Thursday, July 12, 2018

How Florida Happened Part 2- The Fountain of Youth?

The Fountain of Youth is a myth- but not in the way we most often think. While the idea that Juan Ponce DeLeon discovered Florida when he set out in search of something magical makes for a tidy foundational myth, one that looks good on souvenirs and in the old tourism ads, like much of the history we know off the tops of our heads, it’s a deeply sanitized version.

It’s hard to over-state just how apocalyptic the arrival of Europeans was for indigenous people, the combination of disease and colonial exploitation quickly decimated populations. Almost immediately after arriving on island he called Hispaniola, Christopher Columbus set about exploiting the native people and stripping the land of its resources. Juan Ponce De Leon was one of the so-called ‘Gentleman Volunteers’ of Columbus’ second voyage of 1493, which was meant to establish the first permanent Spanish colony on Hispaniola.

By 1499, Columbus was deposed as governor due to the brutality of his rule over the island- specifically his use of torture and dismemberment against the Taino people. Columbus was replaced by Francisco De Bobadilla, who had Christopher Columbus arrested and returned to Spain. Bobadilla’s favor among the Spanish Court quickly waned and he was replaced by Nicolas De Ovando Y Caceres, who resumed the brutal subjugation of the Taino. It was Ovando who ordered the Jaragua Massacre in 1503- which led directly to an uprising against Spanish rule. Ponce De Leon was one of the military leaders charged with suppressing that uprising, he carried out a brutal campaign (which included the massacre at Higuey that was later described by Bartoleme De Las Casas as one of the most horrid atrocities committed against native people) and was rewarded with the right to explore and settle the nearby island of Puerto Rico.

In Puerto Rico, De Leon continued to subjugate the Taino people, establishing slave labor mines and plantations, and brutally putting down rebellion. In 1511, after a lengthy legal battle, the son of Christopher Columbus, Diego Colon Columbus, successfully petitioned the government of Spain to grant him governorship of the West Indies islands that his father had discovered. Ponce De Leon, displaced from his profitable governorship in Puerto Rico, went searching for yet another land to conquer. Documents show that he was searching, specifically for a place the Taino called Beimini, the home of a wealthy, advanced civilization. There is no mention of a Fountain of Youth in anything related to Ponce De Leon’s voyage to Florida. It’s unclear exactly where Beimini was, though it may have referred to the lands of the Calusa in Southwest Florida, or possibly the civilizations of the Yucatan. He was searching for Beimini, for another land to conquer and more people to subjugate.

A romanticized image of De Leon's arrival in Florida in 1513.

When Ponce De Leon made his first voyage to Florida in 1513, it is unlikely that his was the first group of Europeans to visit the peninsula. In fact, Spanish colonists had been embarking of slaving expeditions throughout the Caribbean since 1494, and they would have encountered the Calusa people during this time. This would explain why, when the Calusa first sighted De Leon’s ships, they refused to talk or trade. Large sea-going canoes filled with Calusa warriors armed with longbows surrounded the ships and threatened to shoot anyone who tried to come ashore. It’s likely that the Calusa knew exactly who they were dealing with, either from direct experience with Spanish slavers, or from hearing about them from other groups. While this hostile first contact has sometimes been portrayed as a moment of unfounded aggression, in truth the Calusa were responding to an existential threat to their civilization. De Leon’s first voyage hugged the coasts of the Florida peninsula, landing once on the East Coast somewhere between St. Augustine and Daytona (the exact spot is unclear), then attempting to land on the West Coast (where the Calusa stopped them), then landing briefly in the Dry Tortugas (to hunt turtles and seals since they were running low on food) before returning to Puerto Rico.

The Calusa attacking the first attempted European settlement on the Florida peninsula.

