As long ago as 10,000 B.C., Native Americans lived in the Red Hills of Tallahassee where they constructed temple mounds on the shores of what is now Lake Jackson (six of the mounds are preserved at Lake Jackson Mounds State Archaeological Site). Prior to the coming of the Europeans, Tallahassee had gained importance as a village of more than 30,000 people. The Apalachee tribes, who lived there from about 500 B.C. through the 1600s, were farmers. They developed impressive works of pottery, which were traded as far away as the Great Lakes. Remains of their communities can be observed at the city's Museum of Florida History. Although the Spanish explorer Narvaez visited the region in 1628, the first important exploration by Europeans took place in 1539, when Hernando de Soto and hundreds of Spanish settlers and soldiers came and held the first Christmas celebration in the New World. By 1607, almost wiped out by diseases brought by the Europeans, many of the Apalachee left, earning the area the name Tallahassee, or "abandoned fields." The Apalachee who remained accepted the Christian faith, and nearly twenty missions were established in what later became Leon County. In 1704, after almost a century of peaceful co-existence, both the Spanish and the Apalachee were forced to flee from the area after an attack by Colonel James Moore of South Carolina and his Creek allies.
In 1739, encouraged by the Spaniards, who wanted to restore their foothold in the area, members of the Seminole tribe established towns and nearby farms. Following a brief period of British rule, the Spaniards again took charge of the area in 1783. General Andrew Jackson, soon to become governor of West Florida, banished the Seminoles in 1818, who by then were demonstrating resistance to growing American influence.
The U.S. Territory of Florida was established in 1821, and the Territorial Legislature decided to found its new capital mid-way between St. Augustine and Pensacola, at the site of present-day Tallahassee. The area quickly gained a reputation as a rather lawless place where gunfire and knife duels were not uncommon. To bring law and order to the citizenry, the Tallahassee Police Department was established. Within a short time, a plantation economy developed around Tallahassee, which became part of the agricultural central region of Florida. Territorial Governor William P. DuVal laid out the city in 1824. By 1837, a rail line connected Tallahassee with its Gulf of Mexico port, St. Marks, and Tallahassee had become the commercial and social center for the region.
Early settlers faced difficult times with Indian attacks, a yellow fever epidemic, bank failures, hurricanes, and a terrible downtown fire. Despite these obstacles, by 1845 Tallahassee had become the capital of Florida, with government playing an ever more important role in the city's development.
In 1861, as part of the Confederacy, Florida seceded from the Union and Tallahassee was one of the sites where important battles were fought. Defended only by old men and young boys, the city was able to stave off a Union attack in 1865 at the Battle of Natural Bridge, the only Confederate capital east of the Mississippi to avoid capture.
Union leader Edward M. McCook took over governance of the city in 1865, and on May 20th read the Emancipation Proclamation freeing the slaves. While some African Americans moved to the city, most remained in rural areas working as tenant farmers.
Education began to attain prominence in Tallahassee around the mid-nineteenth century. In 1854, a school for boys was founded which later became Florida State University. The Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University was founded in 1884, the state's first institution for African Americans.
Wealthy Northerners discovered the area in the 1870s and 1880s, and former cotton estates were bought up and turned into hunting retreats. Prompted by the concerns of plantation owners over the potential loss of the native quail population, Tall Timber Research Station was established in the 1920s, and soon became an international groundbreaker in the study of ecological issues. In 1929 Dale Mabry Air Field opened, and commercial aviation was first brought to the area. During the 1930s nearly 100 new buildings were constructed in Tallahassee and Leon County as a result of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal programs.
By the twentieth century, government and education had replaced agriculture as the chief industries in Tallahassee. During the early part of the century, hotels and boarding houses developed to accommodate the growing number of legislators in the city. In an effort at beautification, hundreds of oaks and dogwood trees were planted. During the decade of the 1940s Tallahassee grew by nearly two-thirds, going from a population of nearly 32,000 people to a population of 52,000 people.
By the 1960s the dogwood had become the symbol of Tallahassee, and an annual parade and celebration called "Springtime Tallahassee" was initiated. The 1960s also saw the integration of the city's schools and the founding of Tallahassee Community College. A new Capital Complex was constructed and dedicated in 1978, and Tallahassee's new civic center opened in 1981.
Tallahassee's 1999 designation by the National Civic League as an All America City (AAC) was described by Mayor Scott Maddox as "clearly one of the most exciting things to ever happen to Tallahassee. . . . [It] verifies what we've known for so long—that we have one of the greatest cities in all of America." The Tallahassee Boys' Choir was one of the community projects that led to the AAC honor; the others were the Community Human Services Partnership, a joint human services funding program from the city, Leon County, and the United Way, and Kleman Plaza, a cornerstone of downtown development and revitalization.
Today's Tallahassee shares little of what brings many tourists to Florida, besides its weather. With no beaches, bays, oceanfront high-rises, cruise ship terminals, or theme parks, a slower pace seems to resound in Tallahassee, which is more a town of old-south charm than that of booming tourism.
Historical Information: Black Archives Research Center and Museum, Historic Carnegie Library/FAMU Campus, off Martin Luther King Blvd. and Gamble St; telephone (850)599-3020