MIAMI – Of all the outlandish myths about Florida’s outlandish history, one of the most stubborn holds that Ponce de Leon discovered it in 1513 when he was searching for the Fountain of Youth.
But evidence compiled by a Florida Keys map collector, a South Florida archaeologist and a Naples ocean engineer further debunks the tall tale of the Spanish conquistador whose name graces textbooks, schools, boulevards, hotels, parks, statues and the most popular tourist site in St. Augustine, where Juan Ponce de Leon never set foot.
Ponce de Leon may have named the place then known as Bimini — which he thought was an island — after the Easter time “Feast of Flowers,” but he was not the first European to land in La Florida.
If not Ponce de Leon, who? The three authors of a new book released Friday (March20), “The Florida Keys: A History Through Maps,” present a compelling theory that Floridians ought to be naming more stuff in the Sunshine State in honor of John Cabot, the Italian explorer who sailed to the coast of North America in 1497 and claimed it for King Henry VII of England.
Some historians believe Cabot was the first European to find Florida when, after failing to locate a Northwest Passage to China, he journeyed so far south from Canada that he could see Cuba to the east, according to an account by Cabot’s son, Sebastian.
“That would put Cabot off the Florida Keys long before Ponce de Leon got here and named them the Martyrs,” said Brian Schmitt of Marathon, an avid map collector and owner of the oldest real estate company in the Keys. “Lots of what we’ve been taught about Ponce de Leon is fanciful creation passed down through the centuries. Maps show Florida was well known by Europeans before Ponce de Leon arrived.”
Archaeologist Bob Carr’s analysis of conch shells he unearthed in Fort Lauderdale supports what the maps illustrate.
“Floridians need to stop living under the illusion that Ponce was our famous founder,” Carr said. “We need to get beyond the tourism hoax of the Fountain of Youth and learn about our complicated history.”
Schmitt’s most prized acquisition is the 1511 Peter Martyr Map made by the prolific Italian historian who worked for the royal court of Spain. Peter Martyr D’Anghiera wrote the first accounts of explorations in Central and South America in a gossipy style. He interviewed all the intrepid mariners of the day, including Christopher Columbus, Amerigo Vespucci and Sebastian Cabot, and examined their ships’ logs and charts.
The map shows detail of the Florida coastline and what clearly appear to be the Keys and the Dry Tortugas north of the islands of Cuba and Hispaniola. Schmitt purchased the map from a San Diego dealer for $250,000.
“If you are a map collector, it’s the Holy Grail — the earliest attainable map of the New World,” Schmitt said. His presentation of the map and book on Friday in downtown Miami was originally planned to coincide with the Miami Map Fair, which was cancelled because of coronavirus concerns. “But it is only about 8-1/2 by 11 inches in size, not particularly pretty, a woodcut on hand-laid paper, with some print-through Latin script on the back side.
“Maps are the confluence of art and science, and some are breathtakingly beautiful. Not this one. I tell visitors if you can identify the one in my collection that’s worth more than all the others combined, you can have it.”
Two other maps buttress the anti-Ponce argument: The 1500 Juan de la Cosa map depicting vast lands north of Cuba shows British flags planted along the east coast of the U.S., which would dovetail with the theory that England’s claim to the original 13 American colonies was a byproduct of Cabot’s discoveries.
A second map, created in 1502 and called the Cantino Planisphere, depicts the peninsula of Florida with a remarkably accurate rendering of its inlets and bays. Alberto Cantino, a spy for an Italian duke, smuggled the map out of Portugal when European countries were in competition for claims to New World territory. The original was found hundreds of years later being used as a screen at a butcher shop.
“Once aggregated into maps, this geographic information was jealously guarded, allowing Spain and Portugal to maintain an advantage in trade and colonial expansion over other European countries,” Schmitt said, describing how maps were pieced together like puzzles, as cartographers compiled sketches and descriptions of the coastline made from the deck or crow’s nest or from expeditions on shore. “It wasn’t until 1600 that they had instruments for more accurate measurements.”
In the book, co-author Carr presents an archaeological argument that adds to the body of evidence that Ponce didn’t discover Florida. Carr, who excavated the prehistoric Tequesta Indian villages at the mouth of the Miami River, discovered a mound of 22 conch shells when he was surveying land at the Bonnet House Museum and Gardens in Fort Lauderdale in 1984. He found uncharacteristic gaping holes in the middle of the shells and one with a distinctive thin metal blade hole. Radiocarbon tests showed the shells dated from the late 15th century.
“These can’t have been opened by Spanish explorers because the Spanish had already been in the Caribbean by that time and knew how to open conch shells efficiently, the way the indigenous people opened them by piercing a hole in the crown, severing the tendon attachment and extracting the conch for a meal,” he said. “Whoever did this really labored to bust them open and eat them.”
Carr concluded the shells were proof of a European landing that pre-dated Ponce.
“Christopher Columbus knew how to open conch shells and Ponce had traveled with Columbus. These were opened by people who were not Spanish and had never been in the Caribbean but who likely arrived in South Florida from the north along the Atlantic coast or had sailed directly from Europe,” Carr said.