This first voyage was when De Leon named the land La Florida. The name is often interpreted to me ‘Land of Flowers,’ however it’s more likely that the land was named after the Spanish Easter Festival of Pascua Florida, which takes place on April 2, the same date that De Leon first saw Florida’s coast in 1513. He wouldn’t return to Florida until 1521, when he received permission from the Kind of Spain to establish a permanent colony in Southwestern Florida. He landed with 200 people, 50 horses, and everything needed to start a permanent settlement near what is now Charlotte Harbor. The colonists were immediately attacked by a large group of Calusa warriors armed with bows and arrows. Due to heavy casualties, the attempted colony was abandoned, and De Leon, who had been wounded in the leg, retreated to Cuba. Over a few days what was thought to be a a minor injury inflamed into a blistered mess, and De Leon died in extreme pain. It’s believed that the Calusa had dipped their weapons in the toxic sap of Florida’s native manchineel tree (I want to do a full article on the manchineel because it is INSANE- the sap will burn skin, the fruit will kill, and the smoke from burning the wood can cause permanent blindness).

So there’s Ponce De Leon, the one we associate with the ‘discovery’ of Florida, the guy from the postcards. Seemingly, his failed colony and gruesome death kept European powers away from the peninsula for over 40 years, up until the founding of St. Augustine in the 1560’s (which will be the subject of ‘How Florida Happened Part 3’).

But of course, something is missing here, that one big thing that is most associated with De Leon, The Fountain of Youth, is nowhere to be found of we rely purely on the history. So where does it come from? The idea that he was searching for The Fountain first shows up about a decade after De Leon’s death in a history by the Spanish writer Oviedo. It’s important to note that Oviedo wrote sweeping romances of the fantastical adventures of made up medieval knights before he turned to writing the history of the Spanish colonies. The story of the Fountain is then repeated by Hernando de Escalante Fontaneda, whose 1570’s memoir of living among indigenous people discusses the miraculous restorative power of Florida’s springs. Here, I think it’s important to note that 16th Century Europeans almost never bathed, and that for a shipwrecked and stranded Spanish sailor- a clean, cool, natural spring almost certainly felt like The Fountain of Youth. The bracing temperature and the skin-softening mineral content of Florida’s aquifer springs also probably contributed to the idea. More recent historians have posited that The Fountain of Youth was a euphemism for ‘Bahamian Love Vine’ a plant believed to have aphrodisiac properties, and that Spain’s King Ferdinand The Second, who had recently married a woman 20 years younger than himself, sent De Leon to fetch some.

The simplest explanation, of course, is that like much of American History, we tend to prefer versions that make us feel better about ourselves, and sometimes that means making some things up. In the case of Ponce De Leon, it may be that for a lot of Americans it is more comfortable to say he was searching for something magic than it is to say that he lost all his slaves and land to Diego Colon Columbus and wanted to go get some more. For better or worse, we live, partially, within our myths. They’re told and repeated over and over, they change over time to serve different purposes, and sometimes it’s hard to know exactly when to let go. There’s nothing wrong with having myths, in many ways stories can be far more compelling than facts, but it’s important to think about them critically, and to question the purpose that a myth serves. Does it enlighten? Or does it mislead? 


Saturday, July 7, 2018

How Florida Happened Part 1- Before Ponce De Leon

On a recent long drive to New Orleans, me and my partner listened to the audio version of Sarah Vowell’s book Lafayette in the Somewhat United States. It’s good road trip material, a very entertaining account of the life of the Marquis De Lafayette and the French involvement in the American Revolution. What struck me the most, however, was just how much I didn’t know about the Revolutionary War. I think, like a lot of Americans, I was counting on the idea that the version I learned in the Fifth-Grade, from a drunken trip to Colonial Williamsburg in my early 20’s, and from the cast album of Hamilton was enough. It got me thinking about Florida, and the history of the state, and the last time I really bothered to learn about it- I have a vague recollection of learning some things in school, and we’ve all heard the (made up) version about Ponce De Leon and the Fountain of Youth, or have toured St. Augustine, but the state’s history still seems to be a bit murky for most people. Florida is different, its history doesn’t fit with our national myth of pilgrims seeking religious freedom, or plucky colonists rebelling against British Monarchy (with a lot of help from French Monarchy). Florida doesn’t fit that mold, and in a way its very existence negates the mold. Florida is an outlier with a long strange history that stretches back to the earliest inklings of civilization- so here’s the dirty version, the one you didn’t learn in school, a refresher course with all the juicy bits put back in.

