Ponce’s 500th to put Charlotte on map
PUNTA GORDA — Five hundred years after Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon first set foot on the shores of Charlotte Harbor, an event to commemorate that anniversary finally may put this area on the map.
That’s because the Ponce de Leon Festival set for March 23-24, at Laishley Park will be aimed at spreading awareness of that history, and that could lead to more events and tourist attractions in the decades to come, said Jack Gray, festival coordinator.
“The neat thing is, this was the first entrance point for the European exploration of the continental United States,” he said.
The festival is to kick off with a landing by the Royal Order of the Ponce de Leon Conquistadors, to be followed by the first “Parade of Flowers” in downtown Punta Gorda, organizers announced.
A Ponce de Leon character and his band of Conquistadors will mingle with visitors throughout the festival, which also will include live entertainment, vendors featuring food from around the world, and games for kids.
Organizers have invited the king and queen of Spain to participate. The royals have accepted invitations to other Ponce 500th anniversary events in St. Augustine, Tampa Bay and Pensacola, but have yet to RSVP to Punta Gorda’s event organizers, Gray said.
Gray, who runs a credit card system for local businesses, has been moonlighting as an event organizer for some 30 years. He’s helped organize Renaissance, pirate and music festivals in the Tampa Bay and Englewood areas. He said he joined the Ponce de Leon Conquistadors a year ago to help plan the 500th anniversary event.
In Gray’s view, Ponce de Leon clinched Charlotte Harbor’s place in history because the explorer established the first European colony in what is now the United States at Charlotte Harbor in 1521.
Ponce de Leon journeyed through the Caribbean, helped to govern Hispaniola, and explored Puerto Rico in 1508-09. After those adventures, Ponce embarked on a voyage to the rumored island of Bimini in search of a fabled fountain
He subsequently landed at St. Augustine, then sailed along the Florida coast until he reached Charlotte Harbor in the spring of 1513.
Ponce returned to Spain. However, he returned to Charlotte Harbor in February 1521 with two ships bearing 200 souls with the intent of founding a colony. In July 1521, he was fatally wounded in an attack by Calusa Native Americans. He was taken to Havana, where he died.
“This (Charlotte Harbor) is the only place Ponce came to twice,” Gray said.
Jerry Presseller, president of the Punta Gorda Downtown Merchants Association, which is planning the festival’s parade, said he expects more than 100 groups to provide floats. However organizers are putting out a call for sponsors and vendors.
For more information, go to www.PoncedeLeonFestival.com.