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Historians believe Ponce de León landed near St. Augustine, Florida, on April 2, 1513. (Panoramic Images / Getty Images)

Happy Birthday, Florida!

Americans celebrate the day when a Spanish explorer first set foot on its shores 500 years ago

By Laura Modigliani | April 3 , 2013
<br />Legends say Ponce de León discovered Florida while searching for the Fountain of Youth. (North Wind Picture Archives / AP Images)

Legends say Ponce de León discovered Florida while searching for the Fountain of Youth. (North Wind Picture Archives / AP Images)

Five hundred years ago, on April 2, 1513, Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León arrived on the east coast of what is now Florida. Celebrations are planned throughout this month to mark the special anniversary.

According to legend, Ponce de León may have landed in Florida by mistake. He is said to have been looking for an island called Bimini and its Fountain of Youth. The mythical fountain could supposedly make old people young again.

Instead, Ponce de León landed on the Florida peninsula and claimed it for Spain. Native Americans had been living there for centuries, but Ponce de León was the first European to set foot in what would become the United States. He named it La Florida, or "flowery place."

A BIRTHDAY CELEBRATION

On Tuesday, a descendant, or relative, of Ponce de León named John J. Browne Ayes dressed up like his ancestor and re-enacted the historic landing. He claimed Florida for the crown of Spain. People in the audience cheered in Spanish, "Viva Florida!"

A replica of a 16th-century Spanish ship called a galleon—like the one Ponce de León used—will re-create the explorer's journey from Puerto Rico to Florida. It will also make stops in Miami, Fort Lauderdale, and Cape Canaveral before finally arriving at St. Augustine, which was the capital of Spanish Florida for many years.

On Tuesday, Florida's government leaders met in St. Augustine for a special ceremony outside a Spanish fortress that was built many centuries ago. They gave speeches on how the Sunshine State has become an important part of the economy and culture of the United States.

FROM COLONY TO STATE

Soon after discovering Florida, Ponce de León returned to Spain, but he came back to Florida in 1521 to attempt to set up a permanent colony. However, Native Americans attacked his crew, and Ponce de León was killed.

It wasn't until 1565 that Spain established a successful colony, at St. Augustine on Florida's east coast. It is now the oldest permanent European settlement in the United States. But Florida didn't become a U.S. territory until 1821, when Spain ceded, or gave, control of the land to America. It was admitted to the U.S. as the 27th state in 1845.

Today, Florida has one of the fastest-growing populations of any state. More than 19 million people call it home. Every year, millions of visitors come in search of fun in the sun on its sandy beaches and at its theme parks—a record 89 million people visited the Sunshine State in 2012.

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