They were well used to the sea, and to the waters of the Caribbean, its islands and its people. Three ships set out following rumor of a large island to the north of their home port in Puerto Rico. Sailing on, these explorers were beginning to wonder if there was in fact another land for them to find. At Easter, a time known to these Spaniards as Pasqua Florida, they sighted such a land. It was a place vibrant with flowers and so, in honor of the holiday — the feast of flowers — and the look of the land they found, the expedition leader named the land Florida. His name was Juan Ponce de Leon.
Where did they first land? Perhaps at Ponte Vedra, near Saint Augustine, although other locations on along Florida’s east coast also claim the honor.
You’ll have heard of the settlers at Jamestown, in Virginia, in 1607, and of the Pilgrims landing in Massachusetts in 1620. Ponce de Leon stepped ashore almost a century earlier, in the spring of 1513. Five hundred years ago.
These early Spanish explorers and those who followed under the Spanish flag left their marks long before those settlers of the more northern colonies arrived. Ponce de Leon explored quite a bit of Florida’s coast on that first voyage, and came back for another. Hernando de Soto’s expedition celebrated the first Christmas mass in what is now the United States at Tallahassee in 1539. Tristan de Luna explored Pensacola in the 1550s, and by 1565 Pedro Menendez de Aviles was founding Saint Augustine, which would become the oldest continuously occupied European settlement in the United States.
Gradually, a chain of missions and forts grew between Saint Augustine in the east and Pensacola in the west. Politics, wars, and economic changes saw Florida under different flags a number of times through history. It was under Spanish rule for nearly three hundred years. Place names, buildings, landmarks, and culture have all been influenced by Spain’s long connection with Florida, a connection which is being celebrated especially as the five hundredth anniversary of Juan Ponce de Leon’s landing is marked and as Saint Augustine will soon be celebrating its 450th birthday.
As you journey through this part of Florida’s past, these places in the northern part of the state are well worth your own exploration
Presidio Santa Maria de Galve is an archeological site also known as First Pensacola. Scholars from he University of West Florida is working the site, which has led them to items which help form a picture of life in the fort and in this west Florida town centuries ago.
Museum of Florida History in Tallahassee: the whole history of Florida, from prehistoric mammoths and giant armadillos up through citrus growing and tourism is covered here. Of especial interest about the Spanish presence in Florida is an exhibit in which sails similar to those which caught the wind on Spanish ships hang above displays of gold and silver from the Plate Fleet, arranged as the coins were found on the ocean floor. Along side the coins you’ll see reminders of the sailors’ lives, too, among them carpenter’s tools, a rosary, a cup, a broken dish, a fork and spoon.
There’s a nearby area in the museum which also suggests the human dimension of what it was like to sail on such ship, and what it was like to see them land, through the use of sound, structure, and story.
Old Town Fernandina, north of Saint Augustine, was the last town laid out and designed according to the Laws of the Indies, regulations developed of the Spanish government to guide settlement in the New World. The original buildings are gone but the town plan remains: the streets are as first planned out by the Spaniards and current street names are translations of their original Spanish ones. As you walk in the area overlooking the river where where people once gathered in the town plaza, perhaps you’ll hear a whisper of words in Spanish or catch a a glimpse of a ghost passing by.
If there are Spanish ghosts anywhere in north Florida, the Castillo de San Marcos. in Saint Augustine might well be a place where they meet up. Not that it’s a spooky place — it is, though, a place where history is very real. A wooden fort was built at the location as the city was beginning in 1565. After a century of attacks and the fort burning to the ground a few times, Queen Mariana of Spain ordered building with more durable material. The material, in this case, was coquina, a sort of limestone formed from seashells, quarried on nearby Anastasia Island. African slaves, Native Americans, and Spaniards all worked on building the fort over nearly a quarter century’s time. It was completed in 1695 and stands today as a vivid reminder and gateway into the story of Spain in Florida. A gateway into other stories of Florida history as well: Seminole warrior Osceola was imprisoned at the Castillo for a time, and the twenty rooms of the star shaped fort have seen people of many nationalities come and go. Today, the Castillo and the land surrounding it are a national historic site, marking the oldest continuously inhabited European settlement in North America. You can still see the even more ancient seashells in the coquina that forms the walls of the Castillo.
Mission Nombre de Dios: It was on this mission site that Pedro Menendez de Aviles knelt to kiss a cross presented to him by his expedition’s chaplain, Father Francisco Lopez de Mendoza Grajales, on 8 September 1565. At Nombre de Dios the first parish mass at what would become the new city was celebrated. It remains an active site of devotion to Our Lady today. Should you visit on a quiet autumn morning, though, there are times when all that history both fades and becomes present and you may feel a bit of what those early arriving Spaniards felt about the landscape of sea and shore.
There are many locations across Florida having to do with the intertwined history of Florida and Spain, and especially at this time when anniversaries are being marked, many special events as well. A good place to look into these is
Florida Living History is a good place to learn more about this history as well. Among other things they offer an interactive booklet for children and adults to share called First Encounters: When America, Europe, and Africa First Met.
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