Punta Gorda, Florida — Ten days ago this quiet town on the western coast of Florida found itself invaded by a band of modern-day conquistadors, many of them in battle dress with plumed helmets, swords, ornately brocaded tops and black pants or tights.
Never mind that several of the invaders were also wearing sunglasses and some sported bristly white beards. They weren’t acting out some light-hearted piece of modern theater.
No, indeed. They came ashore to re-enact Ponce de Leon’s landing on the shores of Florida on April 3, 1513, some 500 years ago this week.
East Coast towns from Point Vedra to Melbourne Beach are squabbling over exactly where the famed Spanish explorer first stepped on dry land. Everyone seems to agree it happened in early April, and that it took place on the Atlantic side of the state.
But that hasn’t stopped Gulf Coast towns from getting in on the celebration.
Modern historians are generally convinced that a couple of months after making his initial landfall, Ponce de Leon sailed down around the Keys and headed up the Gulf coast to what is now known as Charlotte Harbor, a large estuary at the mouth of the Peace River.
There’s a pleasant park bearing his name on the Punta Gorda (Broad Point) side of the harbor, complete with a colorful statue purported to resemble the man.
Wherever the actual site of his landing, the fact that he came ashore at all proved something of a mixed blessing. The Calusa Indians, who at the time of his arrival were the most powerful band in all of Florida, had enjoyed their position of eminence for more than a millennium and weren’t at all happy to see him.
Early Spanish sources refer to them as the Calos, Calus, Caalus and Carlos, but the name eventually became Calusa, interpreted as “fierce people.” And fierce they were, with warriors described as tall, well-built and wearing plenty of body paint, resisting Spanish and European conquest for almost 200 years.
The Calusa were coastal dwellers and, lacking stone, fashioned tools from oyster, clam, conch and whelk shells. Relying on water routes to control their territory, they utilized dugout canoes to navigate coastal and interior waterways, even excavating canals to make travel more efficient.
In 1513, as today, Charlotte Harbor and its surrounding waters teemed with delicious snook, redfish and grouper, dancing mullet, slow-moving manatee and well-fed pelicans. Then, as now, there were beautiful sunsets, lovely beaches and an unusually pleasant climate.
There were, in short, no good reasons for the native Calusa to hand their land over to the scrawny intruders with the metal hats who fancied themselves conquistadors.
But, in the long haul, the descendants of Ponce de Leon proved victorious, and along the way gave a new name to the land of the once-fierce natives. They called it Florida, and nowadays it’s invaded annually by people from the north, all seeking respite from snow and cold, all taking delight in the flowery beauty that the name implies.
Copyright 2013 by Craig Nagel