News / USA

    Florida Celebrates 500th Anniversary

    A yellow and deteriorating document is seen in the Historical Archives of the Catholic Diocese of St. Augustine, in St. Augustine, Floria, Jan. 27, 2013.
    A yellow and deteriorating document is seen in the Historical Archives of the Catholic Diocese of St. Augustine, in St. Augustine, Floria, Jan. 27, 2013.
    Reuters
    Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon was only 4-foot, 11-inches (1.5 meters) tall, a trolley tour operator told his passengers as they rolled down a picturesque street in St. Augustine lined with moss-draped live oak trees.

    But the Timucuan Indians he encountered when he set foot in Florida towered over him, standing 7 feet (2.1 meters) tall, the tour guide said.

    Turning into the Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park, he noted: No wonder the explorer thought these tall, robust natives were drinking enchanted water.

    Statue of Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon located at the foot of the Bridge of Lions in St. Augustine’s Plaza de La Constitucion, Florida. (Image provided by the St. Augustine, Ponte Vedra & The Beaches Visitors and Convention Bureau)Statue of Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon located at the foot of the Bridge of Lions in St. Augustine’s Plaza de La Constitucion, Florida. (Image provided by the St. Augustine, Ponte Vedra & The Beaches Visitors and Convention Bureau)
    x
    Statue of Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon located at the foot of the Bridge of Lions in St. Augustine’s Plaza de La Constitucion, Florida. (Image provided by the St. Augustine, Ponte Vedra & The Beaches Visitors and Convention Bureau)
    Statue of Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon located at the foot of the Bridge of Lions in St. Augustine’s Plaza de La Constitucion, Florida. (Image provided by the St. Augustine, Ponte Vedra & The Beaches Visitors and Convention Bureau)
    This week Florida celebrated the 500th anniversary of the day when Ponce de Leon stepped onto the shores of what he thought was a large island and called the land "La Florida.''

    But the modern-day state of Florida built on the lure of sunshine and myth of eternal youth is still grappling with how to tell its first city's story - a rich history of centuries-old multiculturalism, yet distorted by useful falsehoods aimed at entertaining tourists who are important to its economy.

    Take that trolley tour, for instance. Ponce de Leon wasn't especially short, the natives weren't especially tall, and the water at St. Augustine's Fountain of Youth didn't offer eternal youth. In fact, not only did Ponce de Leon never discover a Fountain of Youth, he wasn't even looking for one, historians said.

    "Ponce de Leon has been said to be anywhere from 2 1/2 feet tall to 6 1/2 feet [0.76 meters to 2 meters] tall. The Timucuan Indians were 7 or 8 feet [2.1 meters to 2.4 meters] tall, like they were out of a space-age film or something,'' said J. Michael Francis, a history professor at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg who specializes in Spanish colonial Florida history.

    Even that first moment, when Ponce de Leon stepped onto American soil, is mired in uncertainty, thanks to a missing voyage log that hasn't been seen in centuries. But where the historical record is unclear, promoters of the state over the last century have stepped in to fill in the gaps.

    Where did Ponce land?

    The state's official Viva Florida calendar recognized a landing re-enactment in downtown St. Augustine and ceremonies for unveiling two statues: one in Ponte Vedra, just north of St. Augustine, and a second 185 miles (300 km) farther south in Melbourne Beach. Both communities claim to be the explorer's landing site.

    Certainly both statues can't be in the correct spot, but to the chagrin of historical purists, they also rely on historically inaccurate representations of the explorer himself.

    "Wrong helmet, wrong pants, wrong sword,'' Chad Light, who portrays the explorer as a professional re-enactor, said of the new statues. "They cry history, history, history. But they just don't care.''

    The cautious line between entertaining and educating visitors is most apparent in St. Augustine, the former capital of Spanish Florida and the oldest continuously occupied European settlement in what would become the United States. The small city of 13,000 brings in more than $650 million per year in tourism dollars.

    When British settlers were founding Jamestown, Virginia, at the launch of the 17th century, St. Augustine was a 50-year-old cultural hub.

    Its 500 residents included Portuguese, French, Germans, Flemish, Native Americans and Africans, both free and enslaved. There were even two influential Irishmen, one a parish priest, the other a high-ranking merchant.

