150 Generations of the Amazingly Ancient Culture Right Here On Our Island
By Rick Piper
A gentleman from Palm Bay representing the agenda of the country of Spain and a group with interests in the upcoming 500 year commemoration of the naming of Florida , is trying to assign a map name for our barrier island itself, from Port Canaveral to Sebastian Inlet, as “Ponce de Leon Island” to honor the Royal Family of Spain. (the Viva500 committee is not actively advocating for this naming)
After presenting his original proposal to the City Council of Cocoa Beach for a resolution of support for the naming of the island after Ponce de Leon, the gentleman from Palm Bays was asked by one city councilman if he had any thoughts on our local ancient culture of the Ays Indians and the way that they were treated during the period of the Spanish occupation of Florida. He said he did and then he looked around himself and arrogantly stated “I don’t see any Indians standing here asking you for anything.” At which the city councilman quite rightly answered “That’s because they killed them all.”
Three of the Eight communities councils that reside on the barrier island in question have voted to support the name “Ponce de Leon”, the other Five communities on the island have voted to not support the naming or refused to consider it. Cocoa Beach recently reversed it’s earlier support and voted 5-0 saying “No” to the naming of the island. Unfortunatley, during the meeting Mr Lopez’s associate accused us all of “Racism” and was escorted from the meeting by a police officer. The gentleman from Palm Bay is still pursuing the name change actively and has stated in the press that those that don’t support the naming are “Hate Mongers”.
It’s phrased that Ponce de Leon “discovered” Florida in 1513 but is widely accepted now that Europeans had been slave raiding this coast of Florida for at least a decade before his first trip, as evidenced by a Portuguese map from 1502 that shows the details of the Florida coast.(4)
Ponce de Leon wasn’t what my old fifth grade history book claimed him to mythically be, an “Explorer” on “a quest for the fountain of youth”. Not in any form…there is no mention ever in Pounce de Leon’s writings of a fountain of youth, it’s a myth attached after his death. Ponce de Leon was a Conquistador. An out of work soldier given a private, for profit, contract by the Spanish Crown and the Inquisition to conquer, sell as slaves, plunder for gold, and kill resisters among the native peoples he encountered in the Americas. He first enslaved and killed the natives of the island of Hispaniola(5) and was promoted for it.
Spanish Dominican friar Bartolomé de las Casas who emigrated to the island of Hispaniola in 1502 on the expedition of Nicolás de Ovando and witnessed first hand the brutal atrocities of the conquistadors on that island (of whom Ponce was an officer in charge at that time and led the crushing of the Tainos there).(7) —“Which the Spaniards no sooner perceived, but they, mounted on generous Steeds, well weapon’d with Lances and Swords, begin to exercise their bloody Butcheries and Strategems, and overrunning their Cities and Towns, spar’d no Age, or Sex, nay not so much as Women with Child, but ripping up their Bellies, tore them alive in pieces. They laid Wagers among themselves, who should with a Sword at one blow cut, or divide a Man in two; or which of them should decollate or behead a Man, with the greatest dexterity; nay farther, which should sheath his Sword in the Bowels of a Man with the quickest dispatch and expedition.”(7)
As of the province of “Hiquey” on Hispaniola, the province Ponce de Leon was given to govern after decimating it, he states “The number of those I saw here burnt, and dismembered, and rackt with various Torments, as well as others, the poor Remnants of such matchless Villanies, who surviving were enslaved, is infinite.” The aftermath of the conquistadors brutal task led to the dividing up of the survivors “…they divided among themselves the Young Men, Women, and Children reserved promiscuously for that purpose….And this was the great care they had of them, they sent the Males to the Mines to dig and bring away the Gold, which is an intollerable labor; but the Women they made use of to Manure and Till the ground, which is a toil most irksome even to Men of the strongest and most robust constitutions, allowing them no other food but Herbage, and such kind of unsubstantial nutriment, so that the Nursing Womens Milk was exsiccated and so dryed up, that the young Infants lately brought forth, all perished, and females being separated from and debarred cohabitation with Men, there was no Prolification or raising up issue among them. The Men died in Mines, hunger starved and oppressed with labor, and the Women perished in the Fields, harrassed and broken with the like Evils and Calamities: Thus an infinite number of Inhabitants that formerly peopled this Island were exterminated and dwindled away to nothing by such Consumptions.”(7)
