500 years of ‘La Florida’

Five hundred years ago, on April 2, 1513, Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon sighted land he thought was another island in the New World. Because of its lush foliage and because it was Easter season, Ponce de Leon named it “La Florida” and laid claim to it in the name of Spain.

Today, of course, Ponce de Leon’s “island” is the state of Florida, which marks the 500th anniversary of that sighting — and other landmarks in Florida’s history — with dozens of events. Many of those will be held in and around St. Augustine, which has long claimed that Ponce de Leon made landfall just north of the city; some will be held in the Tampa Bay region, where Hernando de Soto, another explorer who had a lasting impact on Florida, came ashore.

And just in time for the anniversary, a major new attraction opened this month in the historic sector of St. Augustine, which is the oldest permanent settlement in what is now the United States. Called Colonial Quarter, it is a two-acre living history museum created by the University of Florida and former Philadelphia 76ers owner Pat Croce.

Colonial Quarter is a signature attraction highlighting three centuries of settlement under three countries, said Croce, who opened the St. Augustine Pirate and Treasure Museum here two years ago..

Within the complex, visitors can experience life in St. Augustine as it was in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. Features include blacksmith and gunsmith demonstrations, a Spanish Garrison Town and taverna, a British Colony and Publick House (a pub), and a climbable 35-foot 17th century replica watchtower. Visitors can walk on a boardwalk under the 11 flags that have flown over St. Augustine. And from the boardwalk, which has explanatory text panels about each flag, visitors also will be able to watch construction of a 50-foot 16th-century caravel similar to ones sailed by Ponce de Leon on his discovery voyage and by Don Pedro Menendez de Aviles, who founded St. Augustine in 1565.

To insure accuracy, Croce said, everything in the Quarter had to be approved by archaeological departments of the city, the state and the University of Florida. Admission is $12.99 adults, $6.99 children 5-12.

St. Augustine, which already is one of the state’s most visited cities, expects to draw even more tourists this year with the new Colonial Quarter attraction and the Ponce de Leon anniversary.

On April 2 — the day Ponce de Leon first sighted Florida — a permanent historical marker featuring a 15-foot bronze statue of the explorer will be dedicated at a site midway between St. Augustine and Ponte Vedra Beach. Many historians believe the beach site, which is now an estuarine research reserve in Guana River State Park, is where Ponce de Leon landed, based on a navigational notation entered in the ship’s log

As part of the ceremony, a group in St. Augustine is converting a 72-foot shrimp boat into a caravel with three masts, which it hopes to have completed in time to sail it to the landing site on April 2.

“We’ll take a sighting with an astrolabe at noon that day from the caravel at 30 degrees 8 minutes [north latitude], just as Ponce de Leon did,” said Dan Holiday of the Krew, the volunteer group that is converting the shrimp boat into a caravel named Espiritu. Even if they don’t complete the vessel in time, or if the weather is too bad, Holiday said they still would conduct the astrolabe sighting from another ship. One of the Krew volunteers, incidentally, is James Ponce, a descendant of Ponce de Leon, whose forebears settled in Florida with the Minorcans.

The next day, in the city’s main commemorative event, costumed reenactors in downtown St. Augustine will replicate the day, April 3, 1513, that Ponce de Leon first set foot in Florida 500 years ago. Following that, at a celebratory mass conducted by a bishop at the Basilica Cathedral, a hand-crafted replica of the baptismal font used to baptize Ponce de Leon in Spain will be blessed.

Also on this day in St. Augustine, the U.S. Postal Service will unveil a new stamp commemorating Ponce de Leon.

Other events in St. Augustine tied to the anniversary include an exhibit of graphics and ceramics by Pablo Picasso through May 11 in the city’s new Visitor Information Center, a commemorative parade during the event-filled St. Augustine Romanza May 10-20 and reenactment June 1 of Sir Francis Drake’s 1586 raid on the city.

As the oldest continuously inhabited city in America, St. Augustine has many other historical attractions.

The only intact 17th century fortress in the United States, the Castillo de San Marcos, is one of the city’s most visited sites. Hotels that Florida developer Henry Flagler built in the late 1800s started the state on its way to becoming a major tourist destination. His Spanish Renaissance Revival style Ponce de Leon Hotel, which today is Flagler College, is a National Landmark.

And although the city has a Fountain of Youth, there is no evidence that Ponce de Leon was seeking its supposedly magical waters; he was on an exploration mission backed by the king of Spain. You can take a sip of the sulfury waters of the city’s Fountain of Youth attraction, but don’t be disappointed if you don’t get any younger.

Elsewhere in the waterfront Fountain of Youth National Archeological Park are a planetarium, Timucan Indian village and the two-story Discovery Globe, which displays the routes of the Spanish explorers.

Where Ponce de Leon actually landed in Florida in 1513 is a matter of dispute. Some historians, backed by recent research, believe he made landfall not north of St. Augustine but at Melbourne Beach, 140 miles south. Author and historian Douglas T. Peck in 1993 retraced the voyage of Ponce de Leon in a sailboat, using navigational instruments similar to those of Ponce de Leon’s time, and he came to the conclusion that the Spanish explorer landed at 28 degrees north latitude, just south of what is now Melbourne Beach.

That city is planning an extensive commemoration on April 2 at Juan Ponce de Leon Landing Park, according to Samuel Lopez, who heads up the project. A 10-foot-high bronze statue of Ponce de Leon will be unveiled at the site that day, along with a landing reenactment, 21-gun salute and U.S. Marine Corps jet flyover, followed by a mass conducted by Bishop John Noonan at the city’s Immaculate Conception church.

On his discovery voyage, Ponce de Leon’s three-ship fleet also touched at Key Biscayne (Miami) to get water, cruised along the Florida Keys and eventually passed into the Gulf of Mexico to land on Florida’s west coast. Again, the exact spot of that landing is uncertain. Many believe he landed at what is now Charlotte Harbor, but others have made a case for Cape Romano or Cape Sable.

In any event, in Punta Gorda the Royal Order of Ponce de Leon Conquistadors commemorates that landing with an annual Ponce de Leon Festival that is taking place this weekend at the city’s Laishley Park.

On his way back to his base in Puerto Rico, Ponce de Leon also stopped at Florida’s Dry Tortugas islands, where he and his crew feasted on giant sea turtles. In 1521, Ponce de Leon returned to Florida’s west coast, where he was wounded with a poisoned arrow in a clash with natives. He was taken to Cuba, where he died.

As part of the celebration of Florida’s history, some locales are also holding events that comemmorate the landing of Hernando de Soto in the Tampa Bay area in 1539. The De Soto National Memorial in Bradenton will hold a re-enactment of de Soto’s landing on April 20, followed by demonstrations and talks about the conquistador’s expedition and the effect he had on Florida’s Native American people.