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It was during his second trip to the Americas that Christopher Columbus landed on present day Puerto Rico. When he and his crew arrived there in 1493, they found it inhabited by several thousand Arawak Indians, known as Taínos. The indigenous population called the island Boriquén, but Columbus, before continuing on to explore more of the Caribbean, named it San Juan Bautista, Spanish for "St. John the Baptist."
Fifteen years later, a member of Columbus's party returned to the island. He was Juan Ponce de León, the Spanish conquistador who would later become famous for his unsuccessful search for the Fountain of Youth. Ponce de León was the island's first Spanish governor, overseeing a troop of 50 soldiers and a group of settlers. The Spanish soon discovered the harbor we know today as San Juan, but at the time they called it Puerto Rico"fine or rich port." As the years passed, however, the name of the island and the harbor shifted: Puerto Rico came to refer to the entire island, and San Juan identified the port and the city that grew up around it.
Though the harbor offered a beautiful setting, Ponce de León chose to locate the settlement somewhere else. He selected a wooded site surrounded by hills and swamps about two miles south of the port, giving it the name Caparra. It turned out to be less than ideal for a seat of government or for a military base: the swamps made the location unhealthy and hard to reach, it was located too far from the port to transport goods, and it was difficult to defend. The colonists urged Ponce de León to move the settlement, but he refused. Only an order from the King of Spain reversed Ponce de León's decision.
The colonists chose for a new home a beautiful barrier island along the north coast. It was an excellent location: it overlooked the entrance to San Juan harbor; was open to cooling winds off the water; and had features, such a jagged reef along its ocean side and a craggy steep shoreline on the harbor side, that made it naturally defensible. The transfer of settlers from Caparra to San Juan began in 1519 and was completed in 1521, the year Ponce de León left Puerto Rico to colonize Florida.
The Taínos initially welcomed and helped the Spaniards. Their friendship turned to hostility, however, once the Europeans increased in number, took over land, and kidnapped Taíno women. The Spanish forced many Taínos to labor like slaves to mine gold and produce crops; this work and European diseases quickly pushed the indigenous population towards extinction. Though at first afraid to fight back because they believed the Spanish were immortal, the Taínos learned otherwise when a number of them drowned a Spanish soldier. In 1511, they began to rebel against the Spanish, but their primitive wooden weapons, stone axes, and arrows were no match for Spanish firearms. After their defeat, many fled to the Lesser Antilles, smaller Caribbean islands to the southeast, where they joined forces with the Caribes, a fierce tribe of South American Indians who previously had been their enemies. Together they began a campaign of terror and harassment against Puerto Rican settlers for nearly a quarter of a century.
Puerto Rico became known as the gateway to the Indies, the name that people used to identify the islands of the Caribbean. Though the island possesed little gold or silver, Spanish officials still viewed it as important. Because of ocean currents and winds, both the flota and galeones passed nearby as they began their trading sweeps through the Caribbean. Puerto Rico's strategic location also offered relatively easy access to the many claimed lands of Spain's new empire. Government officials decided that, in order to protect the lands they had seized in Central and South America, including their trading route in the Caribbean, they would establish one of their most important forts on the islet of San Juanwhat today is known as Old San Juan.
Questions for Reading 1
1. Why was Caparra such a poor location for the first Spanish settlement?
2. How did Spanish colonization affect the Taínos?
3. How did the Taínos react to the Spanish?
4. Why did San Juan become such an important part of New Spain?
Reading 1 was compiled from The Forts of Old San Juan (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service).