Florida officials kicked off the yearlong Viva Florida 500 celebrations April 1 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the 1513 landing of Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León.
While he is responsible for the state’s name—he called it “La Florida” in part because of the area’s lush plant life—he didn’t do much else according to historians.
“He never did much of anything here except get himself killed,” said T. D. Allman, author of Finding Florida: The True History of the Sunshine State, in a New York Times column.
Many tout Ponce de León as the discoverer of Florida, but there were at least 200,000 Natives living on the peninsula at the time of his arrival. And he likely wasn’t the first European there either.
“Florida probably was first sighted by Portuguese navigators, or perhaps by the Cabots sailing from England. Either way, it started appearing on maps as early as 1500,” Allman says. “By 1510, its distinctive peninsular shape had emerged clearly on maps in Europe. By 1513, when Ponce de Léon first arrived, so many Europeans had visited Florida that some Indians greeted him in Spanish.”
The disease and warfare that Ponce de León and other Europeans brought reduced the Native population of Florida by 80 percent.
Another myth floating around Ponce de León was that he was searching for the Fountain of Youth. History.com reports that no documents from the time, including letters from the man himself, mention anything about such a fountain.
“What Ponce is really looking for is islands that will become part of what he hopes will be a profitable new governorship,” J. Michael Francis, a history professor at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, told History.com. “From everything I can gather, he was not at all interested or believed that he would find some kind of miraculous spring or lake or body of water.”
The myth really gained a foothold in the United States when Washington Irving started alluding to it in books like Voyages and Discoveries of the Companions of Columbus, published in 1831.
When Ponce de León returned to Florida in 1521 he was shot by an arrow and later died from sepsis in Havana.
Ponce de León will be commemorated on a stamp, there will be a mass in St. Augustine, and a replica of a 16th-century Spanish galleon will sail from Puerto Rico to Florida. The ship is scheduled to stop in Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Cape Canaveral and St. Augustine from April 15 to June 3.
Although Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner called the commemoration events a “teachable moment,” he didn’t seem to understand what all this celebration could mean to the many Native Americans who still call Florida home.
He told the Associated Press that he did talk to the Seminole Tribe of Florida about partnering for the commemoration.
“We have to remember that part of this experience was conflict. We can’t ignore that,” he told the AP when asked how he thinks Natives view the history. “But we also have to remember that as part of this experience, we live to learn, we learned to live together, we’ve grown together. There’s no other state that can represent the kind of diversity that we have here in Florida of cultures and religions.”
“There’s a very positive relationship with the leaders of Florida and the Seminole Tribe… including in tourism and promotion, which is significantly what the Ponce de León celebration is about is promoting the state as a destination,” Gary E. Bitner, a spokesperson for the Seminole Tribe of Florida told ICTMN. “The tribe is supportive of what the state is doing [Viva Florida 500], although they clearly want to reinforce the understanding that the Seminoles or other Native peoples were in Florida long before Ponce de León arrived and hopefully through education more Floridians will understand that and respect that.”
Seminole tribal historian Willie Johns explained further that it is about education in a recent essay published first in FORUM, the statewide magazine of the Florida Humanities Council, and then in the Tampa Bay Times. (Related story: “A Seminole Perspective on Ponce de León and Florida History”)
“We want to tell who the Spanish people were who came to our shores, and we want to educate people about exactly what they did,” he said in the essay. “People may not realize how many tribes and Native peoples existed before being decimated by the disease and warfare brought on by the conquistadors. With the priests looking on, Spanish explorers took out the aboriginal Floridians with massacres in the name of God. And they sent the good news back to the king.
“Indians all across America shared stories that were kept alive and passed down through the generations about what the European invaders did. That's how it was told to me: The truth of those days was kill the Indian—or give him a blanket, invite him to supper, sneeze on his blanket, then send him away.”
Hear Willie Johns speak about the Viva Florida 500 celebrations: