Cocoa was founded by fishermen with the first families arriving around 1860. A post office was established at Magnolia Point, and the city’s first commercial building was erected around 1881. First plats of the new settlement were made in 1882 under the name “Indian River City” on land owned by Captain R. A. Hardee. The name Indian River City was unacceptable to the U.S. Postal authorities who claimed it was too long for use on a postmark.
The origin of the city’s name is uncertain. In 1925, the Cocoa Tribune published several reader-supplied accounts of the town’s naming. One reader credited Captain R.C. May with recommending the name at a town meeting in 1884. At Captain May’s suggestion, the group finally chose the name “Cocoa” for the town’s association with the cocoa tree. The name was forwarded to Washington, D.C., where it was approved. Another story suggests that an old woman was inspired by a box of baker’s cocoa and her suggestion was adopted. Still another version suggests that along the bank of the Indian River lived an old woman who would supply hot cocoa to sailors as they traveled along the river. As they passed, they would call out “cocoa, cocoa” until the woman supplied them with refreshment. Whatever its origin, by 1884 the name Cocoa had become permanently associated with what was then an infant settlement.
In 1885, the S. F. Travis Hardware store opened. It is still in business in 2014.
Cocoa’s business district was destroyed by fire in 1890, but soon, significant development began to occur with the extension of the Jacksonville, St. Augustine, and Indian River Railway to Cocoa.
The city was chartered in 1895. In the winter of 1894-1895, Cocoa suffered a second severe economic setback when the “Great Freeze” destroyed the citrus crop and forced many citrus workers to seek new occupations. According to one source, by 1903, the population of Cocoa had dropped to 382.
During the second decade of the 20th century, population growth and economic development in Cocoa accelerated. The state business directory of 1911-1912 set the population at 550. By 1925, the population was estimated at 1,800. During the Great Depression, the local economy declined and the two local banks failed. Still, by 1930, the population had risen to 2,200.
The population rose dramatically following the development of the space industry, quadrupling from 3,098 in 1940 to 12,244 in 1960. Cocoa and the surrounding area also became integrated with the tourist industry for the first time as thousands visited the area to witness the launches from Cape Canaveral. By 1980, the population had grown to 16,096.
Education was segregated until the 1960s, at which time Monroe High School and elementary schools for black students were closed.
In 1964, the city built the Cocoa Expo Sports Center (Cocoa Stadium) for the Colt 45s spring baseball training and Grapefruit League games. The team later became the Houston Astros. In the early 1980s, the city attempted to upgrade the stadium by asking the Astros to pay for needed repairs. In 1985, the team responded by moving its training to Osceola County Stadium in Kissimmee. As a result, it was decided that future negotiations with major league teams would be done by the county government.
In the 1970s, the old downtown area was revitalized with a shopping district, music clubs and waterfront park.