“The Black Legend” is a term a Spanish historian and defender of the realm, Julián Juderías, coined to deny the wrong doings of the 16th century Spanish Catholic Empire and the Spanish Inquisition. He was a follower of the philosophic ideals that Spain should “recover its 16th-century sense of Roman Catholic mission.” The label was created to counter the attacks by Spain’s enemies in England, France and other non Spanish speaking countries in their fight against the Spanish Catholic Empire by generalizing that the crimes Spain committed in the new world impugned all Spanish (which of course it doesn’t). In this case it has devolved into a term to slur anyone that points to the atrocities that were committed in the Americas by the conquistadors in the name of the Spanish Inquisition. Other European countries committed brutalities as well in the Americas at that time but the theory of the “Black Legend” would have you believe that anything stated about the Spanish is just propaganda (that the Conquistadors and the Spanish Inquisition were nice and kind). Even though the conquistadors atrocities were recorded by a Spaniard, Dominican Friar Bartolomé de las Casas, that emigrated to Hispaniola in 1502 along with Jaun Ponce de Leon and witnessed first hand the ghoulish brutality and slaughter committed there by the conquistadors. (7)
Bartolomé de las Casas spent 50 years of his life actively fighting slavery and the violent colonial abuse of indigenous peoples, especially by trying to convince the Spanish court to adopt a more humane policy of colonization. And although he failed to save the indigenous peoples of the Western Indies, his efforts resulted in several improvements in the legal status of the natives, and in an increased colonial focus on the ethics of colonialism. Las Casas is often seen as one of the first advocates for universal Human Rights. His book reporting these atrocities to the crown to lobby to write laws to stop the carnage titled “A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies” was presented to the Spanish crown in 1542 and accepted by them as true and was published in 1552. His account is largely responsible for the passage of the new Spanish colonial laws known as the New Laws of 1542, which abolished native slavery for the first time in European colonial history and attempted to curb the abuse of the native people. (7) NO ONE denies that this testimony was a true accounting of what was taking place by the conquistadors in America.
Then Ponce de Leon was contracted to do the same to the Taíno natives of the island of Puerto Rico, which he drove to the brink of extinction(8), and was rewarded with a land grant and the Governorship(6) . He did such a good job there that he was contracted to come here, claim the area for Spain and are start doing the same job here(2).
The actual contract from the archives of the Spanish crown commissions Ponce to sail to north to the Islands of Benimi (what the Spanish called Florida, the name the Tiano’s used for the peninsula). They thought it to be a series of large islands. That’s right he was given directions to the place he “discovered”. The contract was worded to be a political maneuver to officially claim sovereignty over the place being visited by Spain and Portugal and others over the last few years. The “discovery” was a cynical reference to taking possession and dividing up the spoils. The contract actually refers to the financial split between Ponce and the crown on any gold plundered from the area for a period of 12 years. It goes on to say that “any Indians” he finds there are to be “allocated” to Ponce for his use(2), like so many potatoes to be gathered and sold. *(see link to the translation of the General Archive of Idies, Seville in “The Discovery of Florida and it’s Discoverer Juan Ponce de Leon” by Edward W. Lawson published 1946, below)
The codification of these brutal tactics, that were already being used in the Americas, was discussed and argued for years in Spain as to the morality of their actions. “The Requerimiento” or “requirement” (as in “demand”) is the famous political and religious cover document written by Council of Castile in 1510, commanded to be read aloud by the Conquistadors when they encountered native people in the Americas. It was used to justify the assertion that they were here representing God and that the native people were to submit to immediate occupation and conversion to Christianity. In the last infamous paragraph of “the Requerimiento”, the Conquistadors mission and tactics are made clear –
“But, if you do not do this, and maliciously make delay in it, I certify to you that, with the help of God, we shall powerfully enter into your country, and shall make war against you in all ways and manners that we can, and shall subject you to the yoke and obedience of the Church and of their Highnesses; we shall take you and your wives and your children, and shall make slaves of them, and as such shall sell and dispose of them as their Highnesses may command; and we shall take away your goods, and shall do you all the mischief and damage that we can”… and “the deaths and losses which shall accrue from this are YOUR FAULT”. (1) *(see link to “Requerimiento” below, from the archives of Dickinson College, founded in 1773, in Carlisle, Pa)
This is what Ponce and the other Conquistadors were ordered to read aloud 500 years ago, to native people like the Ays, in a language they did not understand and then were free to attack and enslave them for profit. This is the factual truth of Ponce de Leon’s time in the Americas, and the only motive for his mission to our coast. And this is the history that the local “historians” are asking us to forget.
The Ays -(or the English spelling Ais ) pronounced – (Ah-ee’s)
Our island home is an amazingly ancient place, and home to one of the oldest established resident cultures in all the Americas. As old as the Aztec era, Right Here. Like a secret hidden in plain sight, they lay among us everywhere.
