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Days of discovery

On your five-year plan, keep a slot open for a big event. The European world discovered the North American continent 495 years ago, and the 500th anniversary is on the horizon.

Florida is the home to many early European landings, most notably those of Juan Ponce de Leon’s landing in April 1513 and Hernando de Soto’s landing in June 1539. The Heritage Festival in Bradenton marks the anniversary of de Soto’s landing with a host of events.

On Saturday, a bottle boat regatta will float down Palma Sola Bay. Combining recycling with engineering, the boats are made of inflated plastic milk bottles. Other festival events include a musical, a 5-K run, a grand ball – including the coronation of a new “Hernando” king and queen – and a night parade. The festival will continue through April 26. When told that the festival sounded similar to Tampa’s Gasparilla celebration, De Soto Memorial volunteer Casey Russell agreed.

“Yes, but we did it first,” she said.

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De Soto, however, wasn’t the first European to set foot on Florida soil. Ponce de Leon, a navigator for Christopher Columbus on his second voyage in 1493, made an expedition, reportedly in search of a legendary “fountain of youth.” He landed on the northeast coast, long believed to be near St. Augustine, and claimed the land for Spain.

St. Augustine, the oldest continuously inhabited city in the United States, was established 52 years later.

The site believed by many to be the location of the actual landing is now a 15-acre privately owned park in the city, named the Fountain of Youth Archeological Park.

Ninety miles south, a historical marker on Melbourne Beach states that it was the location of the first landing. The city is hosting an event to raise money for a statue of Ponce de Leon. Likewise, many people believe that Port Charlotte, south of Bradenton, is the site of de Soto’s landing.

Philip Levy, associate professor of history and anthropology at USF, is not concerned with such discrepancies.

“It’s very hard to know for sure,” he said. “It’s all based on how you draw maps and somehow read distances. We’re not going to know with any great precision. It’s not that important, but it’s in the area.”

Despite the controversy, Michelle Reyna, director of marketing and creative services for Fountain of Youth, is confident that the park is on the exact spot.

In 1904, an archeological dig turned up a cross – about 14 feet by 10 feet – made of 27 coquina stones native to the area.

“If you count the center stone twice, the stones were placed 15 down, going north and south, and 13 across, going east to west,” Reyna said.

A silver salt cellar, approximately 3 inches by 9 inches, was found with the cross. Inside was a parchment sealed in wax with a statement declaring the land for Spain and indicating that the stones represent the year 1513.

“It (the parchment) was sent to Spain twice, and the speech was authenticated as being from the 16th century,” Reyna said.

A widely held claim is that the evidence was fabricated by landowner Louella McConnell, according to 200 Quick Looks at Florida History by James C. Clark.

“It’s intriguing,” Reyna said of the claim. “It adds spice to the story.”

The opinion of those who represent the park is that Walter B. Fraser, who bought the property in 1927, “was known as a man of integrity who would not have participated in knowingly duping people into coming to a historical site if he knew it wasn’t true.” Fraser’s grandchildren now own and operate the park.

Physical evidence backs up the claim that this was the site of the first landing, Reyna said.

“The site fits the physical description of Ponce de Leon’s notations in his journal,” she said. “The specific features of the land match his notes, and he marked the longitude and latitude of his landing.” The archeological park sits within one degree of his measurement, she said.

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Plans for the 500th anniversary combine the landing and the founding of St. Augustine. They include re-enactments by the Historic Florida Militia and a display of artifacts from Ponce de Leon’s plantation in San Juan, Puerto Rico, where he was governor. Reyna said that arrangements are being made with the San Juan property owners to donate artifacts, which have no dispute as to authenticity, on a permanent loan.

The committee is also planning events to acknowledge the role of women, Africans and others in the founding years of St. Augustine.

Prior to its discovery by Europeans, the land was populated by the descendents of people who had crossed the Bering Strait thousands of years before.

The indigenous peoples will be represented before the re-enactment, Reyna said.

“We’re staging a powwow (and) bringing in a giant drum to honor their heritage,” she said.

Levy sees some value in such events, with a caveat.

“These are historical events,” Levy said. “To discuss them, to use their anniversary as an opportunity to open up discussion about their implications and their repercussions on the modern world – all that makes sense to me. To celebrate – have a big party – that seems to me a little odd.”