Friday, October 16, 2009

Deconstructing conventional wisdom - checking history

Today I'm going to talk about those "facts" of history that we were taught as children and which we take for granted, even though it turns out we should not always do so.

When I was a child, here in Florida, we had some coursework usually in the fourth grade on the history of the state. I even remember the textbook, a green-covered slim volume called La Florida, which is how the Spanish referred and refer to the state. One of those tidbits of conventional wisdom we learned was that in 1513, Ponce de León discovered Florida while searching for the Fountain of Youth.

Um, no. It turns out that this is not really the case, though it sounds good.

Actually, it was 1513, though the date itself -- recorded in most histories as 2 April, might be a little off. Spain converted to the Gregorian calendar from the Julian in 1584, and in the month of October, people went to bed on the night of the 5th and woke up on the morning of the 15th, ten days having gone "poof" in an adjustment required by the calendar having gotten off by those ten days, skewing the schedule of Easter.

Juan Ponce de León (the name "Ponce de León" translates as "lion's paunch") did not discover Florida. It was here all along, though those who lived here did not call it Florida. They probably just called it "home." Those who were here were the Timucua (which wasn't a distinct tribe, but a group of loosely-federated bands speaking dialects of a common language), the Ais, the Calusa, the Apalache, and a few others. Ponce de León merely hit Florida while he was looking for Bimini. Navigation was not a precise science in those days. Ponce de León did name it -- "Pascua Florida" (festival of flowers) because it was around Easter, and from the ships, the men could see lots of flowers in bloom.

And he wasn't looking for the Fountain of Youth, he was looking for Bimini, because he had a contract with the Spanish Crown to settle it and become the adelantado, the King's on-scene man with broad powers to grant land and head up the colony. He had already been governor of Puerto Rico, eventually losing that post in a squabble with Diego Colón, son of Cristopher Columbus.

Ponce de León -- yup, that was his name.

So don't always just accept the history you learned as a child, when you're investigating family history. New developments in historical analysis are constantly being made as new information and new techniques come to light.

For further reading, see David J. Weber, The Spanish Frontier in North America, chapter 2: "First Encounters."

1 comment:

Bill West said...

Great post, Karen. As a historian I love to take
these sort of stories and find the truth behind them!