The Historical Roots of "Florida Man"Roundup
tags: Florida, cultural history
Julio Capó Jr. is an associate professor of history and public humanities at Florida International University, the author of Welcome to Fairyland: Queer Miami before 1940 and an editor of Made by History. Twitter
Tyler Gillespie is the author of The Thing about Florida: Exploring a Misunderstood State (University Press of Florida, 2021) and Florida Man: Poems (Red Flag Poetry, 2018). Twitter
Many people know the “Florida Man” meme through bizarre headlines, like the recent “Florida man crashes Walmart scooter into shelves, arrested for drunk driving after vodka found in basket.” While many of these headlines focus on the arrests of poor White people, the phrase has evolved into a catchall term for outlandish Floridians of all backgrounds. The meme has spawned a line of merchandise, a TV show, beer and a music festival.
Since the meme became ubiquitous in the early 2000s, “Florida Man” has been used as both a quick joke and a referendum on the state. But the broad appeal of seeing Florida’s people, culture and history in caricature form is deeply rooted in the state’s colonial past, one that has used a legend and myth to obscure the very real challenges the state and its people have faced.
Initially, imperial powers looked to Florida as a swampland ripe for the taking. Spain claimed dominion over Indigenous people living in Florida for most of the period between 1565 — the year of the first European settlement in North America at St. Augustine — and 1821.
Colonizers saw Florida as a land where anything was possible. Perhaps the most persistent example is the legend attached to Conquistador Juan Ponce de León and his purported search for the Fountain of Youth during the first Spanish expedition to Florida in 1513. The story seems to have been an embellishment by a political rival trying to make Ponce de León look foolish before the crown, casting him as someone capable of being duped by native tribes. In fact, there’s no evidence that Ponce de León’s name was even attached to the Fountain of Youth until after he died. It nonetheless became the dominant story about the colonizer’s time in Florida by the 17th century.
In reality, Florida proved to be more of a liability than a colonial prize. Plagued by pirates and privateers, hurricanes, runaway enslaved people and tribal conflicts, Spanish Florida became a colonial backwater. Indigenous peoples saw their numbers vastly diminished in this era. For example, while the Timucua of the northern part of Florida numbered somewhere between 200,000 and 300,000 before European encounters, a mere 1,000 remained by 1700.
When the British occupied the Spanish-controlled city of Havana, Cuba, in 1762 as part of the Seven Years’ War, Spain chose to sacrifice Florida to Britain to regain its much more valuable Cuban land. But the British also had trouble attracting settlers to Florida and, preoccupied with the American Revolution, Britain ceded the land back to Spain by the war’s end in 1783.
The nascent United States looked to the region with great interest as it expanded its own territory. And in 1821, it acquired the land from Spain. Florida achieved statehood in 1845 and, less than two decades later, it became the third state to secede from the Union, joining the Confederacy in 1861. By then, of course, slavery had been firmly entrenched in the new state. In fact, enslaved people represented 44 percent of Florida’s slim population of 140,400 on the eve of the Civil War.
Myths and legends from colonial Spain and others persisted though.
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