    History teachers looking for more examples of strong women in early America can look to early St. Augustine, where a chieftainess, Dona Maria Melendez, ruled the Timucuan tribes along the Atlantic Coast in parts of Georgia and Florida.

    St. Augustine became a destination for historically minded tourists beginning in the late 19th century, when railroad magnate Henry Flagler built a magnificent hotel that attracted wealthy tourists from the U.S. Northeast. He called it the Ponce de Leon.

    A mile north of the hotel, an enterprising businesswoman began calling her property the Fountain of Youth and charged visitors to drink from the natural spring on the lush site.

    "I think the real history is far more fascinating, far more engaging, far more interesting than some of the narratives you hear,'' Francis said.

    Kathleen Deagan, a University of Florida archaeologist who has led annual excavations in St. Augustine for 30 years, said the city's history has been blurred for decades. In documents from the 1930s, historians railed against St. Augustine carriage drivers' distortions of the truth.

    Setting history straight

    Tourists walk past The Cuna Street Toy Shop, right, and Knock on Wood, two historic buildings on Cuna Street in the historic section of St. Augustine, Florida. (file photo)Tourists walk past The Cuna Street Toy Shop, right, and Knock on Wood, two historic buildings on Cuna Street in the historic section of St. Augustine, Florida. (file photo)
    x
    Tourists walk past The Cuna Street Toy Shop, right, and Knock on Wood, two historic buildings on Cuna Street in the historic section of St. Augustine, Florida. (file photo)
    Tourists walk past The Cuna Street Toy Shop, right, and Knock on Wood, two historic buildings on Cuna Street in the historic section of St. Augustine, Florida. (file photo)
    One new attraction in St. Augustine, the Colonial Quarter, attempts to set straight that historical record. Deagan was among the University of Florida experts who helped vet information presented at the new downtown attraction, which offers visitors a look at four centuries' worth of history in one downtown venue.

    Take the Fountain of Youth property, for instance. Though it was set aside a century ago as an imagined piece of the Ponce de Leon story, researchers in the last half-century have learned that the area was a Timucuan Indian village before the Spanish arrived and is likely the spot where Spanish sailor Pedro Menendez de Aviles founded St. Augustine in 1565.

    "In a sense, it's a great paradox,'' Francis said. "By creating this site as a Fountain of Youth Park, they've basically preserved one of the most important archaeological sites in the state.''

    You May Like

    Rubio Looks to Surge in New Hampshire

    Republican presidential candidate has moved into second place in several recent surveys and appears to be gaining ground on longtime frontrunner Donald Trump

    UN Calls for Global Ban on Female Genital Mutilation

    Recent UNICEF report finds at least 200 million girls and women alive today have undergone female genital mutilation in 30 countries

    UN Pilots New Peace Approach in CAR

    Approach launched in northern town of Kaga Bandoro, where former combatants of mainly Muslim Seleka armed group and Christian and animist anti-Balaka movement are being paid to do community work

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    German Artists to Memorialize Refugees With Life Jacket Exhibiti
    X
    Hamada Elsaram
    February 05, 2016 4:30 PM
    Sold in every kind of shop in some Turkish port towns, life jackets have become a symbol of the refugee crisis that brought a million people to Europe in 2015.  On the shores of Lesbos, Greece, German artists collect discarded life jackets as they prepare an art installation they plan to display in Germany.  For VOA, Hamada Elrasam has this report from Lesbos, Greece.
    Video

    Video German Artists to Memorialize Refugees With Life Jacket Exhibit

    Sold in every kind of shop in some Turkish port towns, life jackets have become a symbol of the refugee crisis that brought a million people to Europe in 2015.  On the shores of Lesbos, Greece, German artists collect discarded life jackets as they prepare an art installation they plan to display in Germany.  For VOA, Hamada Elrasam has this report from Lesbos, Greece.
    Video

    Video E-readers Help Ease Africa's Book Shortage

    Millions of people in Africa can't read, and there's a chronic shortage of books. A non-profit organization called Worldreader is trying to help change all that one e-reader at a time. VOA’s Deborah Block tells us about a girls' school in Nairobi, Kenya where Worldreader is making a difference.
    Video

