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

Koreas Mark 61st Anniversary of War Armistice

Muted observances on both sides of heavily-armed Demilitarized Zone that separates two decades-long enemies More

Judge Declares Washington DC Ban on Public Handguns Unconstitutional

Ruling overturns capital city's prohibition on carrying guns in pubic More

Pricey Hepatitis C Drug Draws Criticism

Activists are using the International AIDS Conference to criticize drug companies for charging high prices for life-saving therapies More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Students in Business for Themselvesi
X
Mike O'Sullivan
July 26, 2014 11:04 AM
They're only high school students, but they are making accessories for shoes, fabricating backpacks and doing product photography - all through their own businesses. It's the result of a partnership between a non-profit organization that teaches entrepreneurship and their schools. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan and Deyane Moses met the budding entrepreneurs near Los Angeles.
Video

Video Students in Business for Themselves

They're only high school students, but they are making accessories for shoes, fabricating backpacks and doing product photography - all through their own businesses. It's the result of a partnership between a non-profit organization that teaches entrepreneurship and their schools. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan and Deyane Moses met the budding entrepreneurs near Los Angeles.
Video

Video Astronauts Train in Underwater Lab

In the world’s only underwater laboratory, four U.S. astronauts train for a planned visit to an asteroid. The lab - called Aquarius- is located five kilometers off Key Largo, in southern Florida. Living in close quarters and making excursions only into the surrounding ocean, they try to simulate the daily routine of a crew that will someday travel to collect samples of a rock orbiting far away from earth. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Not Even Monks Spared From Thailand’s Junta-Backed Morality Push

With Thailand’s military government firmly in control after May’s bloodless coup, authorities are carrying out plans they say are aimed at restoring discipline, morality and patriotism to all Thais. The measures include a crackdown on illegal gambling, education reforms to promote students’ moral development, and a new 24-hour phone hotline for citizens to report misbehaving monks. Steve Sandford reports from Bangkok.
Video

Video Virtual Program Teaches Farming Skills

In a fast-changing world beset by unpredictable climate conditions, farmers cannot afford to ignore new technology. Researchers in Australia are developing an online virtual world program to share information about climate change and more sustainable farming techniques for sugar cane growers. As VOA's Zlatica Hoke reports, the idea is to create a wider support network for farmers.
Video

Video Airline Expert: Missile will Show Signature on Debris

The debris field from Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 is spread over a 21-kilometer radius in eastern Ukraine. It is expected to take investigators months to sort through the airplane pieces to learn about the missile that brought down the jetliner and who fired it. VOAs Carolyn Presutti explains how this work will be done.
Video

Video Treatment for Childhood Epilepsy Heats up Medical Marijuana Debate

In the United States, marijuana is classed as an illegal drug by the federal government. But nearly half the states have legalized it, to some degree. Proponents say some strains of marijuana might have exceptional health benefits, for treating pain or inflammation in chronic conditions such as cancer, multiple sclerosis and epilepsy. Shelley Schlender reports on a strain of medical marijuana developed in Colorado that is reputed to reduce seizures in childhood epilepsy
Video

Video Airbus Adds Metal 3D Printed Parts to New Jets

By the end of this year, European aircraft manufacturing consortium Airbus plans to deliver the first of its new, extra-wide-body passenger jets, the A350-XWB. Among other technological innovations, the new plane will also incorporate metal parts made in a 3-D printer. VOA's George Putic has more.
Video

Video AIDS Conference Welcomes Exciting Developments in HIV Treatment, Prevention

Significant strides have been made in recent years toward the treatment and prevention of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. This year, at the International AIDS Conference, the AIDS community welcomed progress on a new pill that may prevent transmission of the deadly virus. VOA’s Anita Powell reports from Melbourne, Australia.
Video

Video IAEA: Iran Turns its Enriched Uranium Into Less Harmful Form

Iran has converted its stockpiles of enriched uranium into a less dangerous form that is more difficult to use for nuclear weapons, according to the United Nations’ Atomic Energy Agency. The move complies with an interim deal reached with Western powers on Iran's nuclear program last year, in exchange for easing of sanctions. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London.

AppleAndroid