The first documented case of Florida flim-flammery


Published: Sunday, March 31, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, March 29, 2013 at 11:15 p.m.

Since we are wading hip deep in La Florida's 500 year anniversary celebration, I can't resist the urge to tell my favorite story about the first documented case of Florida flim-flammery.

Listen, Florida has always been fertile ground for confidence men, quick buck artists, dream weavers and rascals. It's our history.

So why would anybody be surprised that our state is now ground zero for the Allied Veterans of the World charity scandal? Florida was invented by hucksters. Scoundrels on the make are drawn here like bees to hibiscus.

"In Florida fiction thrives like kudzu," Diane Roberts, author of the political masterpiece "Dream State," writes. In a land that gave us the Fountain of Youth, she insists, "it's possible to believe many more than six impossible things before breakfast."

Anyway, the first recorded instance of Florida flim-flammery occurred in 1528, 15 years after Ponce de Leon came looking for his fortune and found ... well, flowers of course, but also swamp, swamp and more swamp.

Then came the Panfilo de Narvaez expedition, some 300 colonists and soldiers who landed at Tampa Bay in search of gold and glory.

The first thing they did was capture four Indians, who had the bad fortune to possess a few scraps of yellow metal among their meager possessions.

"Where's the gold?" the Spanish demanded.

Or words to that effect.

To which these quick-thinking, home-grown flimflam artists replied, "Why, the Apalachee have it, of course, and plenty of it."

Or words to that effect.

"It is almost certain that the Indians were embellishing the truth in hopes that the intruders would leave," writes Adres Resendez, in his superb account of the voyage of the Narvaez expedition, "A Land So Strange."

Because that's what we've always done in La Florida.

We embellish the truth. Either to get rid of pesky intruders, or to lure even more of them here.

Which is why the noble 300 left their ships behind and resolved to march north to the land of the Apalachee, where, they were assured, the gold would be theirs for the taking.

Weighed down with armor, trudging through swamps, crossing a great river (the Suwannee) and ever on the lookout for signs of the promised gold, this was assuredly no walk in the park.

And of course, when they finally did arrive, the Spanish discovered that the Apalachee had no gold to speak of.

What they did have was a well-deserved reputation for being the most cantankerous, disagreeable and combative tribe in our otherwise Edenic land of flowers.

How disagreeable? Let's just say they were not at all impressed with the armor, guns, swords and horses the Spanish brought along as a show of strength.

"In view of the poverty of the land ... the Indians making continued war upon us, wounding our people and our horses at the places where they went to drink, shooting from the lakes with such safety to themselves that we could not retaliate ... we determined to leave that place," Cabeza de Vaca, a member of the expedition, wrote.

If only leaving were that easy.

Soon, the Apalachee-with-attitude had de Vaca and his fellows trapped hard up against the Gulf of Mexico, near the present day town of St. Marks.

Low on powder, shot and food, the Spanish were so desperate to escape that they killed, skinned and ate their horses.

Then they cut the horse hides into strips so they could tie logs together and make rafts.

Eventually, the 60 or so survivors drifted west to Texas, where most were either killed or enslaved by equally disagreeable indigenous tribes.

In the end, only de Vaca and three others lived to tell about their Florida vacation.

At which point de Vaca himself caught the flimflam fever and wrote an account of his adventures, in which he further embellished on the myth of Apalachee gold.

Which in turn inspired yet another adventurer, Hernado de Soto, to launch a second get-rich-quick expedition to the land of dreams.

With equally disastrous results.

Welcome to La Florida, pal.

Oh yeah, the gold's right over there. Help yourself.

No ... really.

Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun.

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