Everyone loves a good story — especially the Spanish explorers who first discovered Florida. According to legend, famed adventurer Juan Ponce de Leon 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 Leon’s expeditions — and rumors of hidden treasures from shipwrecks — set off a boom of Spanish and French exploration there.
But those early European explorers soon discovered rumored riches and eternal youth didn’t paint a complete picture of the Sunshine State. They were met with hurricanes, pirates, treacherous coral reefs and shoals, and fierce opposition from Indians.
French interest in Florida, though, caused Spain to step up its own colonization efforts. 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. So 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 join the United States until Congress ratified the 1821 Adams-Onís Treaty, which required America to honor valid Spanish land grants. West Florida and East Florida set up land commissions in 1822 and 1823, respectively, to process claims granted by other nations. The grants, written in Spanish or English, often contain descriptions of the land allotted, its boundaries, the date, and proof of residency and cultivation. Most West Florida land grant records have been lost. But the State Archives of Florida (SAF) <dlis.dos.state.fi.us/index_researchers.cfm> holds East Florida records and has a database with images at <www.floridamemory.com/collections>.
You can access microfilmed Spanish land grants from 1764 to 1844, some of which are indexed, through the Family History Library (FHL) <www.familysearch.org> or its branch Family History Centers. 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 online database of land patents dating as far back as the 1820s <www.glorecords.blm.gov>. If you can’t find your ancestors in Florida records, try checking the BLM’s Alabama records, since shifting boundaries may have caused some Floridians to end up there. Original patents, tract books and township plats are at the BLM’s Eastern States Land Office in Springfield, Va. <www.es.blm.gov/glo>. You can order copies of your ancestor’s land entry case file using the National Archives and Records Administration’s (NARA) Order Online service <archives.gov/order>.
Members of the Creek nation and a few other tribes, along with fleeing slaves, became collectively known as the Seminoles. When the United States annexed Florida Territory, 5,000 Seminoles lived there. As Florida’s population grew and settlers grabbed new land, pressure on native tribes increased. The result was a succession of wars in 1817-1818, 1835 to 1842, and 1855 to 1858. SAF has service records and muster rolls of US soldiers in these wars.
When Florida became a state in 1845, all but the handful of Seminole who retreated to the Everglades were forced out, most to Oklahoma. Among American Indian records NARA has put online <archives.gov/research/arc/topics/native-americans.html> are the Dawes Rolls list of Five Civilized Tribes members who moved. Also check Indian census schedules, available on Ancestry.com <Ancestry.com > ($155.40 per year) and NARA microfilm, which enumerated reservation residents every year from 1885 to 1940.
The politically powerful cotton plantation owners of central Florida held strong pro-slavery views. The state seceded from the Union and contributed more than 13,000 soldiers to the Confederacy. But despite Floridians’ zero popular votes for Abraham Lincoln in the 1860 election, about 2,000 men enlisted with the Union. See your Civil War ancestor’s basic information (name, rank, unit) in the Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System <www.itd.nps.gov/cwss>. NARA, the FHL and the SAF have microfilmed records for Floridians in the Confederate Army. Union service records aren’t microfilmed; you can order copies from NARA <archives.gov/order>.
NARA holds pension records for Union soldiers, too. But you’ll find Confederate Floridians’ digitized pension files on the Florida Memory Project site <www.floridamemory.com>. See the July 2007 Family Tree Magazine for additional Civil War research advice.
Its location makes Florida a popular destination for immigrants from the Caribbean, especially Cuba and Puerto Rico, both of which Spain ceded to the United States in 1898, after the Spanish-American War. Cubans began arriving after the Civil War, due to political turmoil in their homeland. Immigration slowed with Cuban independence in 1902, but picked up dramatically in the 1950s. CubaGenWeb <cubagenweb.com> can help you research Cuban roots.
More than 500,000 Puerto Ricans live in Florida today; most arrived after the United States declared them US citizens in 1917. Find help researching those ancestors online at The Genealogy of Puerto Rico <www.rootsweb.com/~prwgw>.
Europeans — 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. Digitized passenger lists on Ancestry.com and microfilmed lists at the FHL and NARA cover 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 <www.doh.state.fl.us/planning_eval/vital_statistics> holds incomplete records of early births (1865 to 1917) and deaths (1877 to 1917). Birth records from the past 100 years are restricted to immediate family (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 Web site 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. Same goes for marriage and divorce records — they’re available from the vital-statistics office beginning in 1927, but many counties recorded these events starting with their formation. Ancestry.com’s Florida Marriage Collection indexes 11.7 million people married in the state from 1822 to 1875 and 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.
Also see these FHL microfilm and microfiche publications: Florida Combined Marriage Index, 1927 to 1969; Florida Combined Death Index, 1877 to 1969; and Florida Combined Divorce and Annulment Index, 1927 to 1969.
SAF has microfilmed county records including deeds, probates, election returns and tax records <dlis.dos.state.fl.us/archives/genealogy.cfm>, which can pinch hit as “proof” of an ancestor when locating vital records is tough. Also try the University of Florida’s Digital Newspaper Library database <www.uflib.ufl.edu/UFDC/?c=fdnl1>, which has scans of select newspapers from the 1830s to 2005.
SAF holds various colonial, territorial and state censuses from 1783 to 1945. Early counts have been published in a variety of books (see resources).
State enumerations from 1855 forward contain information on individuals, but only fragments remain of those from 1855 through 1875 and 1895. You can find records for 1935 and 1945 on microfilm at the FHL and SAF. In 1885, the federal government took a census, which is available along with other federal censuses.
US counts of Floridians started in 1830 and occurred every 10 years thereafter. Records (except for those from 1890, which were destroyed in a fire) are available from the FHL and NARA, as well as at HeritageQuest Online <heritagequestonline.com> (free through subscribing libraries) and Ancestry.com . With such bright genealogical treasures in the Sunshine State, you can tell your family’s true tale.