Florida’s roots reach deep into Spanish culture and history. Indeed, our shores were the first in North America to be touched by European feet, and those feet were Spanish.
In 1513, Juan Ponce de Leon, the infamous conquistador who allegedly embarked on a tireless quest to find the miraculous Fountain of Youth, discovered an “island,” which he named “La Florida,” in honor of the Pascua Florida, or “Feast of Flowers” (Easter). His precise landing spot is unknown, but was likely somewhere between present-day Melbourne and Ponte Vedra Beach. Eight years later, he briefly explored Florida’s west coast, where he received a mortal arrow wound.
Following de Leon’s initial expedition, Spanish conquistador Pedro Menendez de Aviles, commissioned by Spain’s King Philip II, led a fleet of 19 ships and more than a thousand people to La Florida, which then encompassed a vast territory extending the entire length of North America’s Atlantic coastline. On September 8, 1565, he stepped ashore and founded St. Augustine, which is now the oldest continuously inhabited European settlement in the continental U.S.
For the next two centuries, St. Augustine was a Spanish colony, part of Spain’s vast empire. Later, Florida came under other flags — Britain, France, Spain again, the Confederacy and eventually the United States. But Spain’s influence on Florida’s culture has endured.
2015 marks the 450th anniversary of the founding of St. Augustine, which still overflows with the flavor of Spain. Visitors to St. Augustine flock to the Castillo de San Marcos, the oldest stone fortress in the continental U.S. The city also is home to the oldest Catholic mission, founded in 1587, twenty years before Jamestown. In fact, when Jamestown was settled in 1607, St. Augustine already had existed for 42 years and was one of Spain’s largest and strongest colonial settlements. St. Augustine also boasts the only surviving Spanish colonial church in Florida, the Cathedral Basilica. Other architectural beauties feature many later structures, such as Henry Flagler’s magnificent hotels and churches, but even in those Spain’s cultural influence remains strong.
Spain’s vibrant cultural tendrils extend from these early beginnings in St. Augustine throughout the state of Florida, and Jacksonville, too, boasts numerous Spanish influences. Spanish revival architecture is evident in many of our city’s older buildings, particularly those built during the 1920s land boom. Examples include San Jose Country Club and the Bolles main campus; Epping Forest, the exquisite estate of Alfred I. and Jessie Ball duPont; numerous homes scattered throughout San Jose, San Marco, Avondale and Ortega; Riverside Baptist Church, and even some more modern structures. These buildings include elements such as stucco walls, tile roofs, simple lines, wrought iron features, terrazzo and tile floors, balconies and outdoor living areas such as patios and courtyards. These architectural elements, with Spanish origins, lend themselves beautifully to our Florida climate and lifestyle. Indeed the “Florida style” stucco home, so prevalent in most newer housing developments, is a spinoff of original Spanish and Mediterranean architecture.
Architecture is one clear influence Spain has had on Florida through the centuries. Another obvious influence is reflected in the names of areas and streets: San Jose, Cordova Ave., San Marco, Madrid, Coronado, Villa de la Reina, etc.
Even our flora and fauna owe much to Spain. The Spanish brought all kinds of supplies to sustain them in the New World, including animals and plants. Because Florida’s climate is so similar to Spain’s, many of these not just survived but thrived. There would be no Florida orange juice were it not for Spain, as Florida owes its entire citrus industry to the introduction of citrus by the Spaniards, for example. The same goes with our huge cattle industry; the Spanish brought over Spanish cows that adapted incredibly well to Florida’s terrain and were the beginning of thriving livelihoods of many Florida cattle baron families. Horses, too, were shipped over from Spain. The strong Spanish horse stock became adept at navigating our sandy soil and Florida scrub and are the basis for the best Florida horse lines. Hogs, too, were introduced by the Spaniards, and descendants of these live in the wild throughout not just Florida but the entire Southeast.
Three hundred years of Spanish rule definitely left their mark on Florida. While other parts of Florida, such as the Miami area, enjoy Spanish influences such as cuisine in a bigger way than north Florida does—largely due to Miami’s Cuban influence—still Spain’s influence in North Florida remains strong. Indeed, Spanish culture is interwoven throughout Jacksonville, St. Augustine and surrounding areas and is reflected all around us. Without our strong Spanish heritage, Florida would not be what it is today.
The 39th annual Art & Antiques Show, presented by The Women’s Board to benefit Wolfson Children’s Hospital, celebrates La Florida by highlighting Florida’s Spanish cultural heritage with its 2015 theme: VIVA ESPANA! The Show will be held Dec. 3-6 and features a vibrant Opening Night Party, world renowned lecturers, and dealers from across the U.S. and Europe.
On Sunday, Dec. 6, the final day of the event, Dr. J. Michael Francis will give a talk entitled “Before Jamestown: Europeans, Africans and Indians in Spanish Florida.” Dr. Francis is one of the world’s leading experts on Spanish colonial history. With a PhD in History from the University of Cambridge, Dr. Francis taught from 1997-2012 at UNF, where he served as department chair. In 2012 he was lured to the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, where an endowed chair was created for him: The Hough Family Chair of Florida Studies. Dr. Francis’s teaching fields include colonial Latin America, Early Florida, Spanish Borderlands, the pre-Columbian Americas and Spanish Paleography. Dr. Francis has published numerous articles on Spanish history, as well as three academic books. His most recent work, a coffee-table style book on St. Augustine titled St. Augustine: A Story of Unbroken History and Enduring Spirit, was published in conjunction with that city’s 450th anniversary this year. Dr. Francis serves on St. Augustine’s 450th Commemoration Commission and spends his summers researching ancient Spanish documents, primarily in Spain. He has received numerous awards for his teaching, is known for his incredibly charismatic style and is much loved by his students. His talk promises to be a highlight of the weekend.
Article by Grace M. Sarber, President of The Women’s Board, with much of the historical information derived from Dr. J. Michael Francis’s book, St. Augustine: America’s First City, A Story of Unbroken History and Enduring Spirit