Orlando sits in the balmy, sun-drenched heart of central Florida. It’s obviously most famous for Walt Disney World and a host of other major tourist attractions, but the city’s history stretches back centuries before the arrival of the theme parks. Here’s a brief overview of Orlando’s past.
Pre-Civil War Orlando
The region around Orlando was sparsely populated in the colonial period, both before and after the arrival of Europeans. The first European explorers came to the area in 1536 and were greeted by small bands of Native Americans, primarily from the Creek tribe. Orlando (initially known as Jernigan after the first European to permanently settle there) remained a very rural region throughout the early 19th century. The vicious Seminole Wars ravaged the area in the 1830s and 1840s, and violence between Native Americans and settlers was common.The largest European settlement of note was Fort Gatlin, located just south of modern downtown Orlando.
Renamed Orlando in 1857, the settlement was now the center of Orange County. It was still an isolated and very small community up to the time of the Civil War, and the Union blockade of Florida did it no favors. The subsequent Reconstruction brought an enormous increase in population to Orlando, though.
Rise And Fall Of Citrus
The final decades of the 19th century saw Orange County earn its name as the area was rapidly developed as Florida’s largest citrus-growing region. The agricultural boom led to Orlando being incorporated as a town in 1875 and a city in 1885. The county’s fortunes took a turn for the worse in the Great Freeze of 1894-1895. For two years running, exceptional freezing temperatures crippled citrus crops and bankrupted most of the area’s independent farmers.
Most of Florida’s citrus production was gathered up into vast conglomerations controlled by a few wealthy “citrus barons” following the Freeze. Fearing more unpredictable weather, they choose to refocus their operations further south. This sent Orlando and Orange County into a long decline.
Orlando In The 20th Century: Rise Of The Mouse
Orlando grew more prosperous in the 1920s when its pleasant climate made it popular as a resort destination. Military and aerospace development in WWII and decades following it added much-needed jobs to the community and fostered further growth, with Martin Marietta opening a major aircraft plant in Orlando in 1956. Military operations slowed down considerably in the mid-60s.
Of course, by that time Disney had arrived in force. Walt Disney formally announced his plans for Disney World in 1965, setting Orlando on a path towards its current state as one of the world’s preeminent tourist destinations. The influx of tourists has kept Orlando’s economy consistently strong, and today major manufacturing and research companies provide employment alongside the region’s seven major theme parks.
While Orlando’s name is forever going to be associated with that of Walt Disney, the city did not spring into being on the day ground was broken at Disney World. It has a long and rich history stretching back into the 19th century, and residents are justifiably proud of the region’s sometimes-tumultuous past.
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