Indians entered Florida from the north 10,000 to 12,000 years ago, and had reached the end of the peninsula by 1400 BC. As they grew in number, the Indians developed more complex economic and social organization. In northeastern Florida and nearby Georgia, they apparently invented pottery independently about 2000 BC, some 800 years earlier than any other Indian group in North America.

In north Florida, an agricultural and hunting economy organized around village life was typical by this time. South of Tampa Bay and Cape Canaveral, Indians lived mostly along the coast and relied heavily on wild plants and on a large variety of aquatic and land animals for meat. The southern groups did not practice agriculture until about 450 BC, when they began to plant corn in villages around Lake Okeechobee.

As they spread over Florida and adjusted to widely different local conditions, the Indians fell into six main divisions, with numerous subgroups and distinctive cultural traits. When Europeans arrived in the early 16th century, they found nearly 100,000 Indians: 25,000 Apalachee around Tallahassee; 40,000 Timucua in the northeast; on Tampa Bay, 7,000 Tocobaga; on the southwest coast and around Lake Okeechobee, 20,000 Calusa; on the lower southeast coast, 5,000 Tequesta; and in the Jupiter area, 2,000 Ais and Jeaga.

The Spanish who began arriving in the 16th century found the Indians in upper Florida to be relatively tractable, but those in the lower peninsula remained uniformly hostile and resisted to the last. The Spaniards sought to convert the Indians to Christianity and settle them around missions to grow food, to supply labor, and to help defend the province. By 1674, 70 Franciscan friars were working in dozens of missions and stations in a line running west from St. Augustine and north along the sea island coast to Carolina.

The impact of the Europeans on the Indian population was, on the whole, disastrous. Indians died of European-introduced diseases, were killed in wars with whites or with other Indians, or moved away. Raids from South Carolina by the Creeks, abetted by the British, between 1702 and 1708 completely destroyed the missions. When the Spanish departed Florida in 1763, the remaining 300 of the original 100,000 Indians left with them.

As early as 1750, however, small groups of Creek tribes from Georgia and Alabama had begun to move into the north Florida area vacated by the first Indian groups. Called Seminole, the Creek word for runaway or refugee, these Indians did not then constitute a tribe and had no common government or leadership until resistance to white plans to resettle them brought them together. They numbered only 5,000 when Florida became part of the US.

Pressures on the US president and Congress to remove the Seminole intensified after runaway black slaves began seeking refuge with the Indians. In 1823, the Seminole accepted a reservation north of Lake Okeechobee. Nine years later, an Indian delegation signed a document pledging the Seminole to move within three years to lands in present-day Oklahoma. The Indians' subsequent resistance to removal resulted in the longest and most costly of Indian wars, the Seminole War of 1835–42. The warfare and the Indians' subsequent forced migration left fewer than 300 Seminole in Florida.

The history of the twice-repeated annihilation of Florida Indians is, at the same time, the history of white settlers' rise to power. After Christopher Columbus reached the New World at Hispaniola in 1492, the Caribbean islands became the base for wider searches, one of which brought Juan Ponce de León to Florida. Sailing from Puerto Rico in search of the fabled island of Bimini, he sighted Florida on 27 March 1513 and reached the coast a week later. Ponce de León claimed the land for Spain and named it La Florida, for Pascua Florida, the Easter festival of flowers; sailing southward around Florida, he may have traveled as far as Apalachicola, on the shore of the panhandle. In 1521, he returned to found a colony at Charlotte Harbor, on the lower Gulf coast, but the Indians fought the settlers. After Ponce was seriously wounded, the expedition sailed for Cuba, where he died the same year.

Other Spaniards seeking treasure and lands to govern came after Ponce. Pánfilo de Narváez arrived in 1528, landing near Tampa Bay and marching inland and northward to Tallahassee. Hernando de Sota, a rich and famous associate of Francisco Pizarro in the conquest of Peru, found many men eager to try the same with him in Florida. Appointed governor of Cuba and adelantado (loosely, conqueror) of Florida, he followed the route of Narváez to Tallahassee in 1539, finding some food but no promise of wealth. In 1559, Spain sought to establish a settlement on Pensacola Bay, but it was abandoned at the end of two years.

