Ponte Verde Beach near St. Augustine is 125 nautical miles to the north.
Traditional historians, the kind who spend years toiling on their doctorates, teaching college classes, and studying ancient manuscripts, often look suspiciously on the work conducted by even talented amateurs.
But in Brevard County’s Melbourne Beach, Samuel Lopez embraced Douglas Peck as if he were Ponce de Leon himself.
Lopez, 65, is a history buff, community organizer and a guy who hates the word "no.’’ He was born in Brooklyn and raised in the Bronx but is extremely proud of his Puerto Rican heritage. Because Ponce was the island’s first governor, Lopez is a Ponce man.
In 1992, when he heard about the Douglas Peck voyage that ended at Melbourne Beach he began thinking about what might happen in 2013. He visited the county commission, city commissions, chambers of commerce, newspaper offices.
"Ponce landed here. We need some big celebrations.’’
Lopez remembers, "They laughed at me.’’
In New York, he was an electrician, a union organizer and finally a political activist. "I learned how to get things done,’’ says Lopez, the founder of the Florida Puerto Rican/Hispanic chamber of Commerce and the president of a national civil rights organization, United Third Bridge.
"I kept trying.’’
In 2000, the county surrendered and told him to start planning a celebration.
In 2005, Brevard County renamed an old beachfront park "Juan Ponce de Leon Landing.’’ Douglas Peck was the guest speaker.
Later the state posted a sign. Possible Vicinity of Juan Ponce de Leon’s Landing. The state — not wanting to be on the wrong side of history — also placed a similar sign at Ponte Vedra Beach near St. Augustine. But as far as Lopez was concerned, Melbourne was now officially on the state’s map.
The Melbourne Park is slowly taking on the look of a Ponce museum. Colorful informational boards greet beachgoers on the boardwalk and in the parking lot it is impossible to miss the granite platform where a 10-foot bronze statue of Ponce de Leon soon will gaze sternly at the sea.
But Michael Gannon’s speech in Jacksonville last October, as far as Lopez is concerned, is the best thing that ever happened.
Gannon might be the most beloved living man in St. Augustine, even though he lives in Gainesville. He was born in St. Augustine 85 years ago and grew up riding his bike along the historic coquina streets. At the University of Florida, Dr. Gannon taught Florida-Spanish history to generations of students.
In 1990, King Juan Carlos I of Spain declared him a "Knight Commander of the Order of Isabel la Catolica.’’ In 2007, St. Augustine awarded him its highest honor, "the Order of La Florida." A prolific author, Gannon has written history books and historic novels. In 2010 the governor gave him Florida’s first "Lifetime Literary Achievement Award.’’
When Gannon talks about history, people listen. In October he made a speech in Jacksonville about the 500th anniversary of Ponce de Leon’s arrival. He talked about what we know and what we think we know about the conquistador.
Ponce didn’t discover Florida, Gannon said, he only named it. Florida’s first people, the Eurasians who crossed the Siberian-Alaska ice bridge 12,000 years ago — the natives Columbus called "Indians’’ — were first.