By Bartholomew Madukwe
Like the saying that success does not come with ease, neither will you reap in abundance when you have sowed nothing, so was Spanish explorer, Juan Ponce de León, in whose memory April 2 is celebrated as Pascua Florida day, in Florida, the United States (USA).
Pascua Florida Day is Florida’s state day, celebrated on April 2. The week commemorates the founding of Florida by Ponce de León on April 2, 1513. When April 2 falls on a Saturday or Sunday, the governor may declare either the preceding Friday or following Monday as the state day.
According to the 2007 Florida Senate Statutes, the Governor of Florida may annually issue a proclamation designating April 2 as the state day and designating the week of March 27 to April 2 as “Pascua Florida Week” and calling upon public schools and citizens of Florida to observe the same as a patriotic occasion.
Ponce de León was born in Santervás de Campos, Valladolid, Spain in 1474 and died July 1521 (aged 47). He was the 1st, 3rd and 7th Governor of Puerto Rico and served in the Spanish military from a young age. He was married to Leonor, and first came to the Americas with Christopher Columbus’s second expedition in 1493.
The Spanish explorer became Governor of Puerto Rico in 1508-1509, 1510–1511 and 1515–1519. By the early 1500s, Ponce de León was a top military official in the colonial government of Hispaniola, where he helped crush a rebellion of the native Taino people.
He was authorized to explore the neighboring island of Puerto Rico in 1508 and was named the first Governor of Puerto Rico by appointment of the Spanish crown in 1509. While Ponce de León grew quite wealthy from his plantations and mines, he faced an ongoing legal conflict with Diego Columbus, the late Christopher Columbus’s son, over the right to govern Puerto Rico.
After a long court battle, Columbus replaced Ponce de León as governor in 1511. Ponce de León decided to follow the advice of the sympathetic King Ferdinand and explore more of the Caribbean Sea.
HOW FLORIDA WAS FOUND
In 1513, Ponce de León embarked on the first known European expedition to La Florida, which he named during his first voyage to the area. He landed somewhere along Florida’s east coast, then charted the Atlantic coast down to the Florida Keys and north along the Gulf coast, perhaps as far as Charlotte Harbor.
Ponce de León returned to Spain in 1514 and was knighted by King Ferdinand, who also reinstated him as the governor of Puerto Rico and authorized him to settle Florida. He returned to the Caribbean in 1515, but plans to organize an expedition to Florida were delayed by the death of King Ferdinand in 1516, after which Ponce de León again traveled to Spain to defend his grants and titles.
In 1521, Ponce de León finally returned to southwest Florida with the first large-scale attempt to establish a Spanish colony in what is now the continental United States. However, the native Calusa people fiercely resisted the incursion, and he was seriously wounded in a skirmish.
The colonization attempt was abandoned, and its leader died from his wounds soon after returning to Cuba. Ponce de León was interred in Puerto Rico, and his tomb is located inside of the Cathedral of San Juan Bautista in San Juan.
FIRST VOYAGE TO FLORIDA
In February 1512, a royal contract was dispatched outlining Ponce de León’s rights and authorities to search for “the Islands of Benimy”. The contract stipulated that he held exclusive rights to the discovery of Benimy and neighboring islands for the next three years. He would be governor for life of any lands he discovered, but he was expected to finance for himself all costs of exploration and settlement. In addition, the contract gave specific instructions for the distribution of gold, Native Americans, and other profits extracted from the new lands.
Ponce de León equipped three ships with at least 200 men at his own expense and set out from Puerto Rico on March 4, 1513. The only near contemporary description known for this expedition comes from Antonio de Herrera y Tordesillas, a Spanish historian who apparently had access to the original ships’ logs or related secondary sources from which he created a summary of the voyage published in 1601.
The three ships in this small fleet were the Santiago, the San Cristobal and the Santa Maria de la Consolacion. Anton de Alaminos was their chief pilot. He was already an experienced sailor, and would become one of the most respected pilots in the region. After leaving Puerto Rico, they sailed northwest along the great chain of Bahama Islands, known then as the Lucayos.