In 1562, Jean Ribault, with a small expedition of French Huguenots, arrived at the St. Johns River, east of present-day Jacksonville, and claimed Florida for France. Another group of French Huguenot settlers built Ft. Caroline, 5 mi (8 km) upriver, two years later. In the summer of 1565, Ribault brought in naval reinforcements, prepared to defend the French claim against the Spaniards, who had sent Pedro Menéndez de Avilés to find and oust the intruders. Menéndez selected St. Augustine as a base, landing on 28 August, and with the aid of a storm withstood the French effort to destroy him. He then marched overland to take Ft. Caroline by surprise, killing most of the occupants and later captured Ribault and his shipwrecked men, most of whom he slaughtered. St. Augustine, the first permanent European settlement in the US, served primarily, under Spanish rule, as a military outpost, maintained to protect the wealth of New Spain. The Spanish established a settlement at Pensacola in 1698, but it too remained only a small frontier garrison town. In 1763, when Spain ceded Florida to England in exchange for Cuba, about 3,000 Spaniards departed from St. Augusta and 800 from Pensacola, leaving Florida to the Seminole.

British Florida reached from the Atlantic to the Mississippi River and became two colonies, East and West Florida. Settlers established farms and plantations, traded with the Indians, and moved steadily toward economic and political self-sufficiency. These settlers did not join the American Revolution, but Florida was affected by the war nonetheless, as thousands of Loyalists poured into East Florida. In 1781, Spain attacked and captured Pensacola. Two years later, Britain ceded both Floridas back to Spain, whereupon most of the Loyalists left for the West Indies.

The second Spanish era was only nominally Spanish. English influence remained strong, and US penetration increased. Florida west of the Perdido River was taken over by the US in 1810, as part of the Louisiana Purchase (1803). Meanwhile, renegade whites, runaway slaves, pirates, and political adventures operated almost at will.

Present-day Florida was ceded to the US in 1821, in settlement of $5 million in claims by US citizens against the Spanish government. At this time, General Andrew Jackson who three years earlier had led a punitive expedition against the Seminole and their British allies came back to Florida as military governor. His main tasks were to receive the territory for the US and to set up a civilian administration, which took office in 1822. William P. DuVal of Kentucky was named territorial governor, and a legislative council was subsequently elected. The new council met first in Pensacola and in St. Augustine, and then, in 1824, in the newly selected capital of Tallahassee, located in the wilderness of north-central Florida, from which the Indians had just been removed. Middle Florida, as it was called, rapidly became an area of slaveowning cotton plantations and was for several decades the fastest-growing part of the territory. The war to remove the Seminole halted the advance of frontier settlement, however, and the Panic of 1837 bankrupted the territorial government and the three banks whose notes it had guaranteed. Floridians drew up a state constitution at St. Joseph in 1838–39 but, being proslavery, had to wait until 1845 to enter the Union paired with the free state of Iowa.

In 1861, Florida, with only 140,000 people, about 40% of them blacks (mostly slaves), only 400 mi (644 km) of railroad, and no manufacturing, seceded from the Union and joined the Confederacy. Some 15,000 whites (one-third of whom died) served in the Confederate army, and 1,200 whites and almost as many blacks joined the Union army. Bitterness and some violence accompanied the Republican Reconstruction government in 1868–76. The conservative Bourbon Democrats then governed for the rest of the century. They encouraged railroad building and other forms of business, and they kept taxes low by limiting government services. Cotton production never recovered to prewar levels, but cattle raising, citrus and vegetable cultivation, forestry, phosphate mining, and, by late in the century, a growing tourist industry took up the slack.

The Spanish-American War in 1898, during which Tampa became the port of embarkation for an expedition to Cuba, stimulated the economy and advertised the state nationwide, not always favorably. Naval activity at Key West and Pensacola became feverish. Lakeland, Miami, Jacksonville, and Fernandina were briefly the sites of training camps.

In 1904, Napoleon Bonaparte Broward was elected governor on a moderately populist platform, which included a program to drain the Everglades lands which the state had received under the Swamp and Overflowed Lands Act of 1850. Drainage did lower water levels, and settlements grew around Lake Okeechobee, developments whose full environmental impact was recognized only much later. By the time Broward took office, Jacksonville had become the state's largest city, with Pensacola and Tampa not far behind, and Key West had dropped from first to fourth. During World War I, more than 42,030 Floridians were in uniform.

Boom, bust, and depression characterized the 1920s. Feverish land speculation brought hundreds of thousands of people to Florida in the first half of the decade. Cresting in 1925, the boom was already over in 1926, when a devastating hurricane struck Miami, burying all hope of recovery. Yet population jumped by more than 50% during the decade, and Miami rose from 4th to 2nd place among Florida cities. Florida's choice of Republican Herbert Hoover over Al Smith in the 1928 presidential election reflected the Protestant and prohibitionist attitudes of most of the state voters at that time.

The 1930s were marked first by economic depression, then by recovery, new enterprise, and rapidly growing government activity. Bank and business failures, as well as defaults on city and county bond issues and on mortgage payments, produced growing economic distress. The state joined the federal government in assuming responsibility for relief and recovery. The legalization of parimutuel betting in 1931 created a new industry and a new tax source. The state's first paper mill opened in the same year, revolutionizing the forest industry. Private universities in Miami, Tampa, and Jacksonville were started during the Depression years.

The 1940s opened with recovery and optimism, arising from the stimulus of production for World War II, production that began well before the actual entry of the US into the war. New army and navy installations and training programs brought business growth. After 1941, Florida seemed to become a vast military training school. The number of army and navy airfield flying schools increased from five to 45. Tourist facilities in all major cities became barracks, mess halls, and classrooms, with 70,000 rooms in Miami Beach alone being used to house troops in 1942. Families of thousands of trainees visited the state. Florida was on the eve of another boom.

First discovered but nearly last to be developed, Florida reached a rank of 27th in population only in 1940. Migration brought Florida's ranking to fourth in 1990, increasing its population to more than 12.8 million people. In 1986, Florida absorbed 1,000 arrivals a day. Until the early 1980s, many of those migrants were 65 years of age or over, swelling the proportion of senior citizens in Florida to 50% above the national average. In the mid-1980s, however, the preponderance of newcomers was somewhat younger, 25 to 44 years old. With an influx of younger residents, of family-rearing age, schools became overcrowded by the 1990s.

Newcomers came in search of opportunities provided by Florida's growing and diversifying economy. Whereas the state once depended on the three industries (tourism, citrus, and construction) for its survival, military spending increased the presence of high tech, banking, and service industries. In 1990, only 10% of Florida workers held jobs in the manufacturing industry, in contrast to 19% of the labor force nationwide.

The management of growth in Florida dominated state politics through the second half of the century and promised to remain at the fore at least through the early 2000s. The state's low taxes combined with its rapid population growth to overburden the infrastructure. Roads, water supply, and sewer systems were pushed beyond capacity by the 1990s, posing real environmental threats. Development, both residential and commercial, eroded the state's natural beauty.

Efforts to reapportion Florida's 23 congressional districts and the state legislature's 40 senate and 120 house seats were complicated by battles between blacks (holding steady at 14% of the population in 1999) and Hispanics over the number and character of minority districts. The absence of black state congressmen or senators, and the paucity of black officials at the state and local levels provoked demands for the creation of "safe districts" for blacks that thereby ensure their representation. Likewise Hispanics, whose numbers grew from 8.8% of the state population in 1980 to 14% by 1999, called for Hispanic districts. However, in the 1990s, Florida's third congressional district, which had a majority of black voters, was declared unconstitutional and ordered redrawn by the US Supreme Court.

