Ponce De Leon and Florida

by Laurie Shelton
Ponce De Leon did not return to Spain after sailing on Christopher Columbus’ second expedition to the Americas (1493). He chose to stay in what is now called the Dominican Republic, where he first heard that a neighboring island (present-day Puerto Rico) had a good bit of gold. He took the island using brute force against the natives, claimed it as Spain’s, and became its governor. He was just getting warmed up.
In 1513 he sailed northwest with a 200-man, 3-galleon crew from Puerto Rico, hoping to find and conquer Bimini, a Bahamian island purported to contain riches and a legendary spring that gave people eternal life and health. After stopping in Grand Turk and San Salvador, the men caught sight of a low, flat stretch of land. It was Easter, April 2nd, “Pascua Florida,” a Spanish reference to the holiday as a combination of both religious and natural significance (the resurrection of Christ and the beginning of spring/the season of flowering). In English, this translates as the “Feast of Flowers”. Ponce claimed the land for Spain and named it “La Florida”. It is reported that when they went ashore they knew they had not reached Bimini (which was rumored to be inhabited by Indians) because they found no indications of village life.
Less than week later, the men shipped off and encountered the powerful current known as the Gulf Stream near Cape Canaveral (translated as the “cape of currents”). They sailed around the tip of the peninsula and up the west coast a touch, where they got into a riff with the native Calusa tribe. The men left shortly thereafter, and eventually made their way back to Puerto Rico.
Still determined to find Bimini and the treasure it contained, Ponce went back to Spain and got financial backing from the king to settle and govern the “islands” of Florida and Bimini. King Ferdinand gave it the thumbs up and even knighted Ponce, which reinforced the conquistador’s lust for land and power. Then Ferdinand keeled over. This delayed Ponce’s return to the Caribbean for several years, and made him antsy because he knew that other people had their eyes on these “islands” and would jump his claim if the territory remained unsettled.
In 1521, Ponce lead a group of 200-men, along with horses livestock and tools to work the land, back up the west coast of Florida. The Calusa had not softened over the years, and fired a barrage of arrows at the would-be settlers when they went inland for fresh water. Many of the men were hit, including Ponce, who took an arrow in his thigh. The mission (apparently a bad idea) was quickly aborted. The men jumped/limped/crawled back on board and headed for Cuba, where Ponce eventually died as a result of his wound.

Fast forward 500 years from that fated Easter day when Ponce set foot on the peninsula we now call home. For the benefit of the mathematically challenged, I should point out that would be approximately two months ago. All year long, there have been activities across the state of Florida that call attention to this “anniversary” of sorts. And let’s face it – for a country that didn’t get the democratic ball rolling until 237 years ago, 500 years sounds like a very big deal.

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