On this day – April 2nd – 500 years ago, Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon for the first time laid eyes on Florida’s east coast. Despite the fact that native tribes had been living here for thousands of years, Ponce de Leon is credited with the “discovery” of the Sunshine State. According to various accounts, he landed just north of present-day St. Augustine and, amazed with the countless species of exotic vegetation he had never before seen, he decided to name the place “La Florida” which means “Land of Flowers.”
Ponce de Leon is probably most famous for his discovery of Florida and his role as a Spanish conquistador, but he also founded Puerto Rico’s first settlement (San Juan de Puerto Rico) and was the island’s first governor. On March 3rd, 1513 Ponce de Leon led a Spanish expedition from Puerto Rico north along the chain of the Bahamas consisting of three ships: the San Cristobal, the Santiago, and the Santa Maria. As mentioned above, the flotilla made landfall on April 2nd, 1513 believing they had found another tropical island. During the next eight months, they attempted to sail around the “island” and in the process discovered the Bahama Channel, which provided a new route from the West Indies to Spain. The small fleet sailed past today’s Key Biscayne, down around the Florida Keys, and up Florida’s west coast. There, they encountered the native Calusa tribe who originally was interested in trade – but relations between the two peoples quickly turned hostile.
According to popular legend, Ponce de Leon left Puerto Rico in search for the Fountain of Youth, a magical spring whose waters have the power to grant eternal youth. He never found it, but many of today’s millions of Floridians (both retirees and non-retirees) would probably agree that the hospitable conditions of this peninsula can add a few years to your life.
Eight years after the first contact, the Spaniards returned to Florida in 1521 with the intent to colonize. In addition to sailors, the crew consisted of soldiers, priests, farmers, slaves, and most importantly, women. This time they landed on Florida’s west coast and attempted to establish a small town. But the Calusa Indians soon impeded their progress with violent attacks. During one such attack, Ponce de Leon was struck by a poisoned arrow. Unfortunately, this injury marked the end of this conquistador’s exploration. After the attack, the Spaniards fled to Havana, Cuba and Ponce de Leon passed away from his injury in July of 1521.
In celebration of Florida’s 500th birthday this year many events took place in the months of March and April. And with Florida’s multicultural nature, celebrations of all types occurred all over the state. Europeans, African-Americans, Cubans, Native Americans, and several other cultures all have their own ways of celebrating this important date. The 500th anniversary is also a great opportunity to share Florida’s history and culture with other parts of the world – especially because so many are under the false impression that Florida has very little of either.
Among many organizations hosting events are the Dade Heritage Trust during Dade Heritage Days. Seraphic Fire performed the music of Aragonese composer Francisco Peñalosa in Miami on April 10, 12, and 14.
On a statewide level, the initiative Viva Florida 500 led by the Florida Department of State has the goal of highlighting Florida’s Spanish Colonial history and all the other cultures that have shaped and molded Florida from the time of the Indians, the Spaniards, and beyond. Viva Florida 500 is using Florida’s 500th anniversary as a platform to promote tourism in the Sunshine State and to educate locals and visitors about Florida’s important history. If you are interested in learning more about the project or attending some of their events, visit the Viva Florida 500 website.