PASCUA FLORIDA (FESTIVAL OF FLOWERS)
On March 27, Easter Sunday, they sighted an island that was unfamiliar to the sailors on the expedition. Because many Spanish seamen were acquainted with the Bahamas, which had been depopulated by slaving ventures, some scholars believe that this “island” was actually Florida, as it was thought to be an island for several years after its formal discovery. Other scholars have speculated that this island was one of the northern Bahama islands, perhaps Great Abaco.
For the next several days the fleet crossed open water until April 2, 1513, when they sighted land which Ponce de León believed was another island. He named it La Florida in recognition of the verdant landscape and because it was the Easter season, which the Spaniards called Pascua Florida (Festival of Flowers).
The following day they came ashore to seek information and take possession of this new land. This sighting was recorded at noon the day before with either a quadrant or a mariner’s astrolabe, and the expedition sailed north for the remainder of the day before anchoring for the night and rowing ashore the following morning.
GULF STREAM/CALUSA ENCOUNTER
After remaining in the area of their first landing for about five days, the ships turned south for further exploration of the coast.
On April 8, they encountered a current so strong that it pushed them backwards and forced them to seek anchorage. The tiniest ship, the San Cristobal, was carried out of sight and lost for two days. This was the first encounter with the Gulf Stream where it reaches maximum force between the Florida coast and the Bahamas.
Because of the powerful boost provided by the current, it would soon become the primary route for eastbound ships leaving the Spanish Indies bound for Europe. They continued down the coast hugging the shore to avoid the strong head current. By May 4 the fleet reached and named Biscayne Bay and took on water at an island they named Santa Marta (now Key Biscayne) and explored the Tequesta Miami mound town at the mouth of the Miami River. The Tequestadid not engage the Spanish, they evacuated into the coastal woodlands.
On May 15, they left Biscayne Bay and sailed along the Florida Keys, looking for a passage to head north and explore the west coast of the Florida peninsula. From a distance the Keys reminded Ponce de León of men who were suffering, so he named them Los Martires (the Martyrs).
Eventually they found a gap in the reefs and sailed to the north and other times to the northeast until they reached the Florida mainland on May 23, where they encountered the Calusa, who refused to trade and drove off the Spanish ships by surrounding them with warriors in sea canoes armed with long bows.
Ponce de León anchored for several days to take on water and repair the ships. They were approached by Calusa, who might have been initially interested in trading but relations soon turned hostile. Several skirmishes followed with casualties on both sides and the Spaniards took eight Indians captive, including one to become a translator.
On June 4, there was another encounter with natives near Sanibel Island and the Calusa in war canoes, with the Spanish sinking a fourth of them. An unsubstantiated claim to justify Spanish retreat.
On June 14 they set sail again looking for a chain of islands in the west that had been described by their captives. They reached the Dry Tortugas on June 21. There they captured giant sea turtles, Caribbean monk seals, and thousands of seabirds. From these islands they sailed southwest in an apparent attempt to circle around Cuba and return home to Puerto Rico.
Failing to take into account the powerful currents pushing them eastward, they struck the northeast shore of Cuba and were initially confused about their location. Once they regained their bearings, the fleet retraced their route east along the Florida Keys and around the Florida peninsula, reaching Grand Bahama on July 8. They were surprised to come across another Spanish ship, piloted by Diego Miruelo, who was either on a slaving voyage or had been sent by Diego Colón to spy on Ponce de León. Shortly thereafter Miruelo’s ship was wrecked in a storm and Ponce de León rescued the stranded crew.
From here the little fleet disbanded. Ponce de León tasked the Santa Mariawith further exploration while he returned home with the rest of crew. Ponce de León reached Puerto Rico on October 19 after having been away for almost eight months. The other ship, after further explorations returned safely on February 20, 1514.