Folks who reported an appearance of Ponce de Leon last year in Times Square may have been tipsy. But they weren’t seeing things. It was Light, dressed in his conquistador finery.
Golden hands out bumper stickers that say "30 degrees, 8 minutes" to anyone who wants one.
It’s a 500-year-old navigational reading.
Thirty degrees and 8 minutes latitude can be found about 15 miles north of St. Augustine, roughly even with Ponte Vedra Beach.
"To the best of our knowledge, Ponce probably landed around there,’’ St. Augustine publicists tell people.
Wait a minute. We thought nobody knows, exactly, where Ponce landed. Who’s the authority?
Antonio de Herrera y Tordesillas, that’s who.
Born in 1549, Herrera was an important writer in European circles and sometimes known as "the prince of the historians of the Americas.’’ In 1601 he published an account of Ponce’s travels from Puerto Rico to La Florida.
Most modern historians hate it. Hererra relied on a few historic accounts whose veracity they sometimes question. But Hererra also claimed he had in his possession Ponce’s old log, the one supposedly missing.
Modern historians have a legion of questions. If Herrera had the log, why didn’t he just publish it? Why interpret a world treasure? Which words in Herrera’s work, by the way, belong to Ponce? Which are his own?
Nobody knows the answer, of course. But we know that Herrera was an ambitious celebrity who liked the limelight and didn’t mind a little exaggeration.
"Herrera is sometimes known as the great plagiarist,’’ says Michael Francis, a Spanish-Florida historian at University of South Florida-St. Petersburg. "He doesn’t have a lot of credibility.’’
According to Herrera, Ponce’s navigator took a compass reading on April 2, 1513, and came up with 30 degrees, 8 minutes. The next morning Ponce waded ashore near today’s Ponte Vedra.
Nobody said history was going to be easy.
To our drama Douglas Peck now strolls onto the stage.
It’s about 1990. A retired Air Force engineer, he loves history. He is one of those gifted amateurs who investigates things professional academics sometimes ignore.
A passionate sailor, he is especially interested in 16th-century maritime navigation. He has read everything about Ponce, of course, including Herrera. A Bradenton resident, Peck decided to retrace Ponce’s voyage from Puerto to Rico to Florida and see where he ends up.
He built a 33-foot cutter he called the Gooney Bird and set sail on March 31, the same day Ponce sailed in 1513. He took the same route, hoping his sailboat would have to buck the same spring winds and currents as the conquistador had.
Of course, the Gooney Bird boasted modern navigation equipment unknown to sailors 500 years ago.
On April 2, the anniversary of Ponce’s sighting of land, Peck took a compass reading. In a paper later published in the Florida Historical Quarterly, he wrote "From my reconstructed track I found that Ponce de Leon’s anchorage and landing after discovering Florida and the North American continent were about 28 degrees N latitude and 89 degrees, 29 minutes W longitude, which is below Cape Canaveral and a short distance south of Melbourne Beach. I do not say that this is the exact spot, but I place the accuracy within five to eight nautical miles either side of this fix.’’