Florida 500th anniversary: Why do they call it that? The truth about finding Florida

11:04 AM, Mar 29, 2013   |    comments
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Florida will see a special anniversary next week. April 2 marks 500 years since Florida got its name.

What does the name Florida mean? And how did we get it? It's probably not the story you learned in school.

Why do they call it Florida?

If we're going to find out about the name Florida, we should probably start by pronouncing it right.

It's "La Flor-EE-da," says Rodney Kite-Powell, curator of history at the Tampa Bay History Center.

"Ponce de Leon would have pronounced it 'Flor-EE-da,' not 'FLOR-uh-da,' because in Spanish, when a word ends in a vowel, you emphasize the vowel before that," Kite-Powell explained.

Ahh, gotcha. Glad we have that straight. Let's try this:

Juan Ponce de Leon discovered "Flor-EE-da" 500 years ago...

No? Ok, what's wrong with that?

"Not discovering Florida -- naming Florida. And we make that differentiation because, of course, there were Native Americans who were here for thousands of years," Kite-Powell said.

Good point. Okay. How about this:

Five hundred years ago, Juan Ponce de Leon became the first European to ever see...

No? Seriously?

"When he arrived here, there were some of the Native Americans on the East Coast who spoke Spanish, or at least understood Spanish," Kite-Powell said.

Wait -- how did that happen? American Indians lived all over Florida, including along the waterfront in what's now Downtown Tampa. And they had trade networks that reached hundreds of miles into the Caribbean.

So the same way that today we can get a computer cable from China, they could get supplies like hemp rope from Havana. And that meant somewhere along the way, someone had to deal with the Spaniards.

"Also, there were Spaniards who came to Florida before 1513 basically trying to enslave those Native Americans," Kite-Powell said.

So slave traders and merchants were the ones hinted to Ponce de Leon that he would find something if he sailed north and west of Cuba.

All right. Then here we go:

Five hundred years ago, Juan Ponce de Leon named La Florida, which means "land of flowers"...

No!? Oh come on! I learned that in middle school!

"The idea that we heard growing up that Florida means "land of flowers" -- that's probably not true," Kite-Powell said.

"When Ponce de Leon arrived here, it was during Passover, Easter time, and one of the words for Passover in Spanish... is Pascua Florida."

So we owe our name to Pascua Florida, the flowery festival celebrating the Easter season.

Why do they call it that? Now you know.

Starting in September, the Tampa Bay History Center will have a really incredible exhibition to mark this anniversary.

It's the premiere of "500 Years of Florida Maps," a look at how explorers have seen Florida over the years.

It goes from when they were supposedly looking for the Fountain of Youth to when they were looking for a turkey leg at Disney World.

It'll even feature photos of Florida from space taken by Clearwater astronaut Nicole Stott.

Find out more about it at the Tampa Bay History Center exhibits page.

We feature new "Why do they call it that?" stories each Thursday on 10 News at 6 a.m. and 5 p.m.

Check out previous editions of the Emmy Award-winning series at our "Why do they call it that?" website: wtsp.com/callitthat.

Follow 10 News reporter Grayson Kamm on Twitter at @graysonkamm as he travels Tampa Bay telling your stories.

Grayson Kamm, 10 News

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