ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. - Florida officials are rolling out a vast history lesson to commemorate the first wave of Europeans to hit the state's beaches half a millennium ago.
State leaders begin a series of events starting this week as part of a statewide campaign called Viva Florida 500, a yearlong commemoration to mark the 500th anniversary of Juan Ponce de Leon's landing on the state's east coast. The Spanish explorer became the first recorded European to arrive on Florida's shores on or around April 2, 1513. He is responsible for giving Florida its name, calling it "La Florida" in part because of the land's lush plant life and in part because it was the Easter season.
Ponce de Leon, who went with Christopher Columbus on a second voyage to the West Indies in 1493, continued to explore for the rest of his life, returned to Spain in 1514 a hero for his discovery of Florida. He was knighted, given a personal…
The only surviving navigational reading recorded of Ponce de Leon's "Journey of Discovery" was at a position of 30 degrees 8 minutes north latitude, just off the coast of current day Ponte Vedra Beach.
The state's official commemoration activities began at 11:30 a.m. Tuesday with ceremonies at Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve on AIA that included a reenactment, the unveiling of a 17-foot statue of Ponce de Leon, a state historical marker and interpretive signage.
"If you think about it, 500 years ago when Ponce De Leon was off the coast here, he was seeing the same natural dune system that we can see today," said Michael Shirley, director of the research reserve. "That's pretty amazing if you think about it."
Gov. Rick Scott and members of the state Cabinet were in St. Augustine early Tuesday morning for ceremonial cannon firing and tour of the colonial quarter prior to a meeting at Flagler College.
"I mean, 500 years ago Ponce De Leon came to ... and named Florida," Scott said. "We've got celebrations all across the state this year, and we're celebrating a lot of history. We have a lot of history in our state."
Florida's top elected officials celebrated the state's 500th anniversary Tuesday in St. Augustine, including a re-enactor portraying Juan Ponce de Leon.
A replica of a 16th-century Spanish galleon will make port calls up a strip of the Florida coast in coming weeks, and a three-day exhibit this week will feature rarely seen historical documents.
Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner called the commemoration "a teachable moment," especially for young people.
"I want young people to remember that they're just not here for the sunshine," he said at a state Capitol news conference. "They're here to learn and remember who we were as a people, how we became to be Florida."
The commemoration also carries potential economic benefit. State officials hope the events will encourage visitors to linger longer in a state known as a vacation haven.
"The Viva Florida 500 commemoration is providing the Florida tourism industry with an historic opportunity to expand travelers' perceptions of the state," said Will Seccombe, president and CEO of Visit Florida.
A 170-foot replica of a 16th-century Spanish galleon is sailing from Puerto Rico to Florida for the Viva Florida 500 commemoration. The ship is scheduled to make port calls in Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Cape Canaveral and St. Augustine from April 15 to June 3.
Meanwhile, some rarely seen historical documents will go on public display later this week at the Museum of Florida History in Tallahassee. The documents, on display from Thursday to Saturday, include Florida's original 1838 constitution and a 1586 map of Sir Francis Drake's West Indian voyage.
Ponce de Leon's expedition (included a crew of 200-including women and freeblacks) introduced Christianity, cattle, horses, sheep, the Spanish language and more to Florida, 107 years before the Pilgrims landed.
The commemoration also will feature a 30-minute television special in English and Spanish and a series of public service announcements that will be broadcast statewide in each of Florida's key markets.
Detzner said he recently talked with the Seminole Tribal Council about its possible partnership in the yearlong commemoration. Native Americans lived in what became Florida for thousands of years before the arrival of Europeans.
"We respect that, we honor that, and we appreciate all of the contributions that they have made, both in the past, the present and to the future," he said.
Asked how Native Americans might view the history, Detzner said, "We have to remember that part of this experience was conflict. We can't ignore that. But we also have to remember that as part of this experience, we live to learn, we learned to live together, we've grown together. There's no other state that can represent the kind of diversity that we have here in Florida of cultures and religions."
Copyright 2013 by News4Jax.com. The Associated Press contributed to this report. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.