Florida celebrates 500th anniversary but history blurred by myth

Sat Apr 6, 2013 12:40pm EDT
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By Amy Wimmer Schwarb

ST AUGUSTINE, Florida (Reuters) - Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon was only 4-foot, 11-inches tall, a trolley tour operator told his passengers as they rolled down a picturesque street in St. Augustine lined with moss-draped live oak trees.

But the Timucuan Indians he encountered when he set foot in Florida towered over him, standing 7 feet tall, the tour guide said.

Turning into the Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park, he noted: No wonder the explorer thought these tall, robust natives were drinking enchanted water.

This week Florida celebrated the 500th anniversary of the day when Ponce de Leon stepped onto the shores of what he thought was a large island and called the land "La Florida."

But the modern-day state of Florida built on the lure of sunshine and myth of eternal youth is still grappling with how to tell its first city's story — a rich history of centuries-old multiculturalism, yet distorted by useful falsehoods aimed at entertaining tourists who are important to its economy.

Take that trolley tour, for instance. Ponce de Leon wasn't especially short, the natives weren't especially tall, and the water at St. Augustine's Fountain of Youth didn't offer eternal youth. In fact, not only did Ponce de Leon never discover a Fountain of Youth, he wasn't even looking for one, historians said.

"Ponce de Leon has been said to be anywhere from 2 1/2 feet tall to 6 1/2 feet tall. The Timucuan Indians were 7 or 8 feet tall, like they were out of a space-age film or something," said J. Michael Francis, a history professor at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg who specializes in Spanish colonial Florida history.

Even that first moment, when Ponce de Leon stepped onto American soil, is mired in uncertainty, thanks to a missing voyage log that hasn't been seen in centuries. But where the historical record is unclear, promoters of the state over the last century have stepped in to fill in the gaps.   Continued...

Volunteers re-enact a colonial era canon firing in St Augustine, Florida January 20, 2013, a regular tourist attraction at the 17th century Spanish-built fort San Marcos. REUTERS/Michael Adams