Sunday, October 14, 2018
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As 500th anniversary nears, cities vie for title of Ponce de Leon's landing spot

ST. AUGUSTINE — Where did that most ambitious conquistador, Juan Ponce de Leon, wade ashore five centuries ago and name his prize "La Florida?" Inquiring minds all over our state would like to know, the sooner the better, for planning purposes.

With the big day approaching — the anniversary arrives on April 3, 2013 — what east-coast beach city gets to shoot off the fireworks? If King Juan Carlos I of Spain graces us with a visit, where will he and Gov. Rick Scott shake hands? This being Florida, where communities joust like 16th-century knights for tourist dollars, it's important.

In a perfect world, someone would step forward, bow gallantly and unroll Ponce's original log and answer all questions. Alas, the log has been lost to historians since before Shakespeare's time.

Grab your sharpest rapier and don your shiniest armor. Load the blunderbuss and polish the shield. In a tale fit for the Bard, brace yourself for the Ponce wars.

•••

For our purposes, think of the northeast Florida city of St. Augustine as the Capulets. Melbourne Beach, a few hours south, can serve as the Montagues.

Without evidence everyone can accept as gospel, folks from both cities can claim Ponce celebration rights.

Cities all over Florida have streets, schools and springs named after Ponce. But no place has celebrated the Spaniard as long as St. Augustine. Founded in 1565 by another famous conquistador, Pedro Menendez de Aviles, it's North America's oldest continuously inhabited city. In 2011, its reputation for Spanish colonial heritage brought in $669 million in tourism.

It's always been mad about the mysterious dude who accompanied Christopher Columbus to the Indies on his 1493 voyage, battled natives, found gold, got filthy rich, became Puerto Rico's first governor, lost his job, but somehow stayed in the good graces of Spain's King Ferdinand I, who encouraged Ponce to do some more exploring.

He named the island he thought he had encountered "La Florida" because it was a verdant place. It was also around Easter, the feast of flowers in Spain.

St. Augustine's best known tourist attraction, and one of Florida's oldest, is named for the spring supposedly sought by Ponce, the Fountain of Youth. Florida's first grand hotel, the Ponce de Leon, built by Standard Oil magnate Henry Flagler in 1888, is now part of the Flagler College campus. Finally, no town in North America boasts as many Ponce statues, three at the present, with another to be unveiled in April.

St. Augustine will be celebrating Viva 500 all year. But on anniversary day it will hold a re-enactment and a ceremony at the Cathedral Basilica. Santiago Baeza Benavides — the mayor of Ponce's hometown in Spain — is bringing a replica of the font in which the conquistador was baptized in 1474.

Take that, Melbourne Beach.

About a year ago, a publicist for the St. Johns County Visitor and Convention Bureau headed for New York to drum up some national media buzz. On her "come to St. Augustine in 2013" visits with newspaper and magazine travel editors, Barbara Golden brought a secret weapon.

Ponce de Leon.

His real name is Chad Light. A doctoral history student at the University of Florida, he works at the Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park in St. Augustine. In addition to serious history pursuits, he entertains tourists by playing Ponce in re-enactments. He's 46, muscular and swash-buckling handsome, with a Spaniard's dark hair and eyes. He dresses like Ponce and answers visitor questions as Ponce in Spanish-inflected English. For the record, he also speaks perfect Castilian Spanish, thank you.

Folks who reported an appearance of Ponce de Leon last year in Times Square may have been tipsy. But they weren't seeing things. It was Light, dressed in his conquistador finery.

Golden hands out bumper stickers that say "30 degrees, 8 minutes" to anyone who wants one.

It's a 500-year-old navigational reading.

Thirty degrees and 8 minutes latitude can be found about 15 miles north of St. Augustine, roughly even with Ponte Vedra Beach.

"To the best of our knowledge, Ponce probably landed around there,'' St. Augustine publicists tell people.

Wait a minute. We thought nobody knows, exactly, where Ponce landed. Who's the authority?

•••

Antonio de Herrera y Tordesillas, that's who.