    Video Genius Lets World Share Its Knowledge

    Inspired by crowdsourcing companies like Wikipedia, Genius allows anyone to edit anything on the web, using its web annotation tool
    Video

    Video Former Drug CEO Martin Shkreli Angers US Lawmakers

    A former U.S. pharmaceutical business executive has angered lawmakers by refusing to explain why he raised the price of a life-saving pill by 5,000 percent. Martin Shkreli was removed from a congressional hearing on Thursday after citing his Fifth Amendment right to stay silent. Zlatica Hoke has more.
    Video

    Video Super Bowl TV Commercials are Super Business for Advertisers

    The Super Bowl, the championship clash between the two top teams in American Football, is the most-watched sporting event of the year, and advertisers are lining up and paying big bucks to get their commercials on the air. In fact, the TV commercials during the Super Bowl have become one of the most anticipated and popular features of the event. VOA's Brian Allen has a sneak peek of what you can expect to see when the big game goes to commercial break, and the real entertainment begins.
    Video

    Video In Philippines, Mixed Feelings About Greater US Military Presence

    In the Philippines, some who will be directly affected by a recent Supreme Court decision clearing the way for more United States troop visits are having mixed reactions.  The increased rotations come at a time when the Philippines is trying to build up its military in the face of growing maritime assertiveness from China.  From Bahile, Palawan on the coast of the South China Sea, Simone Orendain has this story.
    Video

    Video Microcephaly's Connection to Zika: Guilty Until Proven Innocent

    The Zika virus rarely causes problems for the people who get it, but it seems to be having a devastating impact on babies whose mothers are infected with Zika. VOA's Carol Pearson has more.
    Video

    Video Solar Innovation Provides Cheap, Clean Energy to Kenya Residents

    In Kenya, a company called M-Kopa Solar is providing clean energy to more than 300,000 homes across East Africa by allowing customers to "pay-as-you-go" via their cell phones. As Lenny Ruvaga reports from Kangemi, customers pay a small deposit for a solar unit and then pay less than a dollar a day to get clean energy to light up their homes or businesses.
    Video

    Video Stunning Artworks Attract Record Crowds, Thanks to Social Media

    A new exhibit at the oldest art museum in America is shattering attendance records. Thousands of visitors are lining up to see nine giant works of art that have gotten a much-deserved shot of viral marketing. The 150-year-old Smithsonian American Art Museum has never had a response quite like this. VOA's Julie Taboh reports.
    Video

    Video Apprenticeships Put Americans on Path Back to Work

    Trying to get more people into the U.S. workforce, the Obama administration last year announced $175 million in grants towards apprenticeship programs. VOA White House correspondent Aru Pande went inside one training center outside of Washington that has gained national recognition for helping put people on the path to employment.
    Video

    Video New Material May Reduce Concussion Effects

    As the 2016 National Football League season reaches its summit at the Super Bowl this coming Sunday (2/7), scientists are trying to learn how to more effectively protect football players from dangerous and damaging concussions. Researchers at Cardiff and Cambridge Universities say their origami-based material may solve the problem. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Saudi Arabian Women's Sports Chip Away at Stereotypes

    Saudi Arabian female athletes say that sports are on the front line of busting traditions that quash women’s voices, both locally and internationally. In their hometown of Jeddah, a group of basketball players say that by connecting sports to health issues, they are encouraging women and girls to get out of their homes and participate in public life. VOA’s Heather Murdock reports.
    Video

    Video A Year Later, Fortunes Mixed for Syrians Forging New Lives in Berlin

    In April of last year, VOA followed the progress of six young Syrian refugees -- four brothers and their two friends -- as they made their way from Libya to Italy by boat, and eventually to Germany. Reporter Henry Ridgwell caught up with the refugees again in Berlin, as they struggle to forge new lives amid the turmoil of Europe's refugee crisis.
    Video

    Video Zika Virus May be Hard to Stop

    With the Zika virus spreading rapidly, the World Health Organization Monday declared Zika a global health emergency. As Alberto Pimienta reports, for many governments and experts, the worst is yet to come.