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Prester John was another mythic king of another semi-mythic land (probably modern day Ethiopia) that was long sought by European explorers and adventurers. Once again, the very nature and purpose of Ponce de Leon's expedition emphasized the European view of the New World as a place where anything was possible - in particular, those things which were not readily possible back home. Untold wealth in precious metals went hand in hand with the miraculous powers of magical springs.
Ponce de Leon sailed along the Atlantic coast of Florida and past Cape Canaveral down to Biscayne Bay, in what is now Miami, and around the southern end of the Peninsula and into the Gulf of Mexico. From there he continued northward at least as far as Charlotte Harbor on Florida's southwest coast.
As he only traveled so far along the coast, he was never able to determine whether Florida was an island or merely a part of larger land mass. Florida - La Florida, the "land of flowers" - received its name either from the Spanish name for the Ester Season during which it was discovered, or from the actual appearance of the new land - another hint of European perceptions of the fabulous, almost paradise-like possibilities of the New World.
Herrera also recorded the first contact between Ponce de Leon's three ships and the native inhabitants. It was hostile. The Spanish were shot at with arrows tipped with bone and fish spines. Further along the coast, there were more skirmishes but, despite the hostility, the Calusa Indians appeared interested in trading. Hides were traded, and the Calusa chief promised the Spaniards that he would bring gold in exchange for more goods - though this turned out to be false. The chief never brought any gold.
Ponce de Leon and his party soon left Florida without having established any permanent presence.
The Conquistador's experience with Florida's native inhabitants in 1513 would prove a sign of things to come. The Native Americans, while willing to trade with the Spaniards, had been intent on maintaining their own control over the land, and over the terms under which they would do business. Spanish landings had been challenged immediately, and the natives were not averse to employing tricks if those tricks produced the desired effect of inducing the Spanish to continue to bring more goods for exchange. In 1521, Ponce de Leon returned to Florida with over two hundred men, horses, cattle, and seed for planting crops. As in Puerto Rico, he hoped to make Spanish rule a reality through the simple expedient of establishing a settlement. In his own words, the "business of colonization consisted of nothing more than to arrive and cultivate the land and pasture his livestock."
The Indians fought back fiercely. The Spanish suffered heavy losses and were forced to withdraw, and it was at this point that Ponce de Leon suffered the wound from the poisoned arrow that would lead to his death on the return to Cuba. This battle between Native Americans and Spanish invaders proved that not all the native peoples would easily accept European incursion. The native populations, like the Spanish themselves in their centuries-long battle against the Moors, would not allow their land to be taken over by an outsider. They would not submit to foreign ways in exchange for a few prized goods.
It is likely that part of this hostility came as well from prior experience with Europeans and other non-local Indians. Among these pieces of evidence are the following:
map from about a.D. 1500 that shows an outline of part of the Florida peninsula name given to Florida by the Indians of the Bahamas
Spanish-speaking Indian encountered by Ponce de Leon and,
Comments made by Fontaneda that Indians from Cuba "anciently" entered Florida looking for the River Jordan (fountain of youth) and settled among the Calusa
Any of these reasons might explain why the native peoples of Florida did not simply accept the newly-arrived Spaniards as had other groups. Prior contact with Europeans might have had a negative outcome, or possibly introduced diseases which had been linked to the alien presence. The same could possibly be said of other Indian peoples had their appearance been hostile or had unknown problems or sicknesses appeared in their wake. Certainly, a warlike group like the Carib could have incited terror among the native inhabitants of the peninsula. Possibly early and unrecorded European visitors had tried to enslave the Calusa, or had stolen some of their members, or members of other groups. Definitely, the presence of a Spanish-speaking Native American, if confirmed, would substantiate prior contact. It is even conceivable that such a visitor had settled among the tribe and even warned them of eventual Spanish intentions, should those Europeans ever come their way.
Thus, Ponce de Leon opened the way for the Spanish conquest of new lands in the Caribbean and Florida. The Conquistador traveled with Columbus on his second voyage and saw much of what the New World had to offer. Like so many other adventuresome Spaniards, the treasures of the New World as conceived of by Ponce de Leon were part-real, and part-imagined. Gold and silver existed in small amounts in the lands first discovered. These precious commodities Ponce de Leon followed from Cuba to Puerto Rico and, he hoped, to Florida. In the Islands, Native labor was brutally exploited, and Native cultures destroyed in the name of militant Catholicism, and the belief in Spain's superior civilization. So much of the struggle to conquer the new lands was based on Spain's own historic struggles with the Muslim Moors - centuries during which the native Christian inhabitants of Spain fought to rid their land of the invader and to preserve their own customs and religion. The Spanish, with so much experience of oppression, would annihilate the native populations of the Caribbean islands. In Florida, those native peoples would fight back... For a time. In the end, they too would succumb. Ponce de Leon played an important role in bringing about the collision of cultures that was to be the meeting between the Old World and the New.
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Jerald T. Milanich and Susan Milbrath, eds., First Encounters:…[continue]
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