500 years of Hispanic culture and business in Florida
Ponce de Leon began Florida's dynamic Hispanic heritage
The Spanish were aware of a land mass to the northwest of Hispaniola and Puerto Rico several years before Juan Ponce de León sailed over from Puerto Rico in 1513 and gave it the name Florida. The Spanish thought it was an island or group of islands: A 1511 map shows a part of Florida labeled as “Isla de Beimeni,” according to late USF professor emeritus Robert H. Fuson in his book “Juan Ponce de León: And the Spanish Discovery of Puerto Rico and Florida.” Fuson’s research indicates other Spanish ships reached Florida first — likely unofficial slaving expeditions.
It should hardly need mentioning at this point, but, as Fuson writes, Ponce de León “was not a madman seeking a mystical fountain” to keep him young. Rather, he was an explorer and farmer who had served as interim governor of Puerto Rico until a lawsuit gave control of that island to Christopher Columbus’ son, Diego — and marginalized Juan Ponce.
When Ferdinand II authorized Juan Ponce to explore and govern “Beimeni,” Fuson writes, the move had two strategic benefits: It gave Juan Ponce a chance for a new start, and it let Ferdinand limit Columbus’ son’s power. Juan Ponce sailed to Florida twice — in 1513, landing somewhere between St. Augustine and Melbourne Beach, and in 1521, when he set up a colony near Charlotte Harbor that failed after four months, the first European colony in what is now the U.S.
In a fight with the Calusa Indians, Juan Ponce was struck with an arrow. The colonists sailed to Havana, where he died of an infection from the injury.
And so it started 500 years ago, with ingredients — political intrigue, financial ambition, violence and ethnic rivalries — still prevalent in Florida today.
Along the way, Spanish influence waned, echoing today in place names like Leon and Hernando counties and tourist attractions playing off phony legends.
More recently, Cubans and now Puerto Ricans and Central and South Americans have become the most dynamic Hispanic elements in the state, demographically, financially and politically.
Florida Trend’s coverage this month explores the range of our state’s Hispanic heritage, from descendants of some of the state’s earliest Spanish settlers who still live here, to a largely ignored part of the state’s history, the mission culture that dominated north Florida in the early 1700s, to large concentrations of Hispanic populations in the state today, to a Spanish-American businesswoman in Fort Lauderdale who founded the largest Latina-owned business in America.
Ponce de Leon …
1. Was a farmer and a governor
2. Went in search of a “fountain of youth”
3. Was a slaver
4. Discovered the Gulf Stream
5. Established the first colony in what is now the U.S.
6. Never visited St. Augustine -- the only historical marker in the state that commemorates Juan Ponce is in St. Augustine.
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