The area in which the city of Fort Lauderdale would later be founded was inhabited for more than two thousand years by the Tequesta Indians. Contact with Spanish explorers in the 16th century proved disastrous for the Tequesta, as the Europeans unwittingly brought with them diseases, such as smallpox, to which the native populations possessed no resistance. For the Tequesta, disease, coupled with continuing conflict with their Calusa neighbors, contributed greatly to their decline over the next two centuries. By 1763, there were only a few Tequesta left in Florida, and most of them were evacuated to Cuba when the Spanish ceded Florida to the British in 1763, under the terms of the Treaty of Paris (1763), which ended the Seven Years' War. Although control of the area changed between Spain, United Kingdom, the United States, and the Confederate States of America, it remained largely undeveloped until the 20th century.
The Fort Lauderdale area was known as the "New River Settlement" before the 20th century. In the 1830s there were approximately 70 settlers living along the New River. William Cooley, the local Justice of the Peace, was a farmer and wrecker, who traded with the Seminole Indians. On January 6, 1836, while Cooley was leading an attempt to salvage a wrecked ship, a band of Seminoles attacked his farm, killing his wife and children, and the children's tutor. The other farms in the settlement were not attacked, but all the white residents in the area abandoned the settlement, fleeing first to the Cape Florida Lighthouse on Key Biscayne, and then to Key West.
The first United States stockade named Fort Lauderdale was built in 1838, and subsequently was a site of fighting during the Second Seminole War. The fort was abandoned in 1842, after the end of the war, and the area remained virtually unpopulated until the 1890s. It was not until Frank Stranahan arrived in the area in 1893 to operate a ferry across the New River, and the Florida East Coast Railroad's completion of a route through the area in 1896, that any organized development began. The city was incorporated in 1911, and in 1915 was designated the county seat of newly formed Broward County.
Fort Lauderdale's first major development began in the 1920s, during the Florida land boom. The 1926 Miami Hurricane and the Great Depression of the 1930s caused a great deal of economic dislocation. In July 1935, an African-American man named Rubin Stacy was accused of robbing a white woman at knife point. He was arrested and being transported to a Miami jail when police were run off the road by a mob. A group of 100 white men proceeded to hang Stacy from a tree near the scene of his alleged robbery. His body was riddled with some twenty bullets. The murder was subsequently used by the press in Nazi Germany to discredit U.S. critiques of its own persecution of Jews, Communists, and Catholics.
When World War II began, Fort Lauderdale became a major U.S. base, with a Naval Air Station to train pilots, radar operators, and fire control operators. A Coast Guard base at Port Everglades was also established.
Until July of 1961 only whites were allowed on Ft. Lauderdale beaches. There were no beaches for African-Americans in Broward County until 1954, when "the Colored Beach", today Dr. Von D. Mizell-Eula Johnson State Park, was opened in Dania Beach; however, no road was built to it until 1965. On July 4, 1961 African Americans started a series of protests, wade-ins, at beaches that were off-limits to them, to protest "the failure of the county to build a road to the Negro beach".:30 On July 11, 1962 a verdict by Ted Cabot went against the city's policy of racial segregation of public beaches, and Broward County beaches were desegregated in 1962.
Today, Fort Lauderdale is a major yachting center, one of the nation's largest tourist destinations, and the center of a metropolitan division with 1.8 million people.
After the war ended, service members returned to the area, spurring an enormous population explosion that dwarfed the 1920s boom. The 1960 Census counted 83,648 people in the city, about 230% of the 1950 figure. A 1967 report estimated that the city was approximately 85% developed, and the 1970 population figure was 139,590.
After 1970, as Fort Lauderdale became essentially built out, growth in the area shifted to suburbs to the west. As cities such as Coral Springs, Miramar, and Pembroke Pines experienced explosive growth, Fort Lauderdale's population stagnated, and the city actually shrank by almost 4,000 people between 1980, when the city had 153,279 people, and 1990, when the population was 149,377. A slight rebound brought the population back up to 152,397 at the 2000 census. Since 2000, Fort Lauderdale has gained slightly over 18,000 residents through annexation of seven neighborhoods in unincorporated Broward County.