Waves of diverse people settled the area for over 12,000 years, each wave eager to utilize the lush land to fill their needs. A rich prehistory of Paleo, Cades Pond and Alachua people were followed by the historic Potano Indians, Spanish adventurers, Seminole Indians and finally Americans pushing down from the north. The wilderness, now called Paynes Prairie, has always proved an irresistible lure to the explorer and the adventurer. Hunter/gatherers were followed by hunter/farmers both Native American and European. They were followed by cotton farmers, citrus farmers and then cattlemen.
Early naturalist William Bartram provided the first detailed description of the flora and fauna of the region along with commentary about the native inhabitants. The Florida Park Service uses Bartram's Travels for insight.
Heavy rains began to flood the prairie basin in 1871 and by 1873 the marsh was referred to as Alachua Lake. Steam-powered boats transported cotton, oranges, produce, lumber and passengers across the lake.
Paynes Prairie was designated by the National Park Service as a National Natural Landmark for its exceptional value as an illustration of the nation's natural heritage, contributing to a better understanding of the environment. More than 800 species of plants and more than 400 species of vertebrates are identified here.
Ranching has played an important role for more than 400 years. At one time Paynes Prairie was the largest Spanish cattle ranch in Florida. Historically the lush green plain and fertile soil of the prairie has attracted ranching.