While the Native American presence in the area dates back at least four millenia, the first Europeans to arrive in present-day Jacksonville were the French, who founded Fort Caroline in 1564. The Spanish promptly sent an expedition under Pedro Menendez to prevent French activity on the mainland; he wiped out Fort Caroline and went on to found St. Augustine in 1565.
The area was eventually settled by English who drifted down from Georgia. They set up shop around a shallow ford across the St. Johns River, calling the place “Cowford.” When Florida was ceded to the U.S. in 1819, Andrew Jackson became the first provisional governor and the town’s name was changed to Jacksonville. Fernandina, a protected deepwater port on Amelia Island at the mouth of the St. Johns River, was much more important than Jacksonville; home to pirates and gunrunners, President Monroe called it a “festering fleshpot,” filled with rich merchants and bordellos. Historic Fernandina still has gracious mansions in its “Silk Stocking District.”
During the Civil War, Jacksonville was blockaded by the Union whose troops held Fort Clinch. As a railhead and port, Jacksonville gradually superseded Fernandina and attracted some tourism until successive outbreaks of yellow fever and the development of South Florida convinced visitors to move on.
In the early 1900s, Jacksonville was home to more than 30 movie studios. At that time, movie makers needed natural sunlight—and lots of it—to make films. The industry was centered in New York and New Jersey, and its gray, overcast winters meant a virtual shut-down for months at a time. The Jacksonville studios churned out hundreds of silent films until filmmakers discovered Southern California and Hollywood was born.
The establishment of Mayport Naval Station during World War II began the city’s modern growth, and it flourished as a military, shipping and insurance hub, gradually diversifying into light industry in the 1980s and ‘90s.
Jacksonville is often cited as the “largest city in the U.S.,” and it is—in land area. In the 1968, the city and county governments merged so that the land area of Jacksonville is now more than 800 square miles. However, the population of the entire metro area is around 850,000, placing it well behind South Florida (Miami-Ft. Lauderdale-Palm Beach), Tampa Bay and Orlando.