Indigenous peoples occupied this area for thousands of years before European encounter. Around AD 1200, the large and complex Mississippian culture had built earthwork mounds near Lake Jackson which survive today; they are preserved in the Lake Jackson Archaeological State Park.
The Spanish Empire established their first colonial settlement at St. Augustine. During the 17th century they established several missions in Apalachee territory in order to procure food and labor to support their settlement, as well as to convert the natives to Roman Catholicism. The largest, Mission San Luis de Apalachee in Tallahassee, has been partially reconstructed by the state of Florida.
The expedition of Pánfilo de Narváez encountered the Apalachee people, although it did not reach the site of Tallahassee. Hernando de Soto and his mid-16th century expedition occupied the Apalachee town of Anhaica (at what is now Tallahassee) in the winter of 1538–1539. Based on archaeological excavations, this Anhaica site is now known to have been about 0.5 miles (800 m) east of the present Florida State Capitol. The De Soto encampment is believed to be the first place Christmas was celebrated in the continental United States although there is no historical documentation to back this claim.
The name "Tallahassee" is a Muskogean language word often translated as "old fields" or "old town". It was likely an expression of the Creek people who migrated from Georgia and Alabama to this region in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, under pressure from European-American encroachment on their territory. They found large areas of cleared land previously occupied by the Apalachee tribe. (The Creek and later refugees who joined them developed as the Seminole Indians of Florida.)
During the First Seminole War, General Andrew Jackson fought two separate skirmishes in and around Tallahassee, which was then Spanish territory. The first battle took place on November 12, 1817. After Chief Neamathla, of the village of Fowltown just west of present-day Tallahassee, refused Jackson's orders to relocate. Jackson entered the village, burnt it to the ground, and drove off its occupants. The Indians retaliated, killing 50 soldiers and civilians. Jackson reentered Florida in March 1818. According to Jackson's adjutant, Colonel Robert Butler, they "advanced on the Indian village called Tallahasse (sic) [where] two of the enemy were made prisoner."
Florida became an American territory in September 1821, in accordance with the Adams-Onís Treaty of 1819.
The first session of the Legislative Council of the Territory of Florida met on July 22, 1822 at Pensacola, the former capital of West Florida. Members from St. Augustine, the former capital of East Florida, traveled fifty-nine days by water to attend. The second session was in St. Augustine, and western delegates needed 28 days to travel perilously around the peninsula to reach St. Augustine. During this session, delegates decided to hold future meetings at a halfway point. Two appointed commissioners selected Tallahassee, at that point an Apalachee settlement (Anhaica) virtually abandoned after Andrew Jackson burned it in 1818, as a halfway point. In 1824 the third legislative session met there in a crude log building serving as the capitol.
From 1821 through 1845, during Florida's territorial period, the rough-hewn frontier capital gradually developed as a town. The Marquis de Lafayette, French hero of the American Revolution, returned to the United States in 1824 for a tour. The U.S. Congress voted to give him $200,000 (the same amount he had given the colonies in 1778), US citizenship, and the Lafayette Land Grant, 36 square miles (93 km2) of land that today includes large portions of Tallahassee. In 1845 a Greek revival masonry structure was erected as the Capitol building in time for statehood. Now known as the "old Capitol", it stands in front of the high-rise Capitol building built in the 1970s.
Tallahassee was in the heart of Florida's Cotton Belt—Leon County led the state in cotton production—and was the center of the slave trade in Florida. During the American Civil War, Tallahassee was the only Confederate state capital east of the Mississippi River not captured by Union forces, and the only one not burned. A small engagement, the Battle of Natural Bridge, was fought south of the city on March 6, 1865, just a month before the war ended.
During the 19th century, the institutions that would develop into what is now Florida State University were established in Tallahassee; it became a university town. These included the Tallahassee Female Academy (founded 1843) and the Florida Institute (founded 1854). In 1851, the Florida legislature decreed two seminaries to be built on either side of the Suwannee River, East Florida Seminary and West Florida Seminary. In 1855 West Florida Seminary was transferred to the Florida Institute building (which had been established as an inducement for the state to place the seminary in Tallahassee). In 1858, the seminary absorbed the Tallahassee Female Academy and became coeducational. Its main building was near the northwest corner of South Copeland and West Jefferson streets, approximately where FSU's Westcott Building is today.
In 1887 the Normal College for Colored Students, ancestor of today's FAMU, opened its doors. The legislature decided Tallahassee was the best location in Florida for a college serving African-American students; the state had segregated schools. Four years later its name was changed to State Normal and Industrial College for Colored Students, to teach teachers for elementary school children and students in industrial skills.
After the Civil War much of Florida's industry moved to the south and east, a trend that continues today. The end of slavery and the rise of free labor reduced the profitability of the cotton and tobacco trade, at a time when world markets were also changing. The state's major industries shifted to citrus, lumber, naval stores, cattle ranching, and tourism. The latter was increasingly important by the late 19th century. In the post-Civil War period, many former plantations in the Tallahassee area were purchased by wealthy northerners for use as winter hunting preserves. This included the hunting preserve of
Henry L. Beadel, who bequeathed his land for the study of the effects of fire on wildlife habitat. Today the preserve is known as the Tall Timbers Research Station and Land Conservancy, nationally recognized for its research into fire ecology and the use of prescribed burning.
Until World War II, Tallahassee remained a small southern town with virtually the entire population living within one mile (1.6 km) of the Capitol. The main economic drivers were the colleges and state government, where politicians met to discuss spending money on grand public improvement projects to accommodate growth in places such as Miami and Tampa Bay, hundreds of miles away from the capital.
Tallahassee was also active in protest during the civil rights era. The Tallahassee bus boycott was a citywide boycott in Tallahassee, Florida that sought to end racial segregation in the employment and seating arrangements of city buses. On May 26, 1956, Wilhemina Jakes and Carrie Patterson, two Florida A&M University students, were arrested by the Tallahassee Police Department for "placing themselves in a position to incite a riot". Robert Saunders, representing the NAACP, and Rev. C. K. Steele began talks with city authorities while the local African-American community started boycotting the city's buses. The Inter-Civic Council ended the boycott on December 22, 1956. On January 7, 1957, the City Commission repealed the bus-franchise segregation clause because of the United State Supreme Court ruling Browder v. Gayle (1956). In the 1960s there was a movement to transfer the capital to Orlando, closer to the state's growing population centers. That movement was defeated; the 1970s saw a long-term commitment by the state to the capital city, with the construction of the new capitol complex and preservation of the old Florida State Capitol building.
In 1970, the Census Bureau reported the city's population as 74.0% white and 25.4% black.
In 1977 a 22-story high-rise Capitol building designed by architect Edward Durell Stone was completed, which is now the third-tallest state capitol building in the United States. In 1978 the old capitol, directly in front of the new capitol, was scheduled for demolition, but state officials decided to keep the Old Capitol as a museum.
Tallahassee was the center of world attention for six weeks during the 2000 United States Presidential election recount, which involved numerous rulings by the Florida Secretary of State and the Florida Supreme Court.
In 2016, the city suffered a direct hit by Hurricane Hermine, causing about 80% of the city proper to lose power, including Florida State University, and knocking down many trees.
In 2018, the city suffered another natural disaster when Hurricane Michael hit the panhandle.