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Florida marks 500 years since first Spanish landing

Juan Ponce de Leon was the first European to land with the official permission of the Spanish Crown in what today is the US state of Florida. In 1512, the former governor of Puerto Rico set sail in a flotilla of three ships in a search for land north of Cuba and in early April 1513 he landed somewhere along the coast between St Augustine in the north and Melbourne 300 kilometres further south.

The Consolacion, Santiago and San Cristobal approached the coast of Florida in March 1513, shortly before Easter, but historians cannot pinpoint where exactly Ponce de Leon eventually landed, as evidenced by the number of towns claiming the honour. What is known is that the explorer believed Florida was an island on his arrival 500 years ago and while the general consensus is that Ponce de Leon made landfall on April 2, some historians maintain that he could have landed in late March.

"We have absolutely no contemporaneous accounts of the journey, only stories from people who wrote about it much later," US historian Charles Arnade, an expert on Florida's discovery, wrote before his death in 2008. Numerous festivals and events have been planned in Florida for April 2, including the unveiling of a statue of Ponce de Leon. The explorer, who was born in 1470, claimed what he believed was a large island for Spain and named it La Florida, as it was the season of Pascua Florida ("Flowery Easter") and much of the vegetation was in bloom.

Just two decades earlier in 1492, Christopher Columbus landed in the Caribbean in his search for a westerly sea route to the East Indies and Asia, unleashing an exploration frenzy across Europe. The huge American continent was completely unknown in Europe at this time and numerous expeditions followed Columbus' discovery. Ponce de Leon accompanied Columbus on one of his later journeys, before discovering the Caribbean island of Puerto Rico, of which he became governor in 1509.

Rumours of further undiscovered islands in the north-eastern Caribbean convinced Ponce de Leon to continue his exploration from Punta Aguada in Puerto Rico, which eventually resulted in the discovery of Florida. Historians agree that Ponce de Leon probably was not the first Spaniard to reach Florida as it is likely that Spanish ships from the Caribbean were already secretly raiding Florida to capture Indian slaves.

However, Florida can certainly be considered the historic gateway for the settlement of the United States. Although the eastern seaboard of the US became a British colony around a century later, which was followed by the mass settlement by English, Irish, Germans and Dutch, the city of St Augustine in north-eastern Florida - founded by a Spanish admiral in 1565 - is the oldest city in the US.

The fact that Florida was discovered by Spaniard Ponce de Leon 107 years before the arrival of the Mayflower Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock, is of extreme importance to many people of Spanish descent living today in the US. Around 16 per cent of the American population is Hispanic. It is the fastest growing ethnic group in the US, almost doubling in number between 2000 and 2010.

"Ponce de Leon is still a big hero for us Hispanics today," says Wilson Camelo, who was born in Colombia and works in an advertising agency in Orlando as well as running a blog about Hispanics in the US. "Our origins date pretty much back to him and it is a large part of your identity and raison d'etre. I think it is important to know that Spaniards lived here when many other ethnic groups hadn't even settled here."

Camelo takes regular trips with his children to the historical sites along Florida's east coast. "We always only learn about the 'Pilgrims' and the British colonies in school. I also want my children to learn about Ponce de Leon." His discovery of Florida failed to bring Ponce de Leon much luck, as on his second journey in 1521 he was wounded, most likely in a skirmish with the native population, and died shortly afterwards.

However, the explorer would have been happy with the development of the Sunshine State over the subsequent centuries, believed the late historian Arnade. "Florida is a well of hope and wealth - exactly as he had then hoped - albeit a couple of centuries later," he wrote.

Copyright Deutsche Presse-Agentur, 2013


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