Racial and ethnic relations were another central issue. Tensions between blacks and Hispanics led to violence in 1989 when a Hispanic police officer shot and killed a black motorcyclist who was speeding and driving erratically. Riots broke out in the predominantly black Overton section of Miami and continued for three days.

Miami was again the site of rioting in late April 2000, as some Cuban-Americans took to the streets to protest the federal government's handling of the custody case of six-year-old Cuban refugee Elian Gonzalez. The child was the center of an international debacle after he was rescued offshore in November 1999; a fisherman found the boy clinging to a raft after the boat in which he and his mother escaped Cuba had capsized. His mother dead, Miami relatives claimed and cared for the boy while federal officials, including the US Attorney General, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and several courts, grappled with the problem of returning him to his Cuban father. The incident, which ended when the boy arrived back in Havana, remained a point of protest for Miami's Cuban-American community, among whom the prevailing sentiment was that, for political reasons, the child should have remained in the states.

The state's crime level received nationwide attention in the early 1990s when a series of incidents claimed the lives of several foreign tourists. For most of the decade Florida held the unwelcome distinction of leading the nation in violent crime. Numbers began to decline, and in 1998, the rate of violent crime per 100,000 residents dropped below 1,000 (to 939), according to the FBI. (That year New Mexico recorded 955 violent crimes per 100,000 residents, making it the most violent state in the nation.)

Tropical storms and hurricanes periodically strike Florida. In August 1992, Hurricane Andrew caused $26.5 billion in damages in south Florida, primarily in and around Homestead. In October 1995, Hurricane Opal wrought an estimated $3 billion in damage in the Panhandle, destroying marinas and shipyards. In the late 1990s wildfires plagued the state. Fires during the summer of 1998 burned 500,000 acres and caused $400 million in damage. In spring 1999, flames ravaged 90,000 acres of the Everglades, where dry sawgrass caught fire and winds fueled the blaze. Stricken by drought, fires charred hundreds of thousands more acres the summer of 2000, with Volusia County, near Daytona, particularly hard hit.

In December 1998 Floridians mourned the death of Governor Lawton Chiles; the Democrat first rose to prominence in 1970 when he made a 1,000-mi (1,600-km) trek through the state as he successfully campaigned for the US Senate, earning him the nickname "Walkin' Lawton."

Florida became the center of national and international attention in the 7 November 2000 US presidential election. The race between Democratic Vice-President Al Gore and Republican challenger George W. Bush was extremely close, and on election night, Florida's 25 electoral college votes became the ones that would decide the election. In the early morning hours of 8 November, Gore called Bush to concede the election, but he subsequently retracted his concession when it became apparent that the vote was in question. Because the vote was so close, Florida's election officials began a mandatory recount In addition to the automatic recount, an investigation was launched into voting irregularities denying rights to minority voters.

Democrats requested hand recounts in four counties, but Bush called for an order banning them. The Florida Supreme Court intervened in the certification process run by the Florida Secretary of State, permitting hand recounts in Broward and Palm Beach counties and blocking certification until an appeal by Gore was heard. The United States 11th Circuit Court of Appeals refused Bush's request that it stop the hand recounts, and Miami-Dade county officials began a manual recount. Bush's lead was gradually reduced from the 537 votes certified on 26 November to 154 by adding votes from partial recounts in Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties. When the Florida Supreme Court ordered a manual recount of 43,432 "under votes" from as many as 62 counties, the Bush campaign appealed to the United States Supreme Court to stop any vote recounts in Florida. On 9 December 2000, the US Supreme Court, divided 5–4, stepped in to order a stay of the Florida Supreme Court-ordered manual recounts, and on 12 December, it decided, in Bush v. Gore, that the Florida Supreme Court had erred in its decision to order manual vote recounts. On 13 December, Gore conceded the election to Bush, who became the nation's 43rd president when the electoral college votes cast on 18 December 2000 were tallied, including Florida's 25 votes.