The small fleet of Juan Ponce de León lay at anchor on the west coast of Florida. Its passage there from Cabo de Corrientes on the east coast had been one marked by continuous discoveries.
Departing the vicinity of Cabo de Corrientes the fleet had sailed south and arrived at an island they named Santa Marta which according to Antonio de Herrera, the only known author to have written an account of Juan Ponce de León’s 1513 voyage using primary source documents, lay at 27⁰ north latitude. The island was approximately one league (3.21 nautical miles) long and proved to have potable water so the fleet remained there to take on fresh water supplies. Friday, May 13th the fleet got underway once again and continued along the coast following a bank of shoals and islands until arriving at an anchorage for an island they called Pola that Herrera wrote was located at 26⁰ 30’ north latitude. Between the shoals and islands of this part of the coast lay a good deal of water in the manner of a bay.
So what did the east coast of Florida look like in 1513? We know from map studies of the St. Augustine area that over the course of centuries the St. Augustine Inlet moved to the south as did the inlet at Matanzas. Indeed, in very recent times, another inlet opened up during a storm just to the south of Matanzas Inlet. The east coast of Florida was a dynamic environment and changed with every storm. The eastern coastline of the Florida peninsula has undergone a tremendous change since the early Sixteenth Century. This natural change was drastically accelerated by the process of urbanization and development that saw vast stretches of the coast altered by building, dredging, bulk heading, and filling. This is another area where we begin to run into trouble when we try and re-construct Ponce de León’s voyage. The coastal landscape of Florida, and particularly that of Southern Florida, has been altered and stabilized beyond recognition from its natural and ever changing self.
On Pentecost, Sunday, May 15, the fleet coasted ten leagues along a string of coastal islands until reaching two white islands. All these islands were given the name of Los Mártires, or The Martyrs since they looked like suffering men from a distance, and the name stuck for a long time because of the great number of Spanish mariners who would later be cast away and perish on these islands. Today these are known as the Florida Keys. The text makes it clear that these islands were seen at a distance which one would expect from prudent mariners exploring unknown and reef filled waters. A single fix for this chain is given by Herrera as being 26⁰ 15’ north latitude.
So where exactly did Los Mártires begin? Today the northern most of the Florida Keys are considered to be Key Largo and Elliot Key. But was this the case in 1513? It is conceivable that their conception of the Keys included the ever changing coastal islands that ran for some distance up the south Florida coast beyond what is today Miami.
The fleet kept its distance from Los Mártires as they followed the archipelago to the south and west. Where they executed their turn to the north is unknown but if following the Florida Keys at a distance it likely occurred after clearing the Marquesas. They sailed sometimes to the north and sometimes to the northeast until the 23rd of May when they came upon the west coast of Florida. The following day they coasted to the south not realizing or considering that La Florida might be part of a greater mainland. They traveled that day until they came upon some offshore islands with a pass between that permitted passage between the islands onto an opening in the coast that would permit them safe anchorage for taking on wood and water. It was these activities that occupied them five hundred years ago today.