Ocala is located near what is thought to have been the site of Ocale or Ocali, a major Timucua village and chiefdom during the 16th century. The modern city takes its name from the historical village, the name of which is believed to mean "Big Hammock" in the Timucua language. Hernando de Soto passed through Ocale during his famous expedition through what is today the southeastern United States in 1539. Ocale is not mentioned in any later accounts; it appears to have been abandoned in the wake of de Soto's attack.
In 1827 the U.S. military outpost of Fort King was established near the present site of Ocala as a buffer between Seminoles and white settlers. The fort saw service during the Second Seminole War and later acted as the first courthouse for Marion County in 1844. Fort King was the genesis of the modern city of Ocala, which was established in 1846. Greater Ocala is known as the "Kingdom of the Sun". Rail service reached Ocala in June 1881, encouraging economic development. Two years later, much of the Ocala downtown area was destroyed by fire on Thanksgiving Day, 1883. Buildings were rebuilt with brick, granite and steel rather than lumber. By 1888, Ocala was known state-wide as "The Brick City".
In December 1890, the Farmers' Alliance and Industrial Union, a forerunner of the Populist Party, held its national convention in Ocala. At the convention, the Alliance adopted a platform that would become known as the "Ocala Demands". This platform included abolition of national banks, low interest government loans, free and unlimited coinage of silver, reclamation of excess railroad lands by the government, a graduated income tax, and direct election of United States senators. Most of the "Ocala Demands" were to become part of the Populist Party platform.
Ocala was an important center of citrus production until the Great Freeze of 1894–1895.
In the twentieth century, Ocala increased in prominence as a center for tourism in Florida. Important attractions included the Silver Springs Nature Theme Park, Wild Waters water park, and the now-defunct Western-themed Six Gun Territory, all in nearby Silver Springs, Florida. (See Six Gun Territory Gallery.) Silver Springs is a nature theme park that surrounds the headwaters of the Silver River, the largest artesian spring formation in the world.
The first thoroughbred horse farm in Florida was created by Carl G. Rose in 1943. Earlier, in 1916, Rose had come to Florida from Indiana to oversee the first asphalt road ever constructed in the state. When he ran into problems with the asphalt, he improvised and experimented with one of Florida's abundant resources: limestone. He also realized that the limestone would be a good source of nutrition for raising strong horses, so he took a gamble in 1943 and bought acreage along State Highway 200 at $10 per acre, which became Rosemere Farm. The next year one of his horses, Gornil, won at Miami's Tropical Park, making him the first Florida-raised thoroughbred to win a Florida race. Close on Rose's heels, the entrepreneur Bonnie Heath soon set up his own thoroughbred horse farm and produced the state's first Kentucky Derby winner. Both of these men have prominent Highways named after them in Ocala. Bonnie Heath Farm is now owned and operated by his son Bonnie Heath, III, and his wife Kim. Rosemere Farm was sold long ago, and Ocala's Paddock Mall and Central Florida College were built on the site.
In 1956, the Ocala area Thoroughbred industry received a boost when Needles became the first Florida-bred to win the Kentucky Derby. In 1978, Marion County-bred and -raised Affirmed won the Triple Crown. Today, Marion County is one of the major thoroughbred centers of the world, with over 1,200 horse farms in total and about 900 thoroughbred farms totaling some . Ocala is well known as the horse capital of the world, one of only five cities (four in the USA and one in France) permitted under Chamber of Commerce guidelines to use this title based on annual revenue produced by the horse industry. There are some 44,000 jobs created by the breeding, training and related support brought about by the equine industry that generates over $2.2 billion in annual revenue. Ocala and "Postime Farms" also play host to one of the largest horse shows in the country. H.I.T.S or "Horses in the Sun" is a Dressage/Jumper event lasting about two months and brings with it some 6 to 7 million dollars to the local Marion county economy each year. There are over 100 different breeds aside from thoroughbreds including the Tennessee Walker, Paso Fino, Morgans, SaddleBreds, Drafts, and the American Quarter Horse. Other equine events in the area include cowboy mounted shooting by the Florida Outlaws, as well as endurance rides, barrel races, "extreme" cowboy events, jumper shows, trick shows, parades, draft pulls, rodeo events, and more.
Many historic homes are preserved in Ocala's large residential Historic District, established in 1984. A focus of this district is East Fort King Street, featuring many excellent examples of Victorian architecture. Ocala structures on the National Register of Historic Places include the Coca Cola Building, the E. C. Smith House, East Hall, the Marion Hotel, Mount Zion A.M.E. Church, the Ritz Historic Inn, and Union Train Station.