The Ocali were the first historic people known by name to live in what is now Marion County. Garcilasco de la Vega with the DeSoto expedition (1539) describes the town of Ocali as consisting of over 600 homes and being surrounded by fertile farms and a forest of giant walnuts (hickories), pines, and other trees not known in Spain (probably oaks, tupelos, magnolias, and cedars). The trees were separated at such distances that horses could run "full speed through them". T he Ocali spoke Timucuan. This was a common language spoken by several tribes of Florida and was likely an early form of Muscogean which eventually became the common language of the Seminoles.
We continue to use several of their place name nouns, Ocala being one. Other Timucuan place names that we speak daily include Alachua, Tampa, Sarasota, Miami, Tallahassee, Kissimmee, Suwannee, and Pensacola. If you could ask an Ocali warrior 'Which way to Tallahassee?' he would point to the northwest.
By1609 Franciscan Catholics had pushed their Mission Chain into Central Florida and probably reached Ocali about the time the Pilgrims reached Plymouth Rock (1620). The Ocali and their ancestors had lived on or around the Fort King Site for over 8,000 years, but within 60 years after the Franciscans arrived, they were all dead, killed mostly by European diseases.
The Ocali were gone but the name lived on in conversational references to the area and recurrently appearing on printed maps from 1694 forward. When the American pioneers relocated their courthouse in 1845 from the Fort King Site to Fort King Street downtown, they named their new town Ocala based on the oldest known reference to the area. A frontier village for its first 20 years, it was incorporated as a 'Town' in 1869 following the Civil War, and as a 'City' in 1885 after arrival of the railroad.
No accurate meaning of the word Ocali exists. However, in surviving words of the Choctaw language, one of the Timucuan successor languages, 'cali' or 'cale' refers to an artesian spring. It could be the early name of the Silver Spring. 'Ocali' could refer to the people living near the spring. Modern day Ocalan's therefore would be 'People of the Spring.'