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Issue 628

02/21/2013 at 3:47pm

Ponce de Leon's FloridaVIVA Florida Celebrates 500 Years
Caption: Ponce de Leon’s Florida.
Map courtesy of

Florida is celebrating a milestone this year.500 years ago, on April 2,1513, Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon landed on the east coast of Florida– thinking at first he'd discovered another island in the Bahamian chain – named the land 'La Florida' (Land of Flowers) in honor of the Easter holiday. This was 107 years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, making Florida the first state to be discovered by Europeans and the birthplace of what would become the United States of America.

In commemoration of this turning point in history, Governor Rick Scott and the Florida Department of State are leading a statewide initiative to highlight 500 years of historic people, places and events in present-day Florida since the arrival Ponce de León. Called 'Viva Florida 500' - and with an emphasis on 'commemoration rather than celebration' - the initiative features more than 200 events throughout the state, including many in Southwest Florida. Recently several local residents attended one of those events called The Conquistadors and the Calusa. Hosted by the Lee Trust for Historic Preservation, the symposium – held at the Koreshan State Historic Site Arts Hall – featured lead scholars speaking on the history of American Indians in Florida, beginning with de Leon's first encounters with the Calusas in Southwest Florida to the present-day.

BoCC Chairman and Fort Myers native Cecil Pendergrass opened the symposium, saying that the commission is committed to educating future generations and residents about Florida's rich and varied history.

Dr. Jerald Milanich, Professor Emeritus at the University of Florida gave the first presentation where he chronicled the Calusa's first encounters with the Spanish explorers.

Milanich began by saying that while there is no definitive proof as to precisely where de Leon first landed, a careful study of the information available shows that the expedition of three ships actually landed quite a bit south of St. Augustine.

"By studying a history of the account by Herrara in 1602 and a map drawn by another explorer on the expedition - we can ascertain that Ponce likely landed just north of Cape Canaveral, possibly at the shell mound called Turtle Island, which was the tallest feature on the coast in 1513, he said. "Most researchers concur that, after stopping at Riveria Beach on May 20th, Ponce's expedition rounded the state near Key West and turned north into the Gulf. This route dropped them on the coast of SW Florida on May 23rd - just off the coast of Sanibel. Needing firewood and water, the Spaniards sailed southward - perhaps towards Fort Myers Beach - where they spent about three weeks, during which there were minor skirmishes including one where the Indians attacked them in canoes. Despite this, both parties seemed interested in trading.”

The professor added that there are some accounts that during this time de Leon sent a ship exploring the Florida coast as far north as Apalachicola Bay.

"Deciding it was time to return to San Juan, they set sail for home, stopping at an island they were told about-where the was a fierce fight. This may well have been Marco Island,” he said.

Milanich explained that further proof that de Leon was in Estero Bay came in an account written in 1575 by a shipwrecked sailor who lived amongst the Calusas for 17 years.

"The latitudes he gives and the description of a large bay accessible by a shallow inlet pinpoints it exactly,” he said. "That combined with the island of Stababa appearing on the map – the Calusa name for Mound Key, and the capital of the Calusas for many centuries - shows that Ponce's ships must have anchored near there in 1513.”

Milanich said that de Leon returned to Mound Key in 1521, where he was struck by an arrow, an injury from which he would not recover.

"So is Florida going to be able to keep celebrating being the first landing for Europeans – maybe, maybe not,” he concluded. "Seven or eight years ago, a well-known historian discovered that there may be evidence that the English explorer John Cabot arrived in North America in 1499 – so stay tuned!”

Dr. John Worth Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of West Florida then spoke on Spanish-Indian relations from 1513 to the early 1800's. He began by explaining that – following de Leon's failed attempt to set up a colony in 1521 – the Spanish unsuccessfully tried to establish forts five more times before Menendez arrived at Mound Key in 1565.

"From 1565 until 1570, he founded forts all around Florida – all of which were overrun and the settlers killed,” he said. "The fort at Mound Key lasted two years before it was withdrawn after the murder of two successive Calusa chiefs.”

Worth explained that from 1570 until the late 1750's, southern Florida was pretty much left to the Calusas.

"But, while they weren't affected by the slave trade or missionaries, they were affected by the pathogens brought by the Europeans – causing a 90% decline in their numbers over the years,” he said. "Then things began to change. Starting in 1661, northern Florida was being pounded by English-sponsored slave trading – which used Creek and Yamassee Indians to raid other tribes' villages and trade slaves for guns. Eventually, the traders had to find more slaves, so they went to south Florida, where the Calusa fled to Key West and to the islands. The Spanish then brought a number of them to Cuba, but unfortunately most of them died immediately of disease. Those still left in south Florida between 1711 and 1760 were raided by the Creek and Yamassee until they were all gone. The last remnants made their way to Havana where there's a remote possibility that some descendents still exist.”

Dr. Worth said that those Creeks now moved into the southern part of the state where they interacted with Cuban fishermen and were left alone again for a number of years.

"Neither the Spanish nor the English ever had any control over south Florida even when the English took over ownership of the state in 1763,” he said. "These Creeks began to intermarry with the Cuban fishermen and have children. There was never any actual cultural interaction between these Spanish Indians and the Seminoles that were forced into the area later. Despite this fact, however, at the end of the Second Seminole War - in 1837 and 1838 - they were rounded up with the rest of the Seminoles and sent to Oklahoma.”

Next came a presentation from Dr. Andrew Frank, where he talked about the discrepancy between what scholars say about the Seminoles history in Southwest Florida and what the tribe claims.

