Florida is 500 Years Old

On this day in 1513, Juan Ponce de Leon (see above) discovered Florida.  Because we don’t know for sure if the Vikings visited any part of North America besides Canada, this also makes de Leon the first European to visit the future United States.  Thus, Florida is technically the oldest state, though not one of the original thirteen states.  Here is what I wrote about the expedition on my website:

Spanish participation in the search began with a person who had a proven record:  Juan Ponce de Leon, the conqueror of Puerto Rico.  De Leon heard a rumor that there was a large island north of Cuba, called Bimini by the Indians (not the present-day Bimini, which is part of the Bahamas).  This island contained a "Fountain of Youth," with magic waters; whoever drank from that fountain would never grow old.  Leaving Puerto Rico in early 1513, de Leon made landfall in the neighborhood where St. Augustine would be founded, fifty-two years later.  It was Easter Sunday, and his crew saw lots of flowers, so they named the land Pascua Florida.  Alas, the local Indians had never heard of the fountain, so he sailed down the east coast of Florida, discovered the Florida Keys, and then went up the west coast as far as Port Charlotte.  There he met a hostile Indian tribe, the Calusa, which attacked his ships twice; de Leon got the message and decided to look elsewhere.  After leaving Florida, he wandered past Cuba to reach another peninsula, Yucatan.  Although he didn’t find anything worth taking on Yucatan either, Ponce de Leon’s name, if not de Leon himself, became immortal.  He was the first European to set foot in both the United States and Mexico.

De Leon may have been on to something, nonetheless. Nowadays thousands of senior citizens retire to Florida every year, as if they want to find what de Leon missed.

Juan Ponce de Leon returned to Florida in 1521; this time his main goal was to claim the "island" of Florida for Spain, by building a fort and maybe a town, so he brought two ships with 200 settlers.  Unfortunately he showed that he had not learned enough from his first expedition, for he chose to build his fort in the southwest, right where the Calusa had chased him off last time.  The Calusa still didn’t want any Spaniards in their neighborhood, and one of them wounded de Leon in the thigh with a poisoned arrow.  De Leon ordered everyone back to Cuba, and died there a few weeks later.

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