Excerpt from Florida: An Unnatural History of America’s Weirdest State

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The lies begin at the border. When you cross over into Florida from Georgia or Alabama, there are large signs that read “Welcome to the Sunshine State.” (They also announce that Florida is “Open for Business,” an addition at the behest of the very conservative Governor Rick Scott.) But contrary to the implication of the state’s famous motto, Florida is not the nation’s sunniest state. Not even close. The state’s Percent Sun number (the average percentage of time between sunrise and sunset that the sun reaches the ground) is a respectable 66%, but that is exceeded by Arizona (85%), Nevada (79%), New Mexico (76%), Colorado (71%), Hawai’i (71%), California (68%), and Wyoming (68%). Florida only averages 101 clear days annually (days with no clouds), which is fewer than the number of clear days in 22 other states. Where we do shine, so to speak, is in the number of hot and humid days, but somehow, “Welcome to the Muggy State” or “Florida: the Partly Cloudy State” just don’t work as marketing slogans.

Also contrary to popular perception, Florida was not named for its abundant flowering species. Florido is the Spanish word for “flowery” (also “florid,” incidentally) so many people assume that Florida means “the land of flowers.” Not so. The name Pascua Florida was bestowed upon the state by the Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon on Easter Day, 1513, as Ponce and his crew sailed into what is now Matanzas Bay. In Spain, the Easter Celebration is known as the Feast of the Flowers, and a literal translation of Pascua Florida is therefore “Flowery Easter.” The name Ponce chose for the state was not intended to refer to the orchids, violets, petunias, and other flowering plants that are native to Florida but rather to the Catholic celebration of the death and resurrection of Christ.

 Juan Ponce de Leon led the first Spanish expedition into what is now Florida, and so he is often said to have been the state’s “discoverer.” Of course, Florida was occupied for 12,000 years or so before Ponce and his hardy band of conquistadores showed up. Ponce did not “discover” the state, he only initiated (or rather, tried to initiate) the European conquest of Native American lands in the region.

Ponce’s 1513 expedition came ashore somewhere near present-day St. Augustine. This was when the name Pascua Florida was bestowed. He then sailed south and eventually came upon what we now know as the Florida Keys, the outermost of which is Dry Tortugas. Tortuga is Spanish for “turtle” and Ponce evidently chose the name because of the turtles he observed there. (It was “dry” because there seemed to be no fresh water anywhere on the island.) He then turned north, landed near what is now Port Charlotte, ran into some very unfriendly natives, and high-tailed it back to Puerto Rico.

Ponce returned to the Port Charlotte area in 1521 with the intention of establishing a colony but again ran afoul of the local tribesmen, the Calusa. Ponce was fatally wounded in this confrontation and the Spanish colonization effort was abandoned until 1565. After the faceoff with the Calusa, the conquistadores withdrew to their base in Cuba where Ponce de Leon died from his wounds. His remains were encrypted and subsequently moved to Puerto Rico where his burial crypt can be viewed today in the Cathedral of San Juan Bautista in Old San Juan.

It is often said that Ponce came to Florida to find the mythical Fountain of Youth. More lies, of course – not that you would know it if you went to St. Augustine to visit a tourist attraction called Ponce de Leon’s Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park. The Park houses practically nothing of genuine archaeological significance and one assumes that the reference to archaeology in the park’s name is intended to impart a faux impression of scientific merit or importance. In fact, there is no legitimate historical evidence to suggest that Ponce was looking for anything like a “Fountain of Youth.” As was true of all the Spanish explorers of the New World, he was looking for gold and silver to seal his favor with the Spanish crown. The whole “Fountain of Youth” business is a myth likely perpetrated by one Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés, who is said to have despised Ponce and cooked up the Fountain of Youth story to depict Ponce as a gullible, dim-witted fool. Even in 16th century Spain, the idea that water could reverse aging was considered pretty unlikely.