Saturday, January 2, 2010

Colonial American History and San Juan, Puerto Rico

It’s always fun to combine family reunions, history and vacations. We’ve traveled to most of the interesting places on the map that pertain to Colonial American History, and I’ve always found a genealogical connection. We’ve gone to Williamsburg, Jamestown, Quebec City, Plymouth, Bermuda, Boston, and Louisburg, Nova Scotia. However, San Juan, Puerto Rico is the ultimate colonial city in the United States, being the oldest city under the US flag, founded in 1521. It is second only to Santo Domingo, in the Dominican Republic for a European established city in the Americas. It is well worth the trip for anyone who enjoys American history.

In December we went to San Juan, Puerto Rico to meet up with my in-laws from Spain and to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary. They had lived for many years in San Juan, and still have a residence near the Condado beach section of the city. It was a chance for my daughter to see where my husband spent his teen years, and where he went to high school. And it was a chance to walk the city streets that were built in the 1500s.

The famous explorer Juan Ponce de Leon founded the original colony in 1508, just west of present day San Juan. In 1509