The desire to expand Spain’s assets and empire led the Spanish to hire the Italian sailor Christopher Columbus to journey to edges of the map in search of wealth for their country. While attempting to find a westward route to India, Columbus discovered a region of many islands (Bahamas) that was unknown to Europe. In 1513, Juan Ponce De Leon sailed in search of Bimini (Mother of Water), but instead found a land he called “La Florida” because he landed near the Easter celebration, which the Spanish call Pascua Florida (Feast of Flowers).
His landing was long thought to have occurred at St. Augustine, but more recent evidence suggests he may have been as far south as Melbourne Beach. He also encountered a strong northern current (“canaveral”) off a prominent cape as he attempted to sail south along the coast of La Florida.
Sailing south along the coast during the same voyage, Ponce de Leon came to an inlet, believed to be Jupiter Inlet,
and took on water and firewood, recording it in his logbook as “Rio de la Cruz” (River of the Cross). Somewhere along the shore of the inlet or river, he erected a hewn stone cross signifying Spain’s mission to convert the indigenous people to Roman Catholicism. He and his crew were soon attacked by native people who tried to steal his launch boat and weapons. Two Spaniards were wounded by arrows tipped with bone and fish spines. Their continued assault caused Ponce de Leon to flee and never again return to Florida’s East Coast.
Early Spanish visitors to eastern Florida reported that the local native people became extremely rich from salvaging Spanish wrecks. Rumors were told of cannibalism, and many sailors feared capture more than drowning. Shortly before 1570, an English ship seized a Spanish vessel laden with hides and abandoned its passengers and crew on the Jupiter Inlet. The native warriors killed all but six, who were eventually traded for other native people held prisoner by the Spanish.
The volume of ships passing by Florida’s coast increased as Spain established mining operations in Central and South America. They regularly sent gold, silver and raw goods back to Spain to fill its treasuries. Hurricanes, shipwrecks on dangerous shoals and reefs, and pirates and privateers depleted the number of successful deliveries to Spain as well as to their coffers.
One such voyage is now known as the “Jupiter Wreck.” Discovered in 12 feet of water, about 200 yards off Jupiter Beach by lifeguard Peter Leo on July 13, 1987, the ship is thought to be the Spanish aviso (messenger ship) San Miguel Arcángel, which sank here in a storm in December 1659. It had sailed from Cartagena, Colombia, bound for Spain and carried samples of silver ingots and coins. The 33 survivors were rescued by a boat sent from St. Augustine and taken to Havana. Artifacts from this ship are on display at the Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse & Museum.
In 1763, Florida briefly became a British colony. Several maps from this period indicate a plantation or small settlement in the Jupiter area and refer the Grenville River. Bernard Romans refers to “a tract of land here laid out for that gentleman.” Artifacts found near the Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse are thought be of English origin from this period.
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The Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse & Museum is operated by the Loxahatchee River Historical Society, managing partner in the Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse Outstanding Natural Area.
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