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Friday, Dec 19, 2014
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Otto: Truth gets lost in Florida's story

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No state gets better billing for the romance and adventure of its founding than Florida.

All of us have heard the stories of Juan Ponce de Leon sailing into St. Augustine during Easter week. After being overwhelmed with its beauty and while searching for the legendary Fountain of Youth, he supposedly gave the state its name because of all the flowers.

It's a great story, whose 500th anniversary is this week. Too bad none of it happened, according to a Florida author. I'm half surprised nobody tried to create a world's fair to commemorate the occasion, but then these are tough times.

Legends are the stuff we are made of, so if the truth gets a tad stretched in the process, that's the way it is. I remember going to the Alamo the first time. Once I got over the fact that it wasn't out on the lonesome prairie but next to a department store in downtown San Antonio, it pulled me back in. At least it did until I saw a glass case that enclosed a coonskin cap.

Looking a little closer at the plaque, I found out it wasn't ol' Davy Crockett's but the one John Wayne wore in his movie version of the saga.

So now along comes T.D. Allman and his new book, “Finding Florida: The True History of the Sunshine State.”

There's a lot to like about this book by the Florida native and Harvard grad.

There is at least as much to quibble about as Allman picks and chooses his way down the state's timeline, taking shots at other historians, pointing out the state's many failures and all but ignoring the good guys (and there were more than a handful) who have struggled to point the state in the right direction.

But he does make the right point that we have whitewashed much of our story. In current times, when we all but ignore all but the barest layer of history, we might not understand the reasons why the state has been a stomping ground for so many hustlers these past five centuries.

Allman writes: “Juan Ponce de Leon never visited and never could have visited St. Augustine: St. Augustine was not founded until 41 years after his death, in 1565. Ponce did not discover Florida. … The first European to sight Florida may not have been Spanish at all, but Portuguese or Italian.”

He also says Ponce never even heard of the Fountain of Youth.

As for the flowers, he writes, “It was not because of any profusion of flowers. Look into any Florida backyard; even today you'll see a somber palette of greens. … Pascua Florida was a poetic name for Palm Sunday. By the time Ponce went to shore in early April 1513, Palm Sunday, which fell on March 20 that year, already had passed, but when it came to names his choices were often fanciful. … He called the Florida Keys 'The Martyrs' because, poking out to the sea, one after another, they reminded him of the decapitated heads of Christians.”

History isn't what it used to be. Next they'll be saying “Tampa” is not the ancient Timucuan word for “The Big Guava.”

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