Today is a big day for Florida. It’s believed that on this day 500 years ago, Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon first set foot on the land that he would dub “La Florida” (the flowery island).
Of course, like most things in this beautiful sun-drenched state, the account of Ponce de Leon’s discovery is widely disputed. T.D. Allman, who recently published the book Finding Florida: The True History of the Sunshine State, has an op-ed in today’s New York Times where he makes the case against the conquistador’s greatest claim to fame. Allman notes the distinctive peninsula had appeared on European maps as early as 1500 and was probably first sighted by the Portuguese or by the Cabots sailing from England several years earlier. He goes on to burst every Floridian’s bubble by saying that most of the traditions we associate with Ponce de Leon, from his time in present-day St. Augustine to his alleged discovery of the Fountain of Youth, were most likely concocted by Washington Irving three centuries later.
But the dispute over who discovered Florida and when isn’t stopping the state from celebrating the 500th anniversary of what we all learned in our history textbooks. While the official commemoration is taking place in St. Augustine, other events are planned in towns like South Melbourne Beach, where many believe Ponce de Leon first landed.
Dozens of events related to Florida’s 500th birthday are planned over the next year from the Panhandle to the Keys. The state has set up a special website called Viva Florida to help you keep track of all the festivities.