Column: The orgins of the Gunshine State

Published September 28
Updated September 28

By Gary R. Mormino

Special to the Tampa Bay Times

What is the most revolutionary act in the history of Florida? What event, or series of events, marked a “before” and “after” moment?

On April 2, 1513, a voyage led by Juan Ponce de León sighted land, somewhere between today’s Daytona Beach and Melbourne. The expedition included three caravels carrying 200 men. A first-person narrative is lost, but a second-hand account by the Spanish court historian Antonio Herrera, who likely had access had access to Ponce’s log book, has survived.

“And thinking that the land was an island, they called it Florida,” Herrera wrote. “Because they discovered it in the time of the Feast of Flowers (Easter),” Ponce christened the new land La Florida.

What happened? Herrera provides few details. In a food and history class I teach at the University of South Florida, Spanish friars, dons and soldiers approach the beach to greet the tattooed cacique, shaman and warriors of the Ais tribe. In this fable, the Ais offer the newcomers bowls of maize porridge, coontie bread, swamp cabbage, and perhaps a drink of cassina, the Black Drink made from the leaves of the Yaupon holly, ilex vomitoria. The guests extend bowls of cocida, an oily stew made from garbanzo beans, chorizo, rice, and salt pork, alongside wheaten bread, and gourds of wine.

The gathering ignited what the late historian Alfred Crosby called “the Columbian Exchange.” The event and subsequent encounters sowed the seeds—literally and figuratively—of modernization. Trade, taste, and empire explain why Italians and the Irish, Indonesians and Pakistani, added tomatoes, potatoes, peanuts, and chiles to their diets.

The consequences were revolutionary. Food’s pathways and crossroads followed war, slavery, and conquest. Colonialism inflicted great pain, but also brought simple pleasures.

The alternate “origins” script, taken from my Florida history class, also begins on the beach. Savagery, not harmony, prevails, as both sides carefully study “the other.” The beaches of La Florida served as meeting place and battleground.

Native Floridians neither respected nor appreciated the invaders and their notions of royal authority, but they understood what power looked and sounded like. The Spanish arrived on the biggest vessel the Ais had ever seen. The firing of deck cannon from the flagship portended ominous events.

The Spanish possessed the latest military technology. Armed with the arquebus, a long rifle, the weapon was wildly inaccurate but when fired en masse, terrifying.

On Ponce’s second voyage to La Florida in 1521, canoe-borne Calusa warriors attacked the party on a Gulf Coast island. Herrera chronicles that the Spaniards resisted, killing “some Indians.” The Calusa had learned “to dare not approach nearer because of the crossbows and artillery shots.” The Spanish named the place Isola de Matanzas, Massacre Island, “because of the Indians they killed.” But the Natives had wreaked revenge. Ponce died from an arrow head that had been dipped in poison from the manchineel tree.

“Violence,” proclaimed H. Rap Brown, “is as American as cherry pie.”

Europe imported the technology of firearms, but the gun quickly became ingrained in American culture. Individualism, the frontier, and war exalted the Kentucky long rifle and the Colt .45 “Peacemaker.”

Our history is inseparable from the gun. The Florida Constitution of 1838 guaranteed the right to bear arms. Almost two centuries years later, Floridians face an armed standoff over gun control and gun rights.

Florida’s ascendance to America’s third largest state resulted from a welter of factors, including immigration, retirement, and revolutions in technology. Recent history has been etched in gun smoke: the NRA, Stand Your Ground, “Glocks and Docs,” Orlando Pulse, Parkland, and Jacksonville Landing.

Florida’s present dilemma resembles two stags, horns locked in a death match. Engaged not so much in a debate as a screaming match, both sides remain convinced that “gun lovers” and “gun haters” are foolish and arrogant, uninformed and unprincipled.

More than ever, we citizens need honest and thoughtful conversations about what kind of state we want Florida to be. Meanwhile, savor a cup of cassina and a slice of Key Lime pie.

Gary R. Mormino, a USF St. Petersburg professor emeritus of history, is finishing a book on Florida: 2000-2012.

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