This island resides in and is part of a province with an ancient name, written and referred to in records and on maps back to the 1500’s, though you don’t see it on modern maps. A name also from 500 years ago given by the Spaniards themselves, for the native people the ruled here. “Ays”- the coastal barrier islands and mainland along side the “Rio de Ays” (the River of the Ays), the original name for what the we call “The Indian River”. So marked on early maps by the Spanish as to let sailors and travelers know that an ancient, fierce, free people lived here, the Ays, and to travel here at your own risk.
Evidence of the Ays culture along this coast from north of Cape Canaveral to St. Lucie Inlet to the south shows a stable and established population going back 3000 Years, right here. The earliest pottery in North America is found along the east coast of Florida. The Florida Anthropological Society uses a picture of an Ays artifact mask symbol for their logo because of their ancient past as one of the original peoples. The Ays were tall people described as giants by Europeans. From the burial mound bone records, we know the Ays were commonly over 6 feet tall some close to 7 feet and of large carriage and were impressive physical specimens to the smaller Europeans. They wore their hair in a top knot manner, naked accept for the weaved palm leaf loin cloth and reportedly elaborately tattooed in some cases. The Ays maintained an extensive complex political system throughout the state with ancient connections to the west coast Calusa. It was the Calusa that, on his second trip in 1521 to the west coast of Florida, fought back and shot Ponce De Leon with a poison arrow and he died.
The Ays Burial Mounds, Shell Mounds, Middens and Artifacts have been found North of the Cape, in Cape Canaveral, Cocoa Beach, Merritt Island, Cocoa, Rockledge, Satellite Beach, Indian Harbor Beach, Eau Gallie, Melbourne Beach, Indialantic, Sebastian, on and on and on. Turtle Mound, North of Canaveral stood at it’s peak 75 feet tall, the tallest mound in Florida and the third tallest in the Americas. That’s as large as a six story condo. An earthen pyramid, right here where we make our lives. In Cocoa Beach, “Indian Mound Court” marks the area in Snug Harbor where an Ays burial mound stood until the 1970’s when it’s contents were removed to Gainesville for protection. Snug Harbor itself was and Ays village for perhaps a thousand years, the probable winter site of Ullamay (the summer site was on Merritt Island in the area of Ullamay park). The mouth of the Eau Gallie river still holds the mounds from the summer home of Pentoaya, the winter Pentoaya was in Indian Harbor Beach. They are burial mounds on the crest of Honeymoon Hill in Merritt Island where a village stood over looking both the rivers. The main Ays city of Jece is thought to have been located in the mainland town of Sebastian. Evidence this thriving established local resident culture abounded along the whole of the lagoon basin all the way to St. Lucie Inlet near Jupiter to the south, all of Ays province. I have heard first hand details from dozens of local long time residents of the discovery and collection of artifacts right in the river shallows of their back yards or wooded areas that were later developed and bulldozed away for the building of condominiums. Towns and even what the Spanish called “Cities” dotted the coast line of the entire lagoon system. In 1597 Governor Mendez de Canco, who traveled the entire east coast of Florida, reported that the Ays chief had more Indians under him than any other.
One story from my own neighborhood that recounts a local man in the late 1960’s running the inboard engines of a cabin cruiser in place to blow out a deeper boat slip at his dock only to discover a buried dugout canoe at he bottom of the hole once the mud had cleared. It was unearthed and given to the state and was estimated to be 1000-2000 years old created with stone tools, lying buried for eons at the back edge of Cocoa Isles. Another astute individual recognizing a pile of buried mollusk shells in the hole that was being dug for his pool as an ancient shell midden with each mollusk shell having the precise broken hole in exactly the right place to release the muscle from the shell when harvesting them to eat. Dozens of them all piled together as they laid from centuries ago. Only a keen eyed conch harvester would have realized what he was looking at. There are long time locals with bags of the ancient pottery shards found in ankle deep water around the island edge (this pottery called “Orange” is the oldest in North America), it looks black when you find it and has impressions of basket weaving in it’s surface as they used baskets to form the shape when they were first fired. A large hardened disk shaped fire scorch found under the mud in the river while putting in dock piles, the remnant of the ancient shoreline where people had burned the local fire pit a thousand times, with bones of the food they cooked there still embedded in it. Stories of family collections of artifacts found at the feet of generations of local people in their day to day wanderings in this amazing place. The home and resting place of this ancient and intriguing culture that lies forgotten in plain site all around us. Imagine how many stories and artifacts reside in private collection along this river with the long time residents of this entire region, it is probably astounding. Perhaps a future museum should be in mind such as the Timocuan have in Jacksonville.
