They came. They brought. They conquered. They changed.
And 500 years later, visitors to the Museum of Florida History in Tallahassee can get a close look at the Spanish impact on the people and landscape of the place they named La Florida.
With artifacts, paintings, pottery, maps, life-like figures and reproductions, the exhibit "Forever Changed: La Florida 1513-1821" bookends the landing of Spaniard Juan Ponce de Leon and Spain's ceding of the territory to the United States. The exhibit is part of the celebration of Viva Florida, the 500th anniversary of European exploration of the region.
"Florida was a Spanish colony longer than it was part of the United States," said senior curator Lisa Barton, who spent two and a half years preparing the exhibit, which has attracted between 200 and 300 visitors a week since it opened in March.
The exhibit is designed to be entertaining and informative for both adults and youngsters. "We've had many school groups come in and interact with the exhibit," Barton said. "It's always nice to see students learning and enjoying themselves at the same time."
The first section, "Land of Many Cultures," highlights the lives of the roughly dozen native peoples living on the peninsula when the first Europeans arrived in 1513. Maps, paintings and artifacts recall the names, home regions and customs of the canal-building Tequesta and Calusa peoples of southwest Florida; the Matscumbe and Tocobago of the region around Tampa Bay; the Timucua and Guale of northeast Florida, around the St. Johns River near Jacksonville; and the Apalachee, Apalachicola and Panzacola of the Big Bend and northwest Florida. Anglicized, their names are inked into the modern map of Florida.
"Florida has always been a diverse place; when Europe and Africans came, it was even more diverse," Barton said. "1513 led to changes that would change Florida forever."
The exhibit's 136 artifacts and reproductions came mostly from the Florida Division of Historical Resources' Bureau of Archaeological Research and long-term loans from six museums, including the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian.
The Spanish Exploration segment features a reproduction of a Spanish ship with barrels, stove and other necessary equipment explorers used. Illustrations show how horses were shipped in slings to keep them immobile during the long, perilous voyage. The Spanish introduced cattle, pigs and horses to Florida.
"We don't have anything like this in Pensacola," said Bethany Robinson, who visited the exhibit with her three children, daughter Hannah, and twins Jonah and Elijah. She sees the exhibit as a wonderful instructional tool for her children. They learn history in schools, but that's in the books. Here they could see it brought to life.
"I don't remember much history from school," Robinson said. "I enjoy coming here."
The third section, "The Meeting of Peoples," covers early European exploration from Juan Ponce de Leon's landing off the Atlantic Coast near Cape Canaveral to the founding of St. Augustine in 1565. That segment of the exhibit includes interactive multimedia and life-sized figures whose lives tell the story of early Spanish life: Juan Ortiz was captured and lived with the Uzita and Mocoso Indians near Tampa Bay for 11 years.
The exhibit also tries to fill in the gap about the early presence of Africans in Florida. One lifelike figure celebrates Esteban, a West African, who was one of four survivors of the ill-fated Panfilo de Narvaez expedition. Esteban was the interpreter and negotiator when they met native peoples. A drawing of the conquest of Mexico in 1519 includes a depiction of Juan Garrido, a free black man who sailed with Ponce de Leon in 1513.
According to historians, two free Africans accompanied Ponce de Leon in his voyage to Florida in 1513. Fifty blacks were part of the French settlement attempt in 1564. "Africans are often overlooked in European accounts of early exploration," the exhibit said.
Scotty Howell lives in Bay City, Texas. He visited his home state with girlfriend Davine Summers, who was visiting Florida for the first time. She loved the Florida sand and water and the exhibit.
"I knew about Ponce de Leon, but not the specifics," said Summers, an East Texas native.
Visiting the museum and seeing the new exhibit reminded Howell of history lessons he might have missed as a young lad growing up in Perry.
"It's very informative," he said. "It's a wonderful display, with all the new artifacts."
Phase Two of the exhibit dealing with European settlement, forts and missions is expected to be completed in 2013.
Museum of Florida History
500 S. Bronough St., Tallahassee
Hours: Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; Sunday and holidays, noon to 4:30 p.m. Admission and parking are free.