Palm Beach County is the second largest county in the state of Florida in total area, behind Monroe County. It also ranks second in land area, with the county being slightly smaller than Collier County. Situated in the Miami metropolitan area and South Florida, Palm Beach County's modern-day boundaries were established in 1963 – from the Atlantic Ocean westward to Hendry County and from the village of Tequesta southward to the Hillsboro Canal at the city limits of Boca Raton. The largest city and county seat is West Palm Beach. Other large cities include Boca Raton, Boynton Beach, Delray Beach, Wellington, and Jupiter. With 1,356,545 residents, Palm Beach County ranks as third in population in the state of Florida, and twenty-eighth most populous in the United States, as of the 2010 Census.
Named after one of its oldest settlements, Palm Beach, the county was established in 1909, after being split from Miami-Dade County. The area had been increasing in population since the late 19th century, with the incorporation of West Palm Beach in 1894 and after Henry Flagler extended the Florida East Coast Railway and built the Royal Poinciana Hotel, The Breakers, and Whitehall. In 1928, the Okeechobee hurricane struck West Palm Beach and caused thousands of deaths. Since then, a number of other tropical cyclones have impacted the area. More recently, the county acquired national attention during the 2000 presidential election, when a controversial recount occurred. As of 2004, Palm Beach County is Florida's wealthiest county, with a per capita personal income of $44,518.
Approximately 12,000 years ago, Native Americans began migrating into Florida. The tribes settling in modern day Palm Beach County included the Ais', Calusas, Jaegas, Mayaimis, and Tequestas. An estimated 20,000 Native Americans lived in South Florida when the Spanish arrived. Their population diminished significantly by the 18th century, due to warfare, enslavement, and diseases from Europe. Portions of the Second Seminole War occurred in Palm Beach County, including the Battle of Jupiter Inlet in 1838. The oldest surviving structure, the Jupiter Lighthouse, was built in 1860, after receiving authorization to the land from President Franklin Pierce in 1854.
Among the first non-Native American residents in Palm Beach County were African Americans, many of whom were former slaves or immediate descendants of former slaves who had escaped to the State of Florida from slave plantations located in Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina. Runaway African slaves started coming to what was then named Spanish Florida in the late 17th century and they found refuge among the Seminole Native Americans.
Henry Flagler, who made his home in Palm Beach, was instrumental in the county's development in the early 20th century with the extension of the Florida East Coast Railway through the county from Jacksonville to Key West.
Palm Beach County was created in 1909. It was named for its first settled community, Palm Beach, in turn named for the palm trees and beaches in the area. The County was carved out of what was then the northern portion of Dade County, comprising part of the areas now occupied by Okeechobee and Broward counties, part of Martin and all of Palm Beach county, initially including all of Lake Okeechobee. The southernmost part of Palm Beach County was separated to create the northern portion of Broward County in 1915, the northwestern portion became part of Okeechobee County 1917 and southern Martin County was created from northernmost Palm Beach County in 1925.
Early on September 17, 1928, the Okeechobee hurricane made landfall near West Palm Beach and crossed Lake Okeechobee shortly thereafter. Storm surge left severe damage in the city of Palm Beach, and a death toll of 26. In West Palm Beach, more than 1,711 homes were destroyed. Further inland, wind-driven storm surge in Lake Okeechobee inundated adjacent communities, particularly Belle Glade, Pahokee, and South Bay. Hundreds of square miles were flooded, including some areas with up to of water. Numerous houses were swept away and damaged after crashing into other obstacles. Flood waters did not completely subside for several weeks. At least 2,500 deaths occurred, many of whom were black migrant farmers. Damage in South Florida totaled approximately $25 million (1928 USD). In response to the storm, the Herbert Hoover Dike was constructed to prevent a similar disaster.
Lake Okeechobee had previously overflown in 1926 during the Miami hurricane, though flooding was primarily in Moore Haven in Glades County. As a result of both the Okeechobee and Miami hurricanes, Palm Beach County, along with the rest of South Florida, began suffering economic turmoil and pushed the region into the Great Depression, even before the Wall Street Crash of 1929. Housing prices dropped dramatically in the county, as well as in the rest of the country.
The Palm Beach International Airport, then known as Morrison's Field, opened in 1936. After the United States entered World War II, it was converted to an Air Force Base in 1942. During the war, thousands of servicemen arrived in Palm Beach County for training and supporting the war effort. Following the conclusion of World War II, a number of veterans returned to the area for work, vacation, or retirement. The base was closed and became a commercial airport again in 1962. Migration to the county by workers, tourists, and retirees continued into the 21st century.
Early on August 28, 1949, a Category 4 hurricane struck West Palm Beach with maximum sustained winds of 150 mph (240 km/h). Sand and debris swept across roads in Palm Beach. Strong winds shattered windows at a car dealership in West Palm Beach and toppled two radio towers, one in Belle Glade and the other in Lake Worth. At the Palm Beach Air Force Base, the storm left at least $1 million (1949 USD) in damage.
The area's first television station, WIRK-TV Channel 21, signed on September 13, 1953. It went off the air less than three years later.
About three-quarters of Lake Okeechobee was removed from Palm Beach County in 1963 and divided up among Glades, Hendry, Martin and Okeechobee counties. This was the final change to the county's boundaries.
Hurricane David struck near West Palm Beach late on September 3, 1979, with sustained winds of 100 mph (155 km/h); this was the most recent hurricane landfall in Palm Beach County. The storm's winds shattered windows in stores near the coast and caused property damage, including blowing the frame off the Palm Beach Jai Alai and downing the 186-foot (57-m) WJNO AM radio tower in West Palm Beach into the Intracoastal Waterway. A few roofs were torn off, and numerous buildings were flooded from over 6 inches (150 mm) of rainfall. Damage in the county reached $30 million (1979 USD), most of which was incurred to agriculture.
By 2000, the population of Palm Beach County exceeded 1 million.
The county was the center of controversy during the presidential election. The "butterfly ballot" led to an unexpectedly large number of votes for Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan, rather than for Democrat Al Gore or Republican George W. Bush. Due to the voting tally in Palm Beach County, Bush won the electoral votes for the state of Florida by a margin of 537 out of 5.8 million votes. This victory in turn, gave him the victory in the national election. See the Elections section for more information.