Florida's 500th anniversary has ties to the Indian River
By Jessica Tuggle
INDIAN RIVER COUNTY -- Sometimes it takes a look into the past to gain understanding about the present and a vision for the future.
This year, 2013, marks the 500th anniversary of Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon's landing on Florida's east coast.
The founding fathers of the United States of America wouldn't be born for more than a century when the first Spanish explorers from Europe were tromping along the wetlands and fields of a land they named "La Florida." Since that time, Florida has continued to become a diverse location with a unique and interesting history.
"Wherever you are in Florida, there is a tie to the 500-year celebration," said Pamela J. Cooper, the supervisor of the archive center and genealogy department of the Indian River County main library.
The Spanish were the first non-natives to explore the Florida frontier and document what they found, including places in present-day Indian River County, said Ruth Stanbridge, county historian.
"The Indian River and the whole lagoon area had a lot of dealings with the Spanish," she said. "The Spanish sent explorers to document and survey the Indian River Lagoon. The earliest maps we have are hand-drawn and note where the Indian villages were."
As the Spanish came with soldiers, they used their military force to get what they wanted when natives did not cooperate, and later, when the French tried to come in and take over Florida, the Spanish, natives and French were involved in bloody and brutal battles.
The native people living in the Indian River area were known as the Ays, or Ais. According to documents by explorers and archeological studies of the area, the Ays people mainly lived off the land, sea, and river, gathering fruits and berries and catching fish and shellfish.
Eugene Lyons, a retired history professor and expert on Spanish discovery voyages in Florida, said one of the evidences of their life style is in mounds found in various places in Indian River County.
Barker's Bluff, the location of the home of Paul Krogel, the first defender of the birds on Pelican Island in the late 1800s, was actually an Ays shell mound, where they would discard their shells after consuming shellfish, Mr. Lyons said.
The shell is no longer there, as it was sold in 1908 to provide shell to create roads in Micco and Stuart.
Not far from the Alma Lee Loy Bridge a substantial mound was found that included seated burials.
"No one is certain, but it is possible that that location could be the burial site of the head chief of the Ays, "Mr. Lyons said.
The Ays and other native people in Florida that the Spanish encountered were exposed to Roman Catholicism, as one of the goals of the Spanish government in going to new lands was to convert the people, but there is no evidence that the natives ever truly embraced Catholicism.
"They stayed true to their own religious beliefs and stuck with their culture," Mr. Lyons said.
The Indian River County main library has a display on the second floor outlining some of the local history with Spanish explorers and native people.
Discovering Florida's lands and its people wasn't the only valuable thing the Spanish explorers discovered 500 years ago, Mr. Lyons said.
"The discovery of the gulf stream is one of the very first things we see. It was then used regularly to bring fleets in and then home to Spain. It had a powerful effect on the Spanish Navy," he said. "And the Gulf Stream is only about 40 miles or so offshore here."
The Spanish explorers traveled the east coast of Florida on foot many times and on sea in the waters of the Atlantic, Mrs. Stanbridge said.
"It just boggles your mind how far they got without maps, without GPS. I don't know if people stop and think about how incredible it all was," she said. "The Spanish named the St. Sebastian and the St. Lucie rivers. They called our river, 'Rio de Ays,' which means River of the Ays. When the English came, they translated the name to River of the Indian, and we now call it the Indian River."
Florida's unpredictable weather patterns did not always help the Spanish, as is evidenced by dozens of shipwrecks along the coast, many of them carrying precious cargo for which present day shipwreck salvagers, or treasure hunters, spend their entire lives searching.
The shipwreck of the 1715 fleet occurred in the waters off of Indian River County and the ships' treasures have been discovered from the Sebastian Inlet to Fort Pierce, a big reason the area is also known as the Treasure Coast, Mr. Lyons said.
Two places in Sebastian, Mel Fisher's Treasure Museum and the McLarty Treasure Museum, tell the tale of the shipwrecks and the present-day discoveries.
While the Spanish never built a fort or tried to settle the area, they did set up survivor camps after shipwrecks and some artifacts have been found in various places in the Treasure Coast where those camps used to be, Mr. Lyons said.
As part of the 500th commemorative celebration, "Viva Florida 500," the state library sent all the county library systems a time capsule to fill and preserve pieces of present-day history for future residents, Ms. Cooper said.
"One of the most popular requests by people looking into their personal history is to see photos of buildings," Ms. Cooper said. "City growth and change or neglect causes buildings to be moved or destroyed, forever removing a link a person in the future may wish, unless it is preserved in a photograph."
Residents can participate in the time capsule project by emailing photos of the structures to firstname.lastname@example.org.
"I'd like to have a picture of every building in Indian River County, the businesses, the churches the schools, even the houses," Ms. Cooper said.
The photos gathered will be collected and saved using appropriate technology. Although 21st Century technology can capture still images like never before, there is no way to know if the residents of the future will be able to view them in our current technology, so it is possible that the photos will be preserved in microfilm.
For more information about the library time capsule, visit http://www.irclibrary.org/timecapsule.htm.
For more information about the state 500th anniversary celebrations, visit www.vivaflorida.org.