TALLAHASSEE — The 500th anniversary of Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon’s arrival on the land he named “La Florida” in 1513 is being celebrated this week across the state.
“This week marks an historic anniversary for Florida and the entire United States of America. Ponce de León, during the week of April 2, 1513, became the first documented European to arrive anywhere in the current United States of America,” said Gov. Rick Scott.
Five centuries ago a band of Spanish explorers led by Juan Ponce de Leon explored much of the coast of Florida's peninsula.
That was the first of a wave of European exploration of what is now the United States. (Columbus's famous landing in 1492 was in the West Indies.)
This year, Florida is celebrating the anniversary with a yearlong series of events titled Viva Florida 500.
“This special anniversary is an opportunity to share Florida’s unique story and reflect on the people, places and events that made Florida the dynamic state it is today,” Scott said.
“In addition to our work in creating a more business friendly climate, Florida’s rich history and culture have supported tourism, which is among the many reasons that we’ve created nearly 300,000 private-sector jobs and our unemployment rate has dropped to 7.7 percent,” the governor said. “The policies we are implementing are working and we encourage more people to come to Florida to contribute to the overall economic vitality of our state.”
Spain controlled Florida for most of first 300 years of exploration and settlement — Florida became part of the United States in 1821 — and that Spanish influence has lasted long after the Spaniards withdrew.
At the top of the list would be the state's name.
de Leon first stepped foot in Florida, near modern-day Melbourne Beach or, maybe, it was near St. Augustine, in April when plenty of wildflowers were blooming. He dubbed the land Pascua Florida — Spanish for flowery Easter — later shortened to La Florida.
The name stuck.
Following years of expeditions by a succession of explorers, the Spanish finally put down roots in 1564 with the founding of St. Augustine, the oldest continuously occupied city in the United States — preceding English settlements in New England by decades.
Since then, a lot has happened in Florida that can be traced to its Spanish heritage.
The Spanish brought cattle, which set up what later became a major Florida industry.
The Native American tribes that had lived here for thousands of years were wiped out by violence and by inadvertently introducing infections unknown in the Americas The decimation of the population created an opening for a group of Creeks to escape intertribal conflicts in what is now present-day Alabama to form the basis of the Seminole tribe.
The Seminoles, who had taken refuge in Florida, fought early American settlers in a series of wars in the 19th century — and the tribe was never defeated.
When the Spanish left Florida, they didn't go far, remaining in the Spanish islands in the West Indies and in South and Central America.
That proximity set up Florida for being influenced in coming years in its culture, economics and environment, influences that extend into modern times.
Those influences included:
The rise in the Florida cigar industry in the 19th century in Tampa and other cities, including Bartow.
The late 20th century expansion of sugar cane farming in the Everglades after the U.S. embargoed trade with communist Cuba. The existence of those farms have created an environmental and political obstacle to restoring the famed "River of Grass."
The exodus of residents from Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Mexico and other Latin American countries to Florida as they escape political unrest or economic hard times.
The introduction of the rich variety of Latin American music and cuisine brought by Florida's growing Hispanic population.
Hispanics became more involved in politics, though in some ways it was a return to former times.
Bob Martinez, the first U.S. governor of Hispanic descent, took office in 1987, but he was not Florida's first major Hispanic official.
That distinction goes to Joseph Marion Hernandez, who was born in St. Augustine when it was still a Spanish territory and served as a delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives from the newly created territory of Florida from 1822 to 1823.
In modern times, Cuban-American Ileana Ros-Lehtinen in 1989 became the first Hispanic woman to serve in Congress.
In 2005, Cuban-American Mel Martinez became the first Hispanic from Florida elected to the U.S. Senate. He was succeeded by current senator Marco Rubio, also a Cuban-American.
“Florida’s history is unlike anywhere else in the world, and I hope Floridians will go to VivaFlorida.org to learn how to be a part of the Viva Florida 500 celebrations and commemorate our long and storied history," Scott said.
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS CONTRIBUTED TO THIS REPORT.