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Nowhere else in Florida or in the nation will you be closer to the nation's
roots than in this region of Florida which likes to call itself Florida
That "First" is a reference to the region's undisputed antiquity, not to
mention its spot in history as the first place in the nation to welcome
European explorers and the first foreign settlement in the nation.
Historically, Florida was born here, and it was here that the first tiny
trickle of tourism flowed into what was to become a flood of visitors to the
nation's number one vacation destination.
When Jacksonville welcomed its first tourist, Miami was still a swamp. And
long before that, when Jacksonville was just a forest of scrub pine and some
lonely sand, neighboring St. Augustine was already a thriving colony.
Here on Florida's First Coast, you meet a part of the state that is like no
other sector of this sunny peninsula. Its sand is packed hard enough to
drive on; its lifestyle is as gentle as its Southern drawls.
Here mists drift over wide rivers, and "piney woods" and giant live oaks
drip an odd, epiphytic plant called Spanish moss, that makes an eerie sight
on a foggy morn.
This land was in the middle of a battle long before the Pilgrims ever
dreamed of sailing off into the sunset. In those early days, the religiously
persecuted were the French Huguenots, whose Protestant religion was frowned
upon by Catholic Europe. In 1562, they set sail from France, arriving here
months later and settling in a tiny colony that was to meet a violent end.
Long before that, in 1493, the region's favorite son, Juan Ponce de Leon,
landed here as part of an explorative group led by another intrepid explorer
of some renown, none other than Christopher Columbus, the man generally
credited with discovering America.
Ponce de Leon, who went on the become the governor of Puerto Rico, must have
liked what he saw on the First Coast: he returned here in 1513 on an
expedition of his own, landing in nearby St. Augustine. Legend has it that
Ponce de Leon was seeking the famed fountain of youth. You can still
visit the reputed site of his
Fountain of Youth in St. Augustine and see
if it works!
Pragmatists, however, claim Ponce de Leon had something much more prosaic in
mind: gold. Whatever the truth of it all, the explorer certainly made a most
lasting impact on the state: he landed on Easter Day, called Pascua Florida,
or Feast of Flowers, in Spanish. He promptly dubbed this new land Florida, a
name that, clearly, has stuck.
Ponce de Leon and his Spanish crew were followed by the French, the English
and a crowd of rowdy Revolutionaries who called themselves "Americans." This
part of the state and quite a lot of territory beyond was horse traded among
those nationalities for 300 years.
Cannons boomed. Men in armor clanked through the streets of St. Augustine.
Seminole Indians died in grim battles and those pesky "Americans" kept
things in an uproar about as loud as the cannon fire.
Those who sought their fortune here, whether it be gold or a fabulous
fountain, have included both those benignly famed and the decidedly
infamous. Pirates Jean Lafitte, Blackbeard and Sir Francis Drake pillaged
and pirated their way along the coastline, sacking cities that now
perversely honor those rogues with an oceanside road called the Buccaneer
Jacksonville's African-American heritage has long and strong roots here,
too, most of them grimly tied to slave traders. Chief among those was
Zephaniah Kingsley, a slave trader who built an enormous plantation here
from profits in notorious "black gold," then married an elegant African
princess and made her a free woman, an exceptionally rare creature in those
It went on like that, the famous and the infamous making their mark on the
region. With them came glorious days when silk gowns rustled across the
shining wood floors of great plantation houses, when champagne frothed and
money flowed. With them came grim days when cannons thundered, guns roared,
fires burned and men died to claim this land.
Great galleons filled with gold have sailed past this coastline, and some of
them remain here still, buried forever beneath seas that betrayed them.
Massive ships filled with the betrayed also slithered in here, unshackling
cargoes of the black gold of slavery that was to leave its own infamous mark
here and everywhere in the nation.
Waves of joy and jinx, victors and vanquished have rippled over this land,
leaving behind towering fortresses and tiny houses, lacy gowns and gold
doubloons, fragments and figments of a past that lives on proudly here in a
multi-cultural heritage encompassing French, Spanish, English and African
Today, Jacksonville, whose urban sprawl has made it geographically the
largest city in the nation, covering more than 800 square miles, is a
bustling, booming banking and insurance capital where only two French words
are now common: mortgage and champagne.
courtesy of Marylyn Springer
12/18/03, This page has been viewed