From Juan Ponce de Leon to GI Joe: Florida’s ‘Discovery,’April 2, 1513, and its Rediscovery in the 1940s

Map of Florida, ca. 1591. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

By Robert Sanchez & Scott Sholl

Spring has sprung in Florida, and with it came the approach of a very important date. According to historical records, it was on April 2, 1513 – fittingly enough the day after April Fools Day – that Juan Ponce de Leon and his minions, mistakenly believing that they’d found yet another Caribbean island with lots of gold to be mined and natives to be enslaved, came ashore somewhere along the peninsula’s Atlantic Coast.

The Spanish conquistador may or may not have been the first European explorer to bump into Florida, but he gets the credit. However, to say that he “discovered” Florida is a bit of a stretch because  human beings had discovered and inhabited the area for thousands of years before Europeans arrived.

The fact that Ponce de Leon is still honored with a large statue in Miami’s Bayfront Park indicates that the arbiters of political correctness still associate his name with a myth – his purported search for a “fountain of youth” – rather than with his earlier history, which included overseeing a massacre of indigenous people who had resisted Spanish rule on the island of Hispaniola.

Elsewhere in Florida a small town and state park near it also bear the explorer’s name, but they’re in the Panhandle, where “P.C.” means Panama City, and the residents don’t obsess as much about the other P.C.– political correctness.

But I digress. In the case of Ponce de Leon, maybe it was enough payback for his sins that some of Florida’s own indigenous people, the Calusas, mortally wounded him when he returned in 1521 intent on establishing a Spanish colony along Florida’s Gulf Coast. He and the other survivors among the 200 or so would-be colonists fled back to Cuba, where Ponce soon died.

But enough about Florida’s initial “discovery.” which isn’t even celebrated as a state holiday. What about its rediscovery? Although Florida was never exactly lost like the mythical Atlantis, it was lost in the same sense as Sheep No. 28 can be lost from view in a herd of 48 nearly identical sheep.

Indeed, for much of the time from statehood in 1845 until the middle of the 20th Century, Florida was just another state, a bit more exotic, perhaps, but not exactly a standout – not even among its Deep South neighbors. Indeed, all of them were still more populous than Florida as of the 1940 Census, which tallied only 1,897,414 residents in the Sunshine State.

Moreover, of the 20 states that ranked lower than Florida, most were either those that are tiny in area (Rhode Island, Vermont, Delaware) or those that were situated in vast then-empty spaces in the West. Indeed, Nevada in 1940 B.C. (Before Casinos) had a mere 110,247 residents, not counting the sheep, Wyoming had 250, 742,  and Arizona – a state only since 1912 – had only 499,261.

Prior to Florida’s rediscovery a century or so after statehood, the state’s population growth – a byproduct of the impact of births, deaths, immigration, and emigration – had been uneven from one decade to the next but relatively glacial most of the time, especially in comparison with the rapid growth of recent years.

This decade-by-decade list of the population growth in the 10-year spans from one U.S. Census to the next not only illustrates the dramatic changes following Florida’s rediscovery in the 1940s, but between the lines it also reminds us of how various decades were impacted by historical factors ranging from land booms, war, and epidemics to the invention of refrigeration and the widespread use of mosquito control. Consider this revealing scenario:

1830-40: In this decade prior to statehood, Florida’s population grew from 34,730 tallied in the first U.S. Census (1830) to 54,477 in 1840 – a gain of 19,747. No doubt that census failed to count many of the indigenous people still residing in remote areas of the state.

Map of Florida (1833) with insets of Pensacola, St. Augustine, and Tallahassee. Courtesy of Florida Memory.

Chief Micanopy united the Seminole Indians of Florida in the 1830s. Courtesy of Florida Memory.

1840-1850: When Florida was granted statehood in 1845, settlers from other states could move south with a bit more confidence that the area was no longer a lawless frontier.  Even so, the decade’s population gain as tallied by the U.S. Census was only 32,968.

Journal of Proceedings of the First Assembly of the Florida Senate in 1845. Courtesy of Florida Memory.

Map of Florida, ca. 1846. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

1850-1860: In the decade leading up to the Civil War, war clouds may have dampened the ability of sunny vistas to lure new settlers. The decade’s population gain was 52,979.

Florida land grant issued to Frederick Worthington of Gadsden County, Florida in 1850. Courtesy of Florida Memory.

Map of Florida, ca. 1855. Courtesy of Florida Memory.

1860-1870:  Only two significant Civil War battles were fought on Florida’s soil. Even so the war, which consumed the first half of decade, was not a boon to growth. Moreover, during the second half of the decade, the war was followed by the start of the Reconstruction era. The decade’s population growth was a relatively puny 47,324, despite an influx of carpetbaggers and scalawags.

