Maritime History of Florida

In 1763, under the Treaty of Paris, Spain gave Britain control of Florida in exchange for Havana, Cuba, which the British had captured during the Seven Years’ War (1756 through 1763). That same year, the British built a fort overlooking the entrance to Pensacola Bay. Spain captured Pensacola in 1781 and regained control of the rest of Florida in 1783, when Britain gave Florida to Spain in exchange for the Bahamas and Gibraltar. Around 1797, Spain built two forts at Pensacola Bay in the vicinity of the earlier British fort. Little physical evidence of these forts remains but what does remain is preserved at Gulf Islands National Seashore.

Although Britain’s control of Florida was brief, its effect on the economy and settlement was substantial. As the British population increased and slaves were brought in, colonial plantations and other industries sprouted and flourished, exporting their products to other British colonies and trading illegally with Spanish Louisiana and Mexico. This was made possible because surveyors mapped the landscape, land grants were given out, the first road was built and a packet system of shipping by rivers and along the coasts was introduced. This economic prosperity and maritime trade continued after Britain ceded Florida to Spain, with exports to neighboring Gulf Coast and Eastern seaboard areas, the Northeast and as far away as Europe.

Spain ceded Florida to the United States as part of the Adams-Onis Treaty of 1819, and Florida became a U.S. Territory in 1821. Coastal trade with other markets continued to expand and towns like Jacksonville, Pensacola, and Tampa became important ports. After becoming a U.S. Territory, the U.S. Government began building a series of lighthouses as aids to navigation along the coasts of Florida to mark dangerous headlands, shoals, bars, and reefs.

Bateria San Antonio at Fort Barrancas, Florida

Bateria San Antonio at Fort Barrancas, Florida

The U.S. Navy has played a prominent role in Florida’s maritime history. In the 1820s, the U.S. Navy was called upon to protect ships off Florida’s coasts from pirates that plagued merchant ships in the Caribbean. One of the patrol ships was the USS Alligator lost near Islamorada while escorting a merchant convoy. In 1826, construction began on the Pensacola Navy Yard and four forts to defend it. What remains of Fort Pickens, Fort Barrancas and Fort McRee, which were built overlooking Pensacola Bay in the vicinity of the earlier British and Spanish forts, is preserved today within Gulf Islands National Seashore. Near the end of the 19th century, and as a result of the Spanish-American War, Tampa and other Florida ports became staging areas for tens of thousands of U.S. troops and supplies headed to Cuba. With the advent of manned controlled flight and the building of aircraft carriers and seaplanes, an aviation training station was established by the U.S. Navy at Pensacola in 1913 and another in Jacksonville in 1940.

Following statehood in 1845, Florida’s economy became stronger and the principal ports shipped vast quantities of citrus, cotton, lumber and other products to the Atlantic states, the Caribbean and Europe. The Federal government began construction of coastal forts including Fort Taylor in Key West and Fort Jefferson on Garden Key in the Dry Tortugas to better control navigation through the Florida Straits. Although Fort Jefferson never was finished, construction continued for 30 years and vast quantities of bricks were shipped to the key in flat-bottomed steamboats like that found at the Bird Key wreck, which was lost while transporting bricks.

Seceding from the Union in 1861, Florida joined the Confederacy. During the Civil War, Florida’s ports were blockaded by the Union and blockade runners delivered supplies needed by the Confederacy in exchange for Florida products. Although there were some vessel casualties on both sides, the major naval battles took place in states north of Florida. One unfortunate casualty in Florida waters was the Union transport ship Maple Leaf that struck a Confederate mine.

After the Civil War, tenant farmers and sharecroppers took over plantation lands, and agriculture, cattle ranching, lumber, manufacturing, and extractive industries like phosphate mining became important, prompting improvements in transportation. Railroads expanded across the state connecting the ports and the interior, and steamboats like the City of Hawkinsville, SS Tarpon, and SS Copenhagen began providing regular passenger and freight service on inland waterways like the St. Johns River and ocean service to international destinations. Tourism flourished with steamboat tours and hotels near rail lines.

During the late 19th century, the Federal government and local port authorities made improvements to channels and harbors and charted and mapped Florida’s waters. These improvements, along with technological advances in navigation and shipbuilding during the 20th century, helped propel Florida’s ports to global prominence in trade and commerce and the cruise industry and marine recreation. Florida may well hold the record for the number of pleasure boats used by sports fishermen, jet skiers, wind-surfers, power boaters, sail boaters, water-skiers and scuba divers.


Compiled and edited by Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated February 2018.

Source:  National Park Service

Also See: 

Florida Legends

St. Augustine, Florida – Oldest U.S. City


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