The Ays were the dominant tribe on the East coast of Florida. The tribes of the surrounding regions payed tribute to the Ays. They were fierce warriors and legendary waterman. Witnessed by the Spanish, they would be seen miles off shore hunting Right Whales (up to 50 feet long) by paddling their dug-out canoes along side a breaching whale, a single man would leap onto the whales back with a mallet and a wooden plug and try to plug the blow hole as he rode him down. If he succeeded, the whale would later float to the surface and be towed in and harvested by the entire community. The Ays skull record shows wide spread evidence of the condition we call “surfers ear”, from being in water on a constant basis. They had collections of river canoes and even large sea going dugout canoes with more than one sail, that may have held twenty plus men.
A stone age people, they were successful hunter/fisher/gatherers. The idyllic nature of the lagoon basin provided plentiful food and allowed culture to grow in one place without need for nomadic migrations. Direct relatives of the original Paleoindian peoples, like the world famous anthropological find of the “Windover” people, whose well preserved remains were discovered outside Titusville and dated to be 8000 years old. In this food rich paradise grew the culture of the Ays.
They fought fiercely to to protect their families from slave raids and invasion and are referred to, by self proclaimed historians, as “Warlike” and “Hostiles” for defending their home. When labeled by their destroyers as “Heathens, Savages and Cannibals”, take in to consideration the Fact that Queen Isabella of Spain had decreed that Spanish Conquistadors could only legally enslave and sell natives who were cannibals, giving an economic profit motive in making such allegations. This was used as a justification for employing violent means to subjugate native people (3).
After that decree, every group of Indians the that resisted were labeled “cannibals”…Imagine that.
The Ays, as a people, had one fault… They considered themselves to be a free people and they refused to submit to Spain. An ancient culture that claimed this island for thousands of years as their ancestral home land, even before the time of Christ. Driven into extinction by the end of the Spanish reign in the early 1700’s through slaving raids, executions, innumerable wars and skirmishes and of course the European diseases like small pox. Still they never submitted to occupation and paid the price for it.
These people that are still here, buried in this place, where they raised their children for over 150 generations, longer than Spain existed. Their kids played on this beach. They fished out back in this river. Living in this ancient place that I’m sure they loved for the same reasons we love it here. There is a lot of information from individual Ays sites and more anthropological information being pieced together over time, but it is scattered as is the result when one civilization exterminates another. They can be lost and only restored when people take the time to look.
The tradition with the Spanish Crown in the 1500’s was to stick a flag in the sand on any foreign beach and then claim the whole thing for themselves. Now, 500 years later, this naming of our island reflects the same sentiment. What Spain claimed then, is now symbolically finally being given over to them just for the asking. Our island home has it’s own amazing cultural history, and it’s not owned by Spain. It’s ours, we should celebrate and embrace that.
Everyone is looking forward to the 500 year commemoration of the history of our beloved Florida next year, but it should not be an excuse to elevate a single, undeniably violent, mercenary conquistador to some imagined sainthood in place of a celebration of the entire rich history of our state and our island. A park and statue to mark the place where this one infamous character from history may or may not have come ashore is one thing, but naming the island is another.
I believe that this naming of the island under our feet, the resting place of the Ays culture, for a Conquistador that came here to kill and enslave them, would be a tragic insult enshrined on the map long after we are gone. Diminishing and helping to erase the tremendous depth and breadth of our OWN cultural history and heritage, in this ancient and amazing place where we now make our homes… On the “Rio de Ays”.
Please contact your city, county and state government officials to stop this naming and sign the petition to protest the naming http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/say_no_to_ponce_de_leon/
(1)Link to an archive of the English translation of the “Requerimiento” –
General information about the “Requerimieto”-
(2)Link to the English translation of Ponce de Leon’s contract to come to Florida-
(3)Link to Brief history of cannibal controversies; David F. Salisbury, August 15, 2001, Vanderbuilt University.
1502 map of Florida (11 years before Ponce)
(4)Link to map showing Florida from 1502, 11 years before Ponce de Leon – University of Miami Libraries
Ponce in Hispanola & Puerto Rico
(5)The subjugation and enslavement of the natives of Hispaniola by Ponce de Leon-
“Juan Ponce de Leon” by Frederick A. Ober, 1908
(6)The subjugation and enslavement of the native people of Puerto Rico by Ponce de Leon-
ch. VI “The History of Puerto Rico” by R.A. Van Middeldyk copyright 1903
(7) A Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies – by Spanish Dominican friar Bartolomé de las Casas in 1542
THE CRUELTIES OF THE Spaniards Committed in AMERICA
(8)Yale University – Colonial Genocides – Genocide Studies Program