Experts at UF share much about Ponce de Leon and La Florida


William Marquardt, curator of south Florida archaeology and ethnography at the Florida Museum of Natural History and director of the Randell Research Center, talks about how the local native American tribes probably reacted to early explorers of Florida during the Celebrating La Florida: Spanish Explorers at the Edge of the World at the Florida Museum of Natural History, in Gainesville Saturday.

Brad McClenny/Staff photographer
Published: Saturday, April 6, 2013 at 5:09 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, April 6, 2013 at 5:09 p.m.

Most people believe Juan Ponce de Leon discovered the peninsula he named La Florida.

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William Marquardt, curator of south Florida archaeology and ethnography at the Florida Museum of Natural History and director of the Randell Research Center, talks about how the local native American tribes probably reacted to early explorers of Florida during the Celebrating La Florida: Spanish Explorers at the Edge of the World at the Florida Museum of Natural History, in Gainesville Saturday.

Brad McClenny/Staff photographer

But the truth is murkier, as scholars told the audience Saturday at the Florida Museum of Natural History.

Five scholars gave presentations at “Celebrating La Florida: Spanish Explorers at the Edge of the World,” a free event sponsored by the University Press of Florida.

This month marks the 500th anniversary of Ponce de Leon’s arrival in Florida in 1513. Much about that time remains uncertain, and questionable myths about Ponce de Leon persist.

Was he the first to discover Florida?

“Well, yes and no,” said William Marquardt, the curator of South Florida archaeology and ethnography at the Florida Museum of Natural History. Ponce de Leon was the first to chronicle his arrival, but many people, including the Native Americans, were here before his boat reached its shores.

Marquardt pointed out that Ponce de Leon reportedly met a Native American who spoke Spanish, suggesting other European explorers preceded him.

The Calusa Indians, about 20,000 of whom lived across Southwest Florida, were fierce in their attacks against Spanish explorers. Upon his return in 1521, Ponce de Leon tried to form a colony but failed and departed the peninsula after suffering an arrow wound, Marquardt said.

Michael Gannon, a University of Florida professor who has written several books on the Sunshine State, said Ponce de Leon was the first known or documented European explorer to discover Florida but not necessarily the first ever.

The true discoverers of Florida, he said, were the Eurasians who settled here after crossing an ice bridge about 12,000 years ago and became Native Americans.

Gannon also debunked popular belief on Ponce de Leon’s search for the Fountain of Youth. He may have had a vague interest in it, as many did at the time, but it was unlikely that he wanted it for himself. However, as an entrepreneur, he may have considered bottling the water if he ever found it and offering it on late-night television, Gannon joked.

Florida was difficult to conquer — a fact largely due to Native Americans’ defense of their lands, said Kathleen Deagan, a professor of Florida and Caribbean archaeology at UF’s natural history museum.

There were 11 failed expeditions to conquer Florida between 1513 and 1565 by Spanish explorers, Deagan said.

“These were basically medieval men,” she told the crowd of about 80 scattered among rows of black folding chairs in front of her.

She recounted several failed excursions, including that of Panfilo de Narvaez, whom she said sources refer to as “stupid and cruel.” After landing near Tampa Bay in 1528, he fought his way inland against the Native Americans but ultimately failed.

“It was apparently a real ‘take-no-prisoners’ expedition,” she said.

The Florida of the 1500s differed from the Florida of today, but the influence of those Spanish explorers remains.

When Ponce de Leon arrived, Florida had more forests with trees that were older, slower-growing and bigger than the ones now, said Christopher Meindl, the director of the Florida Studies Program at the University of South Florida’s St. Petersburg campus.

The state also wasn’t home to feral hogs then. Swine were brought by the Europeans.

Today, feral pigs aren’t the only legacy left by those early Spanish explorers, said Steve Noll, senior lecturer in history at UF. They also brought cattle and Christianity, as well as diseases that ravaged the Native American population.

The room emptied after the presentations, but some stayed to ask questions about old Florida and the first conquistadors.

“I thought it was excellent,” said Susan Warshaw, a Gainesville resident. “A very broad view of Florida history and the Spanish.”

Contact Morgan Watkins at 338-3104 or morgan.watkins@gvillesun.com.

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