florida Memory website. You can search an index from 1763 to 1821 on the free FamilySearch website, where results send you to Florida Memory to view the record image.
You also can access microfilmed Spanish land grants from 1764 to 1844, some of which are indexed, at FamilySearch’s Family History Library (FHL) in Salt Lake City. See transcribed translations in the FHL’s film set Spanish Land Grants in Florida.
For later, US-issued records, see the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) searchable database of land patents back to the 1820s. If you can’t find your ancestors in Florida records, try Alabama records, since boundaries shifted. Original patents, tract books and township plats are at the BLM’s Eastern States Land Office in Springfield, Va.. Order copies of land entry case files using the National Archives and Records Administration’s (NARA) online ordering service.
For land transactions between private parties, look to deed records in county courthouses where the property was located.
Look for early Florida ancestors in Spanish colonial censuses in 1783, 1786 and 1793 on microfilm at the FHL and at SLAF. At the Florida Memory website, you can view a transcription and images of an 1825 census of Leon County. See the Toolkit box in this guide for published versions of early censuses.
Florida participated in its first US census in 1830. You can search this and later censuses (other than 1890, which except for a few fragments, was destroyed after a fire) on major genealogy websites including the free FamilySearch and subscription-based Ancestry.com, Findmypast and MyHeritage.
Florida took state censuses in 1855, 1867, 1875, 1885, 1935 and 1945. These are helpful for tracking family between federal censuses, and you can search them online at FamilySearch and on Ancestry.com. Marion County records for 1855 are on the Florida Memory website. You’ll also find an 1845 voter list there, which can serve as a census substitute of sorts for that year.
Members of the Creek Indian nation and a few other tribes, along with fleeing African-American slaves, became collectively known as the Seminoles. When the United States annexed Florida Territory, 5,000 Seminoles lived there. The Seminole Wars followed, from 1817 to 1818, 1835 to 1842, and 1855 to 1858. SLAF has service records and muster rolls of US soldiers in these wars.
When Florida became a US state in 1845, all but the Seminoles who retreated to the Everglades were forced out, most to Oklahoma. Among American Indian records NARA has posted online are the Dawes Rolls list of Five Civilized Tribes members who were removed. Also check Indian census schedules, available on Ancestry.com and on NARA microfilm. These censuses enumerated Indian reservation residents annually (though coverage is often spotty) from 1885 to 1940.
The politically powerful cotton plantation owners of central Florida held strong pro-slavery views. The state seceded from the Union in January 1861, and contributed more than 13,000 soldiers to the Confederacy. Only about 2,000 men enlisted with the Union. Search for your Civil War ancestor’s basic information (name, rank, unit) in the Civil War Soldiers and Sailors Database. Union and Confederate service records are on subscription site Fold3, and you can search an index to these records on the free FamilySearch (where links to view the record image send you to Fold3) . NARA, the FHL and the SLAF have microfilmed records for Floridians in the Confederate Army. You can order Union service and pension records from NARA; see Archives.gov for details. Confederate Floridians’ digitized pension files are on FamilySearch and on the Florida Memory Project site.
Immigration records and passenger lists
Its location makes Florida a popular destination for immigrants from the Caribbean, especially from Cuba and Puerto Rico. (Spain ceded both to the United States in 1898, after the Spanish-American War.) Cubans had begun arriving after the Civil War, due to political turmoil in their homeland. Immigration from Cuba slowed when the country became independent in 1902, but picked up dramatically in the 1950s. CubaGenWeb can help you research Cuban roots.
Puerto Ricans began arriving in large numbers after the United States declared them US citizens in 1917. More than a million Puerto Ricans live in Florida today. Find help researching those ancestors online at the FamilySearch Wiki site for Puerto Rico.
European immigrants—particularly from Spain, Italy, Greece and other Mediterranean areas—arrived in the late 1800s and early 1900s through Florida ports such as Pensacola, St. Augustine and Key West. You can find digitized passenger lists for these and other US ports online at Ancestry.com and FamilySearch. The FHL and NARA have microfilmed lists covering virtually all US ports, many through 1959.
Florida mandated statewide birth and death registration in 1899, with all counties generally complying by 1920. The state’s vital-statistics office holds incomplete records of early births (1865-1917) and deaths (1877-1917). Birth records from the past 100 years are restricted to immediate family members (provided they can prove the person has died). Cause of death information is restricted for 50 years, but other certificate details are widely available. See the vital records office website for ordering instructions.
Some areas recorded births and deaths earlier than 1899, so check with the county where your ancestor was born or died, and run a place search of the FHL online catalog to see records available on microfilm. Indexes to Florida births and christenings (1880-1935) and deaths (1877-1998) are searchable on the FamilySearch website.
Marriage and divorce records are available from the vital statistics office beginning in 1927, but many counties recorded these events starting with their formation. At both FamilySearch and Ancestry.com, you can search the Florida Marriage Collection of 11.7 million records (1822-1875 and 1927-2001). Ancestry.com also has a divorce index for 1927 to 2001. SAF and the FHL have microfilmed marriage records dating back to 1849. For pre-1927 divorce records, contact the clerk of the circuit court in your ancestors’ county.
You’ll find Florida stories in a lot more sources, too. Once you’ve exhausted the ones we’ve already mentioned, try the following:
- City Directories: These telephone book-like directories of residents (generally, those who are employed and sometimes their spouses) are helpful for tracing migrations between census years. The SLAF has an excellent collection of directories from around the state, and local libraries often have directories from their areas. Search digitized directories on line at Ancestry.com and scroll microfilmed versions at the FHL.
- County records: Find deeds, probates, election returns and tax records on microfilm at the FHL and SAF. The FamilySearch website has a collection of digitized-but-unindexed Florida probate records. Find them by looking under the Search menu and choosing Records, then scrolling down and clicking the United States on the map. Finally, choose Florida from the list of states.
- Newspapers: Search newspapers at the University of Florida’s free Digital Newspaper Library database (scroll down to Newspaper Collections), the free Chronicling America, and subscription sites Newspapers.com and GenealogyBank.
For more information, check out our Florida Fast Facts and Key Resources.