Archeological investigation has revealed that the area was inhabited by varying cultures of indigenous peoples from as early as 6500 B.C., and there were two lengthy periods of occupation. The second lasted through 500 A.D. In early historic times, the Timucua inhabited the area.
Ocala is located near what is thought to have been the site of Ocale or Ocali, a major Timucua village and chiefdom recorded in 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. The Spanish Hernando de Soto's expedition recorded Ocale in 1539 during his exploration through what is today the southeastern United States. Ocale is not mentioned in later Spanish accounts; it appears to have been abandoned in the wake of de Soto's attack.
In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Creek people and other Native Americans, and free and fugitive African Americans sought refuge in Florida. The Seminole people formed. After foreign colonial rule shifted between Spain and Great Britain and back again, in 1821 the United States acquired the territory of Florida. After warfare to the north, in 1827 the U.S. Army built Fort King near the present site of Ocala as a buffer between the Seminole, who had long occupied the area, and white settlers moving into the region. The fort was an important base during the Second Seminole War and later served in 1844 as the first courthouse for Marion County.
The modern city of Ocala, which was established in 1846, developed around the fort site. Greater Ocala is known as the "Kingdom of the Sun". Plantations and other agricultural development dependent on slave labor were prevalent in the region. Ocala was an important center of citrus production until the Great Freeze of 1894–1895.
Rail service reached Ocala in June 1881, encouraging economic development with greater access to markets for produce. Two years later, much of the Ocala downtown area was destroyed by fire on Thanksgiving Day, 1883. The city encouraged rebuilding 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, promoting 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.
20th century establishment as horse capital
The first thoroughbred horse farm in Florida was developed in 1943 by Carl G. Rose. He had come to Florida in 1916 from Indiana to oversee construction of the first asphalt road in the state. When he ran into problems with the asphalt, he improvised and experimented with limestone, an abundant resource in the state. He also realized that the limestone would support good pasture for raising strong horses. For instance, limestone nurtures the Bluegrass Region of Kentucky, long a center of thoroughbred horse farms. In 1943, Rose took a gamble 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, becoming 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. He produced the state's first winner of the Kentucky Derby. Highways were named in Ocala after each of these men. Bonnie Heath Farm is now owned and operated by Bonnie Heath, III, and his wife Kim. Rosemere Farm was sold long ago. The large site has been redeveloped as the retail center, Paddock Mall, and College of Central Florida.
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. It has more than 1,200 horse farms, including about 900 thoroughbred farms, totaling some . Ocala is well known as a "horse capital of the world."
Ocala is 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. 44,000 jobs are created by the breeding, training and related support of the local equine industry, which generates over $2.2 billion in annual revenue. "Postime Farms" and Ocala serve as host to one of the largest horse shows in the country: H.I.T.S or "Horses in the Sun." It is a Dressage/Jumper event lasting about two months; it generates some 6 to 7 million dollars to the local Marion County economy each year. The show features classes with more than 100 different breeds, including the Tennessee Walker, Paso Fino, Morgan horse, SaddleBred, Drafthorse, 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.
Tourist and retirement center
Since the late twentieth century, Ocala has increased in prominence as a destination 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 (Florida), the largest artesian spring formation in the world.
Ocala Historic District
Many historic homes are preserved in Ocala's large residential Historic District, designated in 1984. East Fort King Street features many excellent examples of Victorian architecture. Ocala structures listed 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.