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St. Augustine Will Celebrate its 500th; Get Used to it | Margo Pope

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St. Augustine Will Celebrate its 500th; Get Used to it | Margo Pope

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St. Augustine Will Celebrate its 500th; Get Used to it
Tuesday, April 09, 2013 — Margo Pope

The  500th anniversary of the arrival of Juan Ponce de Leon in what we call Florida is huge business. Florida’s tourism industry sells sunshine, beaches, history and golf to name a few of the top draws. State statistics show it has more than a $67 billion economic impact annually on our state.

In St. Johns County, the annual impact from tourism is around $716 million, according to Richard Goldman, head of the county’s Visitor and Convention Bureau. That returns approximately $43 million in county sales tax revenue annually, he said.

That’s quite a haul from an estimated six million visitors annually.

Glenn Hastings, county tourism director and chairman of Visit Florida, the state’s tourism marketing corporation, says St. Augustine and St. Johns County make a strong case for one of the country’s “premiere heritage tourism destinations.” He believes “we may have reached a tipping point in the ‘discovery’ of a lost century of American history – the Colonial Spanish period between the time of Ponce de Leon’s naming La Florida in 1513 and the founding of Jamestown in 1607 – 42 years after St. Augustine.”

Juan Ponce’s landing takes on a wider perspective for Florida’s senior U.S. senator, Bill Nelson. “We need to teach our children better American history; that the founding of this country  began when Ponce de Leon came here. There were a number of other Spanish explorers in the continental U.S., most of them landing in Florida, some in Central America. They were following Ponce de Leon.”

Native Americans don’t celebrate Juan Ponce, and Florida’s Secretary of State Ken Detzner is sensitive to that. He calls this 500th anniversary a commemoration. “In the early days there was a lot of conflict; the Native Americans were here 10,000 years before the Spanish came. It was a challenging time… and we need to respect the Native Americans that were here first.”
That’s an excellent point.

Native tribes including Timucua in the north, Calusa in the southwest and Apalachee in our Panhandle were thriving communities. Estimates of 12,000-13,000 in population are not far- fetched. Even the Catholic Church records show 26,000 Christianized natives in 1665.

St. Augustine Mayor Joe Boles  welcomed all comers last week, those who celebrated the state’s birthday and those who protested the attention to Juan Ponce, exercising their First Amendment rights. Though Juan Ponce’s landing site is in dispute, Boles said that St. Augustine is the beneficiary because it has the authentic early Spanish colonial buildings.

On April 2, Florida’s Cabinet, including Gov. Rick Scott, met in Flagler College, the former 19th century flagship hotel of Henry Flagler. They viewed an early morning cannon firing atop the historic Castillo de San Marcos and toured some of the state’s oldest buildings in one of its newest attractions, Colonial Quarter LLC, which includes 1740s buildings.

They welcomed Juan Ponce de Leon, portrayed by Chad Light, a University of Florida doctoral student. When Light goes into character, he is Juan Ponce. He won’t answer to Chad. The important thing, he said, was that the anniversary is for all of Florida to celebrate because he, Juan Ponce, travelled up and down Florida’s coastline, north to south, east to west.

Given the large resident population of 14 million-plus, the low unemployment rate, good jobs in various sectors, great public schools, and lots of leisure activities, there are reasons to celebrate.

After the cabinet meeting, a second Juan Ponce de Leon statue was unveiled on State Road A1A, near Ponte Vedra at the latitude of 30 degrees, eight minutes, which was where Juan Ponce’s only surviving navigational record says he stepped ashore. Not so, says Douglass Peck, an ocean yachtsman and marine historian. His own voyage under similar conditions as Juan Ponce but in a modern yacht instead of Spanish galleon, landed about 100 miles south of Ponte Vedra at Melbourne Beach. Even St. Augustine’s most respected historian, Dr. Michael Gannon,  supports Peck.

St. Augustine, being the nation’s oldest permanently occupied European settlement in the U.S., kept on celebrating.

On April 3 – a ceremonial landing, a wreath laying at the original Juan Ponce statue in the circle downtown, drew a thousand-plus people,  complete with a few protesters against Juan Ponce. A commemoration Mass followed that included four bishops in the 1797 Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine. Then, the official United States Postal Service Forever Stamp for the 500th anniversary was unveiled for all of the United States.

Later that evening, the longtime Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park celebrated Juan Ponce, too.

Did St. Augustine go overboard? No way.

In fact, we’ll celebrate even more when the actual log of Juan Ponce’s voyage is found. Antonio de Herrera refers to that document in his 1601 sketchy account of the 1513 voyage.

Dr. Michael Francis of the University of South Florida, St. Petersburg, has raised the question that if Herrera had access to the log books some 80 years later, why didn’t he just quote from them verbatim? We know that Francis is on the hunt.

So while you may have missed the big dates last week, you still have nearly eight months left to commemorate the 500th or, demonstrate your First Amendment rights of free speech against it.  Don’t sit on the sidelines.

Margo C. Pope worked for The St. Augustine Record and The Florida Times-Union for 42 years covering education, city and county government, tourism and open government issues. She retired in August after five years as The Record's editorial page editor. She can be reached at mailto:[email protected]
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