Born in 1549, Herrera was an important writer in European circles and sometimes known as "the prince of the historians of the Americas.'' In 1601 he published an account of Ponce's travels from Puerto Rico to La Florida.

Most modern historians hate it. Hererra relied on a few historic accounts whose veracity they sometimes question. But Hererra also claimed he had in his possession Ponce's old log, the one supposedly missing.

Modern historians have a legion of questions. If Herrera had the log, why didn't he just publish it? Why interpret a world treasure? Which words in Herrera's work, by the way, belong to Ponce? Which are his own?

Nobody knows the answer, of course. But we know that Herrera was an ambitious celebrity who liked the limelight and didn't mind a little exaggeration.

"Herrera is sometimes known as the great plagiarist,'' says Michael Francis, a Spanish-Florida historian at University of South Florida-St. Petersburg. "He doesn't have a lot of credibility.''

But still.

According to Herrera, Ponce's navigator took a compass reading on April 2, 1513 and came up with 30 degrees, 8 minutes. The next morning Ponce waded ashore near today's Ponte Vedra.

Nobody said history was going to be easy.

•••

To our drama Douglas Peck now strolls onto the stage.

It's about 1990. A retired Air Force engineer, he loves history. He is one of those gifted amateurs who investigates things professional academics sometimes ignore.

A passionate sailor, he is especially interested in 16th-century maritime navigation. He has read everything about Ponce, of course, including Herrera. A Bradenton resident, Peck decided to retrace Ponce's voyage from Puerto to Rico to Florida and see where he ends up.

He built a 33-foot cutter he called the Gooney Bird and set sail on March 31, the same day Ponce sailed in 1513. He took the same route, hoping his sailboat would have to buck the same spring winds and currents as the conquistador had.

Of course, the Gooney Bird boasted modern navigation equipment unknown to sailors 500 years ago.

On April 2, the anniversary of Ponce's sighting of land, Peck took a compass reading. In a paper later published in the Florida Historical Quarterly, he wrote "From my reconstructed track I found that Ponce de Leon's anchorage and landing after discovering Florida and the North American continent were about 28 degrees N latitude and 89 degrees, 29 minutes W longitude, which is below Cape Canaveral and a short distance south of Melbourne Beach. I do not say that this is the exact spot, but I place the accuracy within five to eight nautical miles either side of this fix.''

Ponte Verde Beach near St. Augustine is 125 nautical miles to the north.

•••

Traditional historians, the kind who spend years toiling on their doctorates, teaching college classes, and studying ancient manuscripts, often look suspiciously on the work conducted by even talented amateurs.

But in Brevard County's Melbourne Beach, Samuel Lopez embraced Douglas Peck as if he were Ponce de Leon himself.

Lopez, 65, is a history buff, community organizer and a guy who hates the word "no.'' He was born in Brooklyn and raised in the Bronx but is extremely proud of his Puerto Rican heritage. Because Ponce was the island's first governor, Lopez is a Ponce man.

In 1992, when he heard about the Douglas Peck voyage that ended at Melbourne Beach he began thinking about what might happen in 2013. He visited the county commission, city commissions, chambers of commerce, newspaper offices.

"Ponce landed here. We need some big celebrations.''

Lopez remembers, "They laughed at me.''

In New York, he was an electrician, a union organizer and finally a political activist. "I learned how to get things done,'' says Lopez, the founder of the Florida Puerto Rican/Hispanic chamber of Commerce and the president of a national civil rights organization, United Third Bridge.

"I kept trying.''

In 2000, the county surrendered and told him to start planning a celebration.

In 2005, Brevard County renamed an old beachfront park "Juan Ponce de Leon Landing.'' Douglas Peck was the guest speaker.

Later the state posted a sign. Possible Vicinity of Juan Ponce de Leon's Landing. The state — not wanting to be on the wrong side of history — also placed a similar sign at Ponte Vedra Beach near St. Augustine. But as far as Lopez was concerned, Melbourne was now officially on the state's map.

The Melbourne Park is slowly taking on the look of a Ponce museum. Colorful informational boards greet beachgoers on the boardwalk and in the parking lot it is impossible to miss the granite platform where a 10-foot bronze statue of Ponce de Leon soon will gaze sternly at the sea.