Among Schmitt’s collection of 1,000 maps is the first map of New Providence in the Bahamas, the only full copy of what is likely the first English map of the West Indies or Spanish Main, and the only copy of one of the first maps to name the Tortugas and Los Martires (the original name of the Keys).
“I’ve been collecting for 25 years and my focus is on the Keys, the Bahamas, Cuba and South Florida, the areas where I’ve been boating and diving my whole life,” said Schmitt, 66. His family moved to the Keys from Detroit in 1955 and started a real estate company. Schmitt has never left. His boat is named the Hippocampus, after Neptune’s horse. “I grew up in the real estate business and developed a sense of the land and a love for the islands.”
The second part of the new book is about the mapping of the Keys, and the first to do it, in 1770, was William Gerard De Brahm, whose skill as a cartographer earned him the title of Surveyor General of the New World for England. One of his most unusual printed charts — perhaps a precursor to the climate change projections of the 21st century — depicted Florida 10,000 years ago when water levels were lower in order to demonstrate that the Keys were part of Florida and refute Spain’s claim that the Keys were geologically linked to Cuba.
“Spain tried to claim the Keys as part of Cuba when Spain traded Florida to England,” Schmitt said. “With this very odd map, De Brahm defended England’s claim.”
De Brahm wrote incredibly detailed journals about the Gulfstream and Florida’s flora and fauna, including its insects, bears, panthers, snakes and crocodiles, of which he had heard “instances that they have attacked Children without the House, and carried them off the Land into the Water, but cannot vouch for its Truth.” And he warned that “Tempests will be seen more than in any other part of the Globe.”
Of the Keys he said: “None of the islands is inhabited by any of the human species, but constantly visited by the English from New Providence, and Spaniards from Cuba, for the sake of wrecks, madeira wood, tortoise, shrimps, fish, and birds: of the latter a variety exist on the islands and about Cape Sable, amongst which is peculiarly a large red bird, which measures six feet from the toe to its bill’s end, (which is crooked, and has its maxillary motion on its upper part, as on that of a parrot) and is called flamingo.”
Maps help explain why the Ponce de Leon legend has persisted.
“The most chronicled story was Ponce’s story,” Schmitt said. “Spain controlled Florida for 250 years. They owned the place and they publicized the history they wanted believed.
“Why is this called America? Because of a mistake by Martin Waldseemuller,” Schmitt said of the 1507 world map by the German cartographer that used the name America for the first time. “Vespucci exaggerated his accomplishments and Waldseemuller said we might as well name it after Amerigo and it took on a life of its own.
“In subsequent versions — I have a 1513 Waldseemuller map — America is gone and it’s called Terra Incognita.”
Other historians believe Gaspar and Miguel Corte-Real, brothers from Portugal, reached Florida first on voyages in 1500, 1501 or 1502.
“The argument against Sebastian Cabot is that he made things up. And nobody really knows exactly what happened to John Cabot,” Schmitt said. “There’ s no written record of his voyages. You find different versions of the same events when you’re doing historical research, so you’ve got to find the most credible one. Maybe I’m too confident in Peter Martyr but I don’t share those reservations about Sebastian, who became the pilot major of Spain.“
Ponce de Leon did land in Florida in 1513 but somewhere near Cape Canaveral, 125 nautical miles south of St. Augustine. He then sailed south, recorded interaction with the native “Chequesta” people at the mouth of the Miami River, rounded Cape Florida and headed north up the Gulf coast, where he was chased away near Fort Myers by Calusa Indians.
“Having received a charter from the King of Spain to colonize the land, Ponce certainly had prior knowledge of Florida, which at the time was called Beimeni, or Bimini, not to be confused with today’s small island in the Bahamas,” said Todd Turrell, co-author of the book with Schmitt and Carr. “The Columbus family, who had the charter for Cuba and the Bahamas, was angry that the Beimeni/Bimini charter had not been issued to them. Ponce renamed Bimini as Florida, a fact confirmed by Spanish explorer Alonso Alvarez de Pineda, who noted by hand on his 1519 chart of the Gulf of Mexico: ‘Florida, formerly Bimini.’”
Ponce returned to the Gulf coast eight years later for another attempt at settlement with two ships crammed full of 200 people and 50 horses. Near present-day Marco Island he was attacked by Calusa tribesmen and hit in the leg with an arrow. He retreated to Cuba where he died from an infection of his wound.
American author Washington Irving inflated the Fountain of Youth myth when he wrote two books on the Spanish conquest of the Americas that combined history and fiction.
“Thanks to Irving’s narrative skills the false Ponce became a star performer in a fiesta of illusion that persists to this day,” T.D. Allman writes in “Finding Florida: The True History of the Sunshine State.” Celebrations in 2013 of the 500th anniversary of Ponce’s discovery reinforced the myth as “millionaires donated money, academics composed screeds, and politicians lauded Florida’s made-up history while people all over the state were caught up in the street parades, the beauty pageants and, occasionally, the attempts to convene serious intellectual colloquia in commemoration of Florida’s definitive fake event. ... For the latest of countless times people in Florida cavorted, ignorant of the events that had led them to perch on this soggy former annex of the sea — uncaring, too, as to what this disregard for the past might bode for their future.”