"We have a pretty good sense where the Seminoles came from in regards to history, but in regards to the Seminoles themselves, they say they've been here forever, even though we've always imagined them as an offshoot of the Creeks,” he said.

Frank explained that this 'war of words' has been going on for many years, with the U.S. Government using the lack of aboriginality to justify war with the tribe and the Seminoles claiming the opposite for compensation for those wars.

"I'm going to try to mediate these two positions,” he said. "I think Worth is right that the Spanish Indians had no interaction with the Seminoles but I'm not entirely convinced that the Calusas didn't. The conventional wisdom is that the Seminoles are an offshoot of the Creek tribe, but historians and anthropologists don't know who the Creeks actually are. They are many independent groups – not a coalesced unified people. That makes it very hard to define the Seminoles as a splinter group since there's nothing to splinter from. Even in the removal documents, the Creek were differentiated.”

Frank says that, during the repopulation of the ancient tribes of South Florida, there is a multi-ethnic and multi-lingual connection, where intermarriage was common, and that there is a possibility that some few Calusa may have remained and been part of that connection.

"These marriages start connecting villages as every year, men were expected to return to their mothers' clans,” he said. "So what does it mean if the Seminoles really did 'grow up' in Florida - enough to be considered indigenous - was there enough connection between villages for a nation to form? The Seminoles imagine themselves as having always been here, having in their histories relationships with the Calusas.”


Keri Hendry Weeg

Local VIVA Florida 500 Events

"The War of Jenkin’s Ear and the Siege of Saint Augustine”

2pm and 7pm, February 22nd. Bonita Springs Community Center – across from Riverside Park on Old U.S. 41

No cost. Sponsored by the Bonita Springs Historical Society

Southwest Florida &

Lee County Fair "Viva 500”

February 21st to March 3rd,

Lee County Civic Center, Bayshore Road

In conjunction with the Lee County Fair, exhibits of student artwork, photography, Vo-tech and horticulture projects and culinary arts in the theme of Viva Florida 500 celebrating Florida history and agriculture. Student awards ceremony at 2:00pm on Sunday, March 3rd.

New World: Lost World

February 23rd, Marco Island Historical Museum, Marco

No cost, reservations suggested. Enjoy a full day of discussion and debate on the Calusa Indian civilization and discover how the world they had known for centuries was forever changed in the mid-1500s by contact with the first Spanish explorers and missionaries.

Florida in the American Revolution

2pm and 7pm, February 27. Bonita Springs Community Center – across from Riverside Park on Old U.S. 41. No cost. Sponsored by the Bonita Springs Historical Society

Big Cypress Shootout,

2nd Seminole War Reenactment

Begins March 1st.

Billie Swamp Safari, Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation

The battle reenactments honor the Seminole’s struggle and sacrifice to remain in their homeland and will feature authentic weapons, soldier and warrior attire and tactics typical of

the Second Seminole War. Seminole Tribe of Florida will present a live battle reenactment of the Second Seminole War at the Big Cypress Shootout at Billie Swamp Safari located between Fort Lauderdale and Naples, on the Big Cypress Reservation just north of I-75 (Alligator Alley) Exit 49. The three-day event will include music, Seminole food, Seminole and pioneer artisans, tomahawk throws, primitive archery competition, Seminole Stomp Dancing, authentic Seminole and soldier camps, venomous snake shows and alligator wrestling. "Period settlers” from around the country will hew wood, iron and silver crafts and depict trading techniques from the Seminole war era.

Chaos and Invasion: The Second Spanish Period

2pm and 7pm, March 6.

Bonita Springs Community Center – across from Riverside Park on Old U.S. 41. No cost. Sponsored by the Bonita Springs Historical Society

Seventh Annual Calusa Heritage Day

10am - 4pm, March 9th

Randell Research Center's Calusa Heritage Trail, Pineland

$5/adult, children under 12 free

Annual celebration focusing on regional archaeology, history & ecology. Activities for children and adults; food and beverages available. Proceeds benefit the education & research programs of the Calusa Heritage Trail.

Old Florida Festival

March 9th and 10th

Collier County Museum, Naples – call 239.252.8476

Sponsored by the Friends of Collier County Museum and Seminole Tribe of Florida

Time travel back over 10,000 years of South Florida history at one of the largest and most popular living history gatherings in the state. This two-day festival features over 90 historical re-enactors, craft workers, demonstrators, folk musicians and storytellers depicting everyday life on the Southwest Florida frontier, from Calusa and Seminole Indians to World War II. This year’s event includes a Spanish fort and garrison, complete with mounted Conquistadors, cannons, a missionary, displays and a Spanish colonial cooking demonstration.

The Seminole and the Seminole Wars

March 13 at 2:00pm and 7:00pm

Bonita Springs Community Center – across from Riverside Park on Old U.S. 41

FREE. Sponsored by the Bonita Springs Historical Society

Displaced Native Americans from across the southeast find a home in Spanish Florida

The Curious Archaeology of Spanish Explorers in Florida

March 20th at 2:00pm

Collier County Museum, Naples

We’ve all heard the tales: Leon’s ingenious discovery, Navaez’s tragic expedition, De Soto’s monumental trek towards across the southeast. We have old Spanish documents recounting their feats- but can their stories hold up to the archaeological facts? Come and learn about what previous fieldwork has told us about the first Spanish visitors to Florida and how current, cutting edge archaeology is changing the story.