But Michael Gannon's speech in Jacksonville last October, as far as Lopez is concerned, is the best thing that ever happened.

•••

Gannon might be the most beloved living man in St. Augustine, even though he lives in Gainesville. He was born in St. Augustine 85 years ago and grew up riding his bike along the historic coquina streets. At the University of Florida, Dr. Gannon taught Florida-Spanish history to generations of students.

In 1990, King Juan Carlos I of Spain declared him a "Knight Commander of the Order of Isabel la Catolica.'' In 2007, St. Augustine awarded him its highest honor, "the Order of La Florida." A prolific author, Gannon has written history books and historic novels. In 2010 the governor gave him Florida's first "Lifetime Literary Achievement Award.''

When Gannon talks about history, people listen. In October he made a speech in Jacksonville about the 500th anniversary of Ponce de Leon's arrival. He talked about what we know and what we think we know about the conquistador.

Ponce didn't discover Florida, Gannon said, he only named it. Florida's first people, the Eurasians who crossed the Siberian-Alaska ice bridge 12,000 years ago — the natives Columbus called "Indians'' — were first.

Ponce might not have been even the first European to touch Florida, Gannon continued. The crews of Spanish slaving ships might have come ashore on previous occasions to kidnap natives for the gold mines of the Indies.

As for the Fountain of Youth, more than likely a myth.

After about 15 minutes, Gannon got around to the nitty gritty.

He began talking about that amateur historian, Douglas Peck and his attempt to duplicate Ponce's voyage by sailing from Puerto Rico to Florida.

"He anchored..." Gannon said of Peck. "Where was he?

"Melbourne Beach.''

From the audience came a gasp.

"That resailing,'' Gannon continued, "represents the latest and best evidentiary statement we have on the Juan Ponce landing.''

A careful scholar, Gannon offered a qualifier. He couldn't guarantee that Melbourne Beach is the exact place, of course. But Gannon thought Peck had added something worthy to the discussion.

•••

In Melbourne Beach, Samuel Lopez ignores the qualifying words.

"It was like an atom bomb going off,'' he says about the moment Gannon said "Melbourne Beach'' to the pro-St. Augustine audience. Lopez hands out video recordings of Gannon's speech. It's on his website.

"St. Augustine can no longer cover up its lies.''

Has it changed anything?

Not really.

In St. Augustine, Melbourne Beach seldom comes up in polite conversation. "St. Augustine is the only place in the continental U.S. for experiencing authentic 16th century colonial Spanish heritage," says Barbara Golden, communications manager for St. Augustine, Ponte Vedra & The Beaches Visitors and Convention Bureau.

In November, National Geographic's Traveler Magazine included St. Augustine on its prestigious list of 20 "Must See Places" in the world for 2013. It's a dream come true for publicists.

In St. Petersburg, Spanish-Florida scholar Michael Francis remains unconvinced about St. Augustine's claims — and about Peck's Melbourne Beach contentions. Francis spends summers in Spain digging through dusty papers looking at 16th-century records. One day he hopes to uncover Ponce's lost log and come up with something better.

"Honestly,'' Francis says, "why don't we just say Ponce landed somewhere between St. Augustine and Melbourne Beach? Why don't we celebrate all over Florida? I don't understand the competition.''

In Melbourne Beach, Samuel Lopez's plans grow more ambitious by the week. He will portray Ponce in a re-enactment. The mayor of Ponce's hometown in Northern Spain, Lopez says, will be busy on April 3. He may be visiting St. Augustine, but he also promises a trip to Melbourne Beach.

Douglas Peck, 94 years old, ill, hard of hearing and disappointed that some mainstream historians dismiss his work as inconclusive, plans to be in Melbourne Beach.

Air Force jets will fly over the beach. Navy ships will fire a 21-gun salute.

There will be a gala dinner and dance, of course, and a celebratory mass at Immaculate Conception.

Lopez has sent an invitation to the man he prays will take a seat in a nearby church pew, His Majesty Juan Carlos I of Spain.

He awaits the RSVP.

Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at (727) 893-8727 or [email protected]

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