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[Detail] Fishermen. Key West, Florida

Florida's History and Ethnic Heritage

Before Europeans came to the Americas, various native groups populated Florida, perhaps totaling 350,000 people in the early sixteenth century. Since that time, Florida has attracted settlers from around the world. A Spanish colony from the sixteenth century, Florida was turned over to the British after the Seven Years' War in 1763. Dr. Andrew Turnbull, British Consul at Smyrna, Turkey, established a settlement at New Smyrna Beach on the east coast of Florida; the town was inhabited by Greek, Italian, and Minorcan immigrants. The colony disbanded in 1777, with settlers relocating first at St. Augustine. Through the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, descendants of those early settlers and new immigrants had formed ethnic enclaves throughout the state. When fieldworkers from the Florida Folklore Project began conducting interviews in 1939, they concentrated on enclaves known for preserving ethnic traditions. They interviewed Greek Americans in Jacksonville and St. Augustine on the east coast and the Gulf coast town of Tarpon Springs, a thriving community of sponge fishermen from the Aegean Islands. Conduct a keyword search using Tarpon Springs as your search term to find recordings of Greek folk songs, patriotic songs, interviews, and liturgical music.

Florida was returned to Spanish rule following the American Revolution. Spain offered free land to attract settlers, and the strategy worked. Many settlers came to Florida, although few were Spanish. West Florida declared its independence in 1810, but the United States soon claimed that that territory was part of the Louisiana Purchase and took over its administration. The rest of Florida eventually became part of the United States in 1821 through a treaty with Spain.

Even before Florida became part of the Union in 1821, the U.S. government had taken up arms against the Seminoles. Three wars over the first half of the nineteenth century pushed the Seminoles into the Everglades by mid-century.

In 1830, the U.S. Congress passed the Indian Removal Act, forcing Native Americans to move west of the Mississippi River. A large number of Seminoles took the forced march along the "Trail of Tears" out of Florida toward Oklahoma's Indian Territory. Listen to a song recorded at the Brighton Indian Day School, Brighton, Florida, commemorating the departure of the Seminoles from Florida for Oklahoma. The song is sung in the Muskogee language. Conduct a keyword search using Green Corn Dance as your search term to locate a series of Seminole songs performed as a spiritual ritual of purification and thanksgiving every spring.

  • What is the tone of the song commemorating Seminole removal?
  • Compare the ritual songs of the Green Corn Dance to the commemorative song? How might you account for the similarities and differences?

In the nineteenth century, many Cubans settled in Key West and were employed in making cigars, a craft they had learned in Cuba. The Cuban government had even established a grammar school in Key West to help preserve Cuban culture, There, children learned folk songs and patriotic hymns such as "La Bayamese," the Cuban national anthem. In 1886, Vicente Martínez de Ybor moved his cigar manufacturing plant to the west coast of Florida to avoid unionization of workers. Ybor City, currently a neighborhood in Tampa, became one of the state's largest Cuban American communities. Italian immigrants in the early twentieth century also established an enclave in Ybor City. A keyword search using the search term Ybor City will yield a number of songs and stories from Cuban Americans.

While Florida was the home of the first free black community in North America (Fort Mose, established in the 1730s), it was a slave state when admitted to the Union. Thus, African Americans have a long and varied history in Florida. The WPA office at the Clara White Mission, a soup kitchen in Jacksonville's black neighborhood, was the base for fieldworkers carrying out interviews in the state's African American communities. The mission bore the name of Clara White, who was raised in slavery on Amelia Island, Fernandina, Florida. Eartha White, Clara White's daughter, recorded a ghost story that her mother told her. The story was reported to have been based on an actual incident during the Civil War. Other interviews were conducted and songs gathered from workers in the turpentine camps near Cross City, west of Gainesville. African Americans provided much of the labor for the lumber and turpentine industries in Florida.

Recordings of folk songs from the Bahaman Islands reflect both British and African American émigrés from the West Indies. Use Bahaman as the search term for a keyword search to locate a series of folk songs popular among African Americans, including "Bingo Was His Name".

Conduct a search using the keyword Conch, a term originally referring to British settlers from the Bahaman Islands who immigrated to South Florida. The unique accent of the Conchs—a blending of British and Bahamian dialects—interested the WPA fieldworkers as much as the songs and stories related by the Conchs. "Maloney Is Dead" was one of the first vocals recorded by fieldworkers. The collection also includes a textual transcription of the song.

Find a map of Florida to which you can add information. You may want to print out one of the maps in the list provided with the collection. Map as much information about the history of Florida's ethnic groups from this section as you can. Be sure to include dates and show movement of groups when possible. Also check the guide provided with the collection to gather information about other groups not covered in this section. If time permits, you might conduct additional research about ethnic communities in Florida history.

  • What does your map tell you about the history of Florida?
  • What patterns or trends are clearer when examining a map than when reading text?
  • How would a map of your state's ethnic history be similar to and different from the Florida map you have created?