South Florida is not known as the Gold and Treasure Coasts for nothing. This stretch of land was once a heavily trafficked area as Spanish galleons laden with treasure raced from the New World along the Gulf Stream back to their home ports in Europe. Strewn across our shores and breakwaters is an unfathomable fortune, left to shift ever deeper beneath the sands of time.
But as with all widespread endeavors, there was a pioneering explorer who, armed with wit, gumption and a little moxie, struck a path that led onto greater things.
Spain’s pioneering figure was conquistador Juan Ponce de León y Figueroa (right), an unemployed solider-turned-governor of a faraway outpost in Puerto Rico. He was a man destined for history books, both for his exploits and his folly—legend of his search for the Fountain of Youth has spurred many a tourist attraction in St. Augustine.
The man who discovered Florida was a Christopher Columbus acolyte, joining the explorer on his second voyage to the New World in 1493. After showing his worth in leadership roles by snuffing an uprising in Hispaniola in 1504, de León was set on an insider’s track within the Spanish bureaucracy, landing provincial governorships that eventually lead to the settlement of Puerto Rico and governorship of the island.
In 1512, by the urging of Spain’s King Ferdinand, de León was commissioned to head north of Hispaniola in search of new land and bigger fortunes. His quest, to search for the Islands of Benimy Bimini, ended in a bigger find, as he stumbled upon the coast of Florida in 1513, a week after Easter. Dubbing her La Florida, named for the lush and verdant landscape, de León claimed the virgin territory for Spain, thus beginning centuries of colonial competition for mainland North America.
The Richard and Pat Johnson Palm Beach County History Museum at the Historical Society of Palm Beach County explores the exploits of Florida’s founder in the traveling exhibit “Claiming La Florida: On Board with Juan Ponce de León,” on display through June 29, 2013. On the eve of Florida’s quincentennial (that’s 500 years, folks), “Claiming La Florida” delves into the life of the legendary de León, a man driven by ambition and a perceived mission from God. The exhibit also examines the lives of other early explorers and settlers, the challenges they faced, the high stakes of colonial expansion for European empires and the indelible footprint they left in the soil of the New World.
In addition to exhibition at the Johnson History Museum, the Historical Society has arranged a slew of special lectures to take place at the Episcopal Church of Bethesda-by-the-Sea. Each speaks to a different aspect of Florida’s quincentennial and de León’s fateful exploration of the Sunshine State:
- On November 14 at 3 p.m., J. Michael Francis, PhD, will lead the lecture “Finding Ponce: Myth, History, and the Quest for the Fountain of Youth.” The lecture takes a look at the early days of Spanish exploration of Florida, from de León in 1513 to the settlement of St. Augustine in 1565 and the tumultuous time in between.
- On January 9 at 3 p.m., Juan Riera, PhD, will present the lecture “The 16th Century Maritime World of La Florida.” The sixteenth century was the era of the galleon and caravel, domineering ocean-going vessels designed for long voyage and exploration. These ships forged the path of the New World, eventually leading to one of the greatest maritime nations, the United States. Riera’s lecture also discusses topics such as Florida's role in the eventual decline of Spain's naval power.
- On March 13 at 3 p.m., Gary Mormino, PhD, will lead the lecture “New and Old World Foodways in Florida: Eating for 500”—a must for any and all foodies. Morimino explores the beginning of the “Columbian Exchange,” an inadvertent side effect of exploration that altered the course of history, and cuisine, throughout the world. Much has been said about the maladies, diseases and vices Europeans brought to the New World, but there was also an exchange of foodstuffs that fundamentally changed the way the world eats, then and now. Aboard the galleons that made the trek to the New World came livestock, wheat and oranges; back went potatoes, tomatoes and corn—and thus the global foodie movement began. Too bad they didn’t have Michelin Guides 500 years ago.