April 1, 2013 - New York Times
Ponce de León, Exposed
By T. D. ALLMAN
THIS week is the celebration of the 500th anniversary of Juan Ponce de León’s purported discovery of Florida. Commemorations include the unveiling of “The First Landing,” a larger-than-life statue of Ponce in Melbourne Beach, as well as the introduction by the Postal Service of “La Florida,” a four-stamp series timed to honor what is being presented as the founding moment in our country’s history.
These celebrations are a fiesta of illusion. As Spain’s conquistadors discovered, and we too often forget, Florida is like Play-Doh. Take the goo; mold it to your dream. Then watch the dream ooze back into goo. Contrary to what our school books taught us, Ponce did not discover Florida. He never did much of anything here except get himself killed.
Florida probably was first sighted by Portuguese navigators, or perhaps by the Cabots sailing from England. Either way, it started appearing on maps as early as 1500. By 1510, its distinctive peninsular shape had emerged clearly on maps in Europe. By 1513, when Ponce de Léon first arrived, so many Europeans had visited Florida that some Indians greeted him in Spanish.
Ponce never went anywhere near St. Augustine, the city where he is said to have discovered the Fountain of Youth. He was not an old man. That tale was concocted by Washington Irving more than 300 years later. Ponce was after gold, but Florida had none to be found. He left and might never have returned but for the news that Cortés had found gold in Mexico. In 1521 Ponce — envious, vigorous, avaricious — made the fatal mistake of trying his Florida luck again.
On that second voyage he achieved one real Florida first, albeit an inglorious one. In a skirmish with native inhabitants, Ponce fired the first shots in what would turn into a 300-year war of ethnic cleansing. More American soldiers would die trying to subdue Florida than in all the Indian battles in the West.
Ponce himself was struck by an arrow. The wound wasn’t serious, but the Spaniards were as indifferent to sepsis as they were alert to heresy. What if Ponce had returned to Spain with little vials that he claimed contained the elixir of immortality? He would have been transferred expeditiously into the hands of the Inquisition. Instead, he died of fever in Havana, having discovered nothing, founded nothing and achieved nothing.
Ponce was only the first dreamer to have Florida swallow up his ambitions. Arriving in 1539, Hernando de Soto wandered fruitlessly across the future southeast before dying mad and broke, having squandered his fortune in gold looted from Peru. He did leave one legacy: his pigs, the ancestors of the feral pigs that today rummage around America in the millions. De Soto was the Johnny Appleseed of pigs. That account of his explorations you were taught in school was made up by a Congressional commission in the 1930s.
Alarmed at how Florida destroyed rather than created wealth, King Philip II banned further expeditions. As one royal report pointed out, Florida was “too poor in resources, and her harbors too barred and shallow to permit practicable settlement.” That was until 1565, when Spanish spies discovered France had established a settlement near present-day Jacksonville. On the king’s orders a ruthless henchman named Pedro Menéndez de Avilés tore across the Atlantic and brutally massacred the French.
It was Menéndez who founded St. Augustine and established European rule for the first time in the future United States. Thanks to him, Florida became the place where our country’s first slaughter of white men by white men took place. As we like to forget, America was forged in bloodshed.
The Spanish never named anything after Ponce de León. It was the plutocrat Henry Flagler — raised, like every red-blooded American boy back then, on the tales of Washington Irving — who resurrected the explorer in the 1880s, naming his grandiose hotel in St. Augustine after him. The Ponce de Léon hotel, like Flagler’s Florida railroad, lost money from the start. “I would have been a rich man,” the tycoon later remarked, “if it hadn’t been for Florida.”
Then, in the late 1920s, a Georgia preacher’s son named Walter Fraser bought some St. Augustine swampland at Depression-era prices. A P.R. genius, Fraser turned a desecrated graveyard into the Fountain of Youth “attraction” so many of us visited as children.
To this day Floridians keep trying to turn swampland into real estate, then act surprised when they sink in the muck. If we took the trouble to understand the past, we might stop building our lives on top of sinkholes. Even the organizers of the festivities now admit the truth about Ponce, but Florida’s true history won’t keep them from celebrating this big quincentennial nonevent — a companion to all those Confederate victories that never happened, a prelude for the 200th anniversary celebrations of America’s “purchase” of Florida, which also never happened.
As Menéndez showed, the pretense of the New World’s moral exceptionalism was unfounded from the start. Violence and delusion made Florida what it is today; as the state’s unceasing melodramas demonstrate, they stalk us still. We fool ourselves and ill serve our children when we deny the true, often tragic nature of history.
T. D. Allman is the author, most recently, of “Finding Florida: The True History of the Sunshine State.”
MORE IN OPINION (2 OF 22 ARTICLES)
Op-Ed Columnist: Freedom Loses One
Read More »