First White Man Dies in America

Juan Ponce de León

Juan Ponce de León came to what is now Punta Gorda on his second expedition in 1521 with 200 colonists. The Calusa attacked, and Juan took an arrow to his hip. His men tried to pull it out but only got the shaft, and the arrowhead remained in his body.

The entire expedition returned to their ships and headed back to their home base in Cuba. But, it was too late! Juan’s wound had become infected. Noble Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León is now honored by Punta Gorda with a plaque titled: “The First White Man Dies In America.”

Historical marker at Ponce de León Park in Punta Gorda, FL

On this day, May 24, ships were sent to seek a mainland colony site and to sound and chart the newly found “Bay of the Holy Spirit” (Charlotte Harbor). For three weeks explorations continued, seldom by land. There were at least three meetings with the Caloosas; once they offered “guanin” (low gold) and skins for trade and promised more. But in other meetings fighting erupted and “several Indians” and one Spaniard were killed. Thus the first white man died in America, victim of Indian arrows and the place of his death was called “Matanca” (Pine Island).

Who were the Calusa?

The original Florida inhabitants were fierce warriors who turned back all who tried to invade Florida. The Calusa were a very powerful and influential tribe who controlled the land south of the Peace River to Miami and east to Lake Okeechobee, which they called Mayami.

Unique indigenous inhabitants

The Calusa were unique in many ways. According to Spanish historians, the Calusa were a good 4 inches taller than the average Spaniard. The women were said to be equally well-built and attractive. The Calusa were the only North American tribe who never practiced agriculture. Their diet was almost entirely protein.

Those who lived on islands ate fish and shellfish. Those who lived along the river ate fish, turtles and ducks. Calusa living inland ate rabbits, turkeys and deer. The Peace River was originally called Peas River for the wild legumes that grew along the shore with which the Calusa supplemented their diet.

Long before Mel Fisher was salvaging the Atocha, the Calusa were also salvaging Spanish shipwrecks. They positioned some people on the shore to collect items that drifted in and others went to the ships in their canoes to take what they could, including survivors. This is how they came to own Spanish gold and silver.

There is evidence the Calusa traded with tribes as far away as New York, Kentucky and North Dakota. The Calusa possessed highly-desirable shells and pearls which they traded for galena ore that was the foundation of the black paint they used to decorate themselves.

How the Calusa became extinct

In 1763, after the British defeated the French and Spanish in the French and Indian War, under terms of the Treaty of Paris, Spain handed over Florida to England. The Spanish may have been thinking “good riddance” and secretly snickering as they visualized their British rivals being scalped by the Calusa!

But the British took a different approach to Florida. They sold muskets to the Creek tribe of South Carolina and Georgia, and troops of Creek moved into Florida, where they merged with other Florida tribes and collectively became known as the Seminole.

The Seminole, with their newly acquired muskets, chased the Calusa south and herded them onto a small island. There they slaughtered every last Calusa man, woman and child.

For years afterward, as Spanish ships sailed past the island, they could see the sun-bleached bones of the massacred Calusa. They called this island Cayo Hueso which means Isle of Bones. Later English speakers would mis-translate the island’s name as Key West.

Our tribute to the Calusa

We adopted a Calusa child as our logo mascot. The Calusa are gone but not forgotten!

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Learn about Punta Gorda’s history!

Hear true stories about Punta Gorda’s history and tragic deaths occurring here on our Haunted History of Punta Gorda Walking Tour.


Sources

Our Fascinating Past-Charlotte Harbor: Early Years by Lindsey Williams and U.S. Cleveland; Wikipedia

About Simona Molino

The dramatic scene of Juan Ponce de León being attacked by the Calusa was created by Simona Molino of Janas Studio Artistico in Italy. Janas is a fairy whose magic flights take her to starry skies and silvery seas. She inspires Simona’s fantasy artwork of memorable characters illustrated in rich colors and scrupulous detail.

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