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By Marvin Baker, a new weekly column in The Kenmare News

 

Did we forget Ponce de Leon? . . .

Posted 12/29/15 (Tue)

It is generally accepted in high school history that the first settlement in what is now the United States was the Jamestown Colony in Virginia, which was established in May 1607.

Years later, the Pilgrims chose to leave England and settled at Plymouth, Mass., in 1620.

Unfortunately, history isn’t quite accurate regarding this because St. Augustine, Florida was the first “permanent” settlement in what is now the United States and that was founded in 1565 by the Spanish, not the British.

We’ve all learned about St. Augustine as being the oldest “community” in the nation, however, few times if any, is the distinction made between the British and the Spanish, or the dates, which leads a lot of students to believe that Jamestown, or in some cases, Plymouth, as being the first settlement.

In fact, St. Augustine wasn’t actually the first U.S. settlement.

Ponce de Leon arrived in what is now Brevard County, Florida in 1513 looking for the fountain of youth. Although he never found it, numerous other things resulted from his landing, just 21 years after Columbus “discovered” the new world.

If that doesn’t upset the historical apple cart, the French, under the command of Capt. Jean Ribault, began exploring the part of Florida in 1562 that is north of St. Augustine. Two years later the French established Fort Caroline, which is at present-day Jacksonville.

Truth be told, it was the Ponce de Leon exploration that led the way to the development of Florida and trade with Cuba.

This all started taking place 94 years before Jamestown was settled.

Like the French, the Spanish set up forts up and down the Atlantic coast primarily to fight off “hostile Indians” and for protection of merchant ships that were traveling from Spain to Cuba.

Because the forts weren’t “permenant,” they don’t often get the historical recognition they should probably have.

The two nations often raided each other’s posts and fought each other more than either of them fought the Indians.

But it was the Ais Indian tribe that befriended many of the Spaniards which eventually led to the French being driven out of present-day Florida. The Ais claimed property from present-day Cape Canaveral to St. Lucie, in Brevard County.

During the 1500s and after Ponce de Leon served as governor of Puerto Rico and was killed in an Indian attack in Florida in 1521, the Spanish began bringing priests to the “new Spain” to “christianize the savages.”

This led to further settlement of eastern Florida and by 1600, there were approximately 100 Catholic missions, mostly in Florida, with a few in present-day Georgia.

By 1600, there were approximately 350 European settlers in Florida and a guess of about 1.2 million Indians. There were also hundreds of slaves brought to Florida during the same time period, but there isn’t an accurate census to determine a true number.

The point here is that hundreds, perhaps thousands of people were settled in present-day Florida years before the Jamestown Colony was founded. And yes, according to recorded history, 350 European inhabitants occupied Florida in 1600.

However, even with that low a number of Europeans, it is said that 95 percent of the native population was wiped out, not because of raids and skirmishes, but because of diseases brought over from Europe.

It is also ironic that Ponce de Leon was the one credited with searching for the fountain of youth, but really nothing more in American history.

That fountain of youth was communicated to Ponce de Leon through the Indians but it wasn’t a fountain of water as we might imagine, it was in certain plants in the jungle that apparently had the right properties to retard aging, at least slightly.

Florida had a lot of these “mysteries” that most Americans don’t even know about. As an example, the Spanish brought tens of thousands of cattle to Florida in the 1500s, grazed them and shipped them to Cuba where a population had already been established.

Florida seceded from the U.S. during the Civil War but Key West remained a part of the union because of a naval base there.

Artifacts show that the Tampa Bay area was inhabited thousands of years before the first Europeans arrived.

So, the next time someone talks about Plymouth or Jamestown, remind them of Ponce de Leon and his contributions to American history.