When you drive Interstate 75 near Temple Terrace, between US-301 and Interstate 4, you’re driving over some of the oldest evidence of Human activity in Florida’s History. The Harney Flats Site was uncovered in the 1970’s during highway construction. Archaeologists discovered evidence of a camp and a tool-making site dating back at least 10,000 years. Other sites, such as Warm Mineral Springs in Sarasota County suggest that Florida may have been inhabited as early at 15,000 years ago, and human remains found near Vero Beach in 1915 (Vero Man) suggest that humans might have lived in Florida as far back as the Late Pleistocene Era, possibly as early as 20,000 years ago. While we don’t know much about these early Floridians, this long paleo-indigenous era gives us some important context: mainly that the human history of this peninsula is much, much, longer than is generally suspected- especially when compared to the mere 400-ish years of European involvement in Florida. These earliest people were most likely hunter-gatherers who lived in small family groups and moved between established camps, however, between 5000 and 2000 B.C. permanent settlements were established and more complex cultures appeared. In this era, native Floridians made woven fabrics and cordage, and fired clay pottery. They established trade networks, systems sf government, and practiced ritualized burial by sinking the dead, along with artifacts, into Florida’s natural springs, and around 500 B.C. large structures, such as the pyramid-shaped shell mounds at Crystal River, were being built, along with complex trade networks that stretched through what is now the Southeastern United Stated, the Caribbean, and Central America.

Visiting the Crystal River Mound complex is a revelation, it’s one of the few remaining sites from this era that can give you a good idea of Florida’s early indigenous people. Three large, mostly intact, mounds illustrate a place that was a major religious site for that era. There’s a large ‘pyramid’ burial mound in the center, a tall mound that oversees the river- possibly as a lookout or a signal station, and then a wide and flat Temple Mound with a ramp up the center and shallow moats along the sides. These moats would be filled with water during ceremonies and public addresses so that the surface of the water would reflect and amplify sound from the Temple Mound to reach people across the wide assembly plaza between the Temple Mound and the Burial Mound. This was explained to me by a very enthusiastic park ranger who told me how amazed he was when he experienced the effect firsthand after a heavy summer rain- that a person talking at normal volume from on top of the mound could be clearly heard for almost fifty yards. Standing there, it’s easy to imagine hundreds of people assembled in the plaza listening to amplified voices or music from the top of the mound. A few other structures still exist from this era, but the Mound complex at Crystal River is the best preserved.

Florida’s mound-building cultures evolved directly into the chiefdoms that Europeans encountered at the beginning of the Sixteenth Century. For most of the 1000 years before then, the people of the Florida Peninsula were divided into two main cultures, the Timucua in the North and the Calusa in the South. The Timucua were a loose confederation of smaller tribes that shared a common language and often formed strategic and trading alliances, though they had no form of central government. The Timucua were mainly agrarian, many of them built large wooden communal houses with palm thatched roofs- and shared some physical and cultural similarities with the Arawak-speaking people of the Caribbean and South America, suggesting a shared ancestry.

The Calusa, in contrast, had a stratified society with a system of nobility and common people- not unlike European Feudalism, ruled by a triumvirate of leaders (a political leader, a military leader, and a religious leader) and centered around the Southwestern Gulf Coast. The Calusa created a complex system of tide-pool fisheries for producing food, canals for transportation, as well as causeways, shell mounds, and other large earth-work structures. Though the central Calusa State stretched along the coast, from Sarasota Bay to the southern tip of the peninsula, they exerted a heavy influence on the other disparate tribes of South Florida, such as the Myacca, Miyami, Jeaga, and Ais cultures.

While we know some key points of interest about the cultures that inhabited Florida for the majority of its history, there are still a lot of unfortunate blind spots. What we do know is that in the millennium or so before the age of European colonialism, Florida was populated by two large complex cultures that had their own histories, traditions, ideals, and knowledge, that have unfortunately been lost to time, disease, and colonial exploitation. Furthermore, most of the portrayals we have of these people come to us from European colonists, making it very hard for us to see how these people saw themselves. Famously, artists like Jacques LeMoyne created romanticized images that, perhaps, more clearly reflected the European imagination than the reality of Florida’s indigenous people. Still, just knowing that Florida has such a long history of human habitation changes our perceptions of the place- rather than the fantasyland portrayed by the first colonists, or the virginal wilderness it was seen as during the Nineteenth Century—or even the never-ending vacation of our contemporary tourism commercials- Florida is a place of deep and old humanity.