Andrew Frank: Ponce’s voyage wasn’t the real beginning

Published: Tuesday, April 16, 2013 at 4:40 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, April 16, 2013 at 4:40 p.m.

As Floridians, we approach two milestones: This year is the 500th anniversary of the 1513 landing of Juan Ponce de Leon, and 2015 is the 450th anniversary of the founding of St. Augustine. These historic events present Floridians with a tremendous opportunity to think about Florida and its place in the world.

Yet I am conflicted.

I hardly want to stand in the way of anything that gets Floridians interested in history or Americans interested in Florida. I’ve spent too many years studying and teaching our past to waste this teachable moment. How we remember the past tells us something about the community in which we live, and I hope that we won’t observe these anniversaries in ways that contort the past to allow for a comfortable present. I hope we remember the histories that preceded these dates and the native peoples who experienced these events differently.

Too often we have been taught to remember 1513 as the beginning, as a starting point for the history of Florida. Yet, it wasn’t a beginning; it was a midpoint. The ancestors of the Native Americans whom Ponce attempted to conquer had been in Florida for more than 12,000 years. The arrival of the Spanish altered the lives of these early Floridians, with unseen pathogens and Spanish swords rapidly cutting them down. This reduced the native presence, just as now claiming 1513 as a beginning erases their presence from our collective memories.

Ponce also provided the peninsula a name (La Florida), but he hardly deserves credit for discovering something. This is more than semantics. He — and countless native peoples — knew land was somewhere near where he headed. He did not sail in search of something unknown; he sailed with a strong belief and a general direction. Spaniards in Cuba and Puerto Rico had explored the region for several years before Ponce’s voyage, and native informants and perhaps Spanish fisherman or slave raiders had apprised him that the peninsula (or island) was but a few miles away.

More importantly, in the context of the day, Florida was one of many New World outposts that promised to enrich the Spanish crown and the explorers credited for their conquests. The venture into Florida took place a decade after the Spanish had established footholds in Mexico, Peru and much of the Caribbean. Remembering the 1513 voyage as the beginning detaches Florida from its Atlantic or global context. It isolates us from our Spanish past, even as our 500th anniversary observance this year emphasizes this connection.

The commemoration of 1565, the founding date for St. Augustine, also requires close examination.

St. Augustine is routinely called the “nation’s oldest city.” For this moniker to stick, we embrace contorted facts about the past and the present. Native American communities existed for thousands of years in and out of Florida before 1565. Some villages in New Mexico, such as Acoma Pueblo and Taos Pueblo, were established around 1000 A.D. and still remain occupied today. Still others would have likely remained occupied had they not been conquered. As a result, St. Augustine often bills itself as the “oldest permanently settled European settlement.” Pre-existing Indian communities are accounted for but lost is the irony of crediting St. Augustine with outlasting the various other Indian villages that the forces of conquest and colonialism destroyed.

And yet calling St. Augustine our nation’s first European city is misstatement as well — one that once again tells us about our collective selves rather than the history itself. St. Augustine is not the oldest city established by Europeans in the United States. San Juan, Puerto Rico, was established in 1521. Ignoring its founding — or more importantly its current status as a U.S. Commonwealth — reminds us of the idiosyncrasies of how we understand the past.

I hope all Floridians take time to remember 1513 and 1565. These dates remain important moments in the conquest of Florida and the history of the Americas. Rather than thinking of them as isolated beginnings, we should remember the broad contexts from which their meanings derive. Together, they helped marginalize the Indian presence in Florida and otherwise erase the early Natives from our collective memories.

Let’s make sure that our anniversary commemorations recognize the importance of Florida’s first peoples and include their stories as part of Florida’s story.

Andrew K. Frank is the Allen Morris associate professor of history at Florida State University. This column was provided by the nonprofit Florida Humanities Council as part of Florida’s 500th anniversary commemoration this year, marked from 1513 when Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon first set foot on the state’s east coast.

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