Map of Florida during the Civil War, ca. 1861. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

Union soldiers inside Fort Marion, St. Augustine, Florida, ca.1861. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

Confederate soldiers at Warrington Navy Yard in Pensacola, Florida, ca. 1861. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

An advertisement for the Florida Union during the Reconstruction era. The ad highlights the newspaper’s support of “immediate reconstruction of the state in accordance with the Congressional policy and the principles of the National Republican Party.” The Jacksonville-based newspaper was founded while the city was under Union occupation during the Civil War. Courtesy of Florida Memory. 

1870-1880: Poverty, and political instability contributed to sluggish growth in the 1870s, but in 1877 Reconstruction finally ended – in part as a result of the Presidential election of 1876, in which blatant shenanigans in Florida played a decisive role the Electoral College victory of Republican Rutherford B. Hayes, who lost the popular vote to Democrat Samuel Tilden. The decade’s population growth was 81,745.

The process of resolving the disputed 1876 presidential election is illustrated in this wood engraving. Florida was one of four states that sent two sets of inconsistent returns to Congress. David Dudley Field, who served a single term in Congress, objects to Florida’s returns in a packed chamber. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

View of Orange Avenue in Orlando, Florida, ca. 1878. Courtesy of Florida Memory.

1880-1890:  Wealthy northerners were beginning to take notice of Florida’s potential as a winter resort. The major investors included Henry Flagler, whose construction of lavish hotels and a railroad along Florida’s Atlantic Coast began during the 1880s. The decade’s population growth was an unspectacular 121,929, but in creating the infrastructure for Florida’s tourism industry, Flagler had cleared the way for faster growth in the future.

View of steamboat and railroad station at Silver Springs, Florida, ca. 1886.  Silver Springs — one of the state’s first tourist attractions — is now part of the Florida State Park system. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

Dinner menu for Hotel Ponce de Leon. Henry Flagler built the hotel in 1888. Courtesy of Florida Memory.

Map of Flagler’s railroad along Florida’s Atlantic Coast.

 1890-1900: What Henry Flagler did for Florida’s Atlantic Coast, Henry Plant did along Florida’s Gulf Coast, building hotels and extending a major rail line to Tampa. Later in the decade, Tampa became the staging area for U.S. involvement in Cuba during the Spanish-American War. For many of the troops who passed through Tampa’s port, their journey was an eye-opening sample of Florida’s appeal and, as with the GIs who were to undergo their military training in Florida during World War II,  a triggering event for future growth. The decade’s population gain was 137,120.

Theodore Roosevelt as a Rough Rider, Tampa, Florida, 1898. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

Troops training in Florida during the Spanish-American War, ca. 1898. Courtesy of Florida Memory.

Portrait of Henry B. Plant in 1899.  As a railroad and hotel magnate, Plant played a key role in the development of Florida. Courtesy of Florida Memory.

1900-1910: Florida’s growth rate was beginning to be profoundly affected by a major shift in the population patterns. Back in 1830, the first U.S. Census found a whopping 90.2 percent of Florida’s residents concentrated in 11 counties along the state’s northern border, plus St. Johns County (St. Augustine.) By 1910, however, more than half the population lived farther down the peninsula in an area poised for even faster growth. The decade’s population gain was 224,077.

View of Beach Street, Daytona Beach, Florida, ca. 1906. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

The “Sunny South” applauds President Roosevelt’s assurance of the Panama Canal, Jacksonville, Florida, January 1906. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

1910-1920: In the previous decade, the U.S. takeover of the Panama Canal project led to a collateral benefit for Florida. Building on the pioneering research of Dr. Carlos Finlay, Dr. Walter Reed identified a particular breed of mosquito as the vector that spread yellow fever. The disease was dreaded not only in the tropics but also in much of Florida, particularly in coastal areas near major breeding grounds for mosquitoes. Conquering yellow fever made Florida’s coastal areas safer. Although World War I slowed migration from other states, the decade’s population gain was nonetheless 215,851, and the stage was set for the population boom of the following decade.

World War I soldiers from Madison County, Florida, ca. 1916 Courtesy of Florida Memory.

Cartoon showing Florida State Board of Health “Shutting Out Disease.” Courtesy of Florida Memory.

1920-1930: An argument could be made that Florida’s “rediscovery” occurred in the 1920s, but – unlike the “rediscovery” in the 1940s, it didn’t last. With the nation’s economy on the rebound from World War I, Florida enjoyed a land boom that led to the popularity of a new term – “swamp peddler – that aptly described some of the shameless promoters of Florida real estate. The salesmen now had new tools at their disposal as the emergence of national media – movies and network radio – began knitting the nation together in a way that newspapers and magazines could not. By the end of the 1920s the land boom was followed by a bust that for many years that followed bred distrust of Florida real estate as a sound investment. Even so, Florida’s population gain in the “roaring twenties” was a best-ever 499,741.

Sheet music cover, ca. 1920s. Courtesy of Florida Memory.

Barbecue at Tin Can Tourists convention, Arcadia, Florida, ca. 1920s. Courtesy of Florida Memory.

“In Florida” postcard, ca. 1922. Courtesy of Florida Memory.

1930-1940: The Wall Street crash of 1929 added to the economic woes Florida already was suffering as a result of the land boom’s bust. The decade’s population growth, 429,203, represented a decline from the previous decade.

Migrant laborer’s family near Canal Point, Florida, ca. February 1939. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

Moving day in Florida’s turpentine country, ca. 1936. Courtesy of library of Congress.

Migrant shed worker in Northeast Florida, ca. 1936. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

Now that we’ve reached the eve of the 1940s and Florida’s rediscovery, let’s recap what we found trudging through the eleven decades of U.S. Census data. From the first Census in 1830 until the one in 1940, the state’s population had grown to 1,897,414 from 34,730. That’s a gain of 1,862,684. While that sounds impressive, in reality it averages a net gain of 169,335 per decade or 16,933 per year, with nearly half of the gain occurring in two of the 11 decades, the 1920s and 1930s.

Then came World War II. Journalist Eliot Kleinberg brilliantly described the war’s impact in a  February 14, 2017 Palm Beach Post article titled “75 years later: How World War II changed Florida forever.”


“The state, a strategic asset for its geography and climate, became an armed camp. Its hotels turned into barracks. Hospitals, bases and airfields sprang up, increasing from eight in 1940 to 172 in 1943. The influx of soldiers led to the boom that changed Florida’s population from about 2 million in 1940 to nearly 3 million a decade later. The sleepy southern locale became one of the nation’s most important and fastest-growing states.

“Florida would never be the same.”


For those who would like to read more, Mr. Kleinberg also authored a book titled “War in Paradise: Stories of World War II in Florida.” In addition, his entire Palm Beach Post article can be found here.

Retired University of South Florida history professor Dr. Gary Mormino, in his book “Land of Sunshine, State of Dreams,” also noted the profound impact that World War II had on Florida’s growth as GIs who had undergone training in the state and liked what they saw and moved south after the war. Mormino also noted that the spread of air conditioning and mosquito control contributed to Florida’s population boom.

And a boom it was. In the 1940s, the population grew by 873,891, nearly twice the growth of any previous decade, and that was just the start. In the1950s the population increased by 2,180,255, followed by a gain of 1,837,883 in the 1960s, 2,956,881 in the 1970s, 3,191,602 in the 1980s, 3,044,452 in the 1990s, and 2,818,961 in the 21st Century’s first decade – a decade in which the “Great Recession” temporarily slowed Florida’s growth.

The pace of growth began to pick up again in the century’s second decade as the state – plagued by the real estate bust – overcame a slow start. The population topped 20 million and passed New York to make Florida the nation’s third most populous state.  Roughly 90 percent of the state’s growth occurred in the years following the state’s “rediscovery” in the 1940s. No doubt Ponce de Leon wouldn’t recognize the place.


Photo collage of men training at the Apalachicola Army Airfield, Franklin County, Florida, ca. 1943. Courtesy of Florida Memory.

Celebrating V-J Day on East Flagler Street in Miami, Florida, August 1945. Courtesy of Florida Memory.

Poster displaying magazine advertisements of Florida in 1946. Courtesy of Florida Memory.

Mid-century house plan for living in Florida, ca. 1949. Courtesy of Flickr/Ethan-Sun Swept Homes for Florida.


Miami terminus  of the Sunshine State Parkway (Florida Turnpike) in 1957. Courtesy of Florida Memory.

Standard Oil legend for Florida road map,1959. Courtesy of RetroLand USA/Flickr.


Publix Super Market in Sarasota County, Florida, 1962. Courtesy of Florida Memory. 

Gulf Oil Florida road map,1967. Courtesy of RetroLand USA/Flickr.


View of trailer park near the Florida Everglades, August 1972. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

TraveLodge Motel in Dania, Florida, ca. 1970. Courtesy of Flickr/Roadside Pictures.


Boardwalk scene, Hollywood Beach, Florida, 1983. Courtesy of Flickr/Steven Martin.

 View of Art Deco architecture, Miami Beach, Florida, 1988. Courtesy of Florida Memory.


View of Lake Worth Beach in Palm Beach County, Florida, June 1990. Courtesy of Flickr/Steven Martin.

View of homes along 30A, Seaside, Florida, 1995. Courtesy of Florida Memory.


 Ocean Drive in Miami Beach, Florida. Courtesy of Thibault Houspic/Flickr.

View of downtown Tampa, Florida. Courtesy of Matthew Paulson/Flickr.

View of Panama City Beach, Florida. Courtesy of Brent/Flickr.

View of Skyline in Jacksonville, Florida. Courtesy of imagenusphoto/Flickr.

Street scene along A1A, Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Courtesy of Wally Gobetz/Flickr.

View of downtown Orlando, Florida. Courtesy of Jeff Krause/Flickr.

 Aerial view of Alligator Alley in Florida. Courtesy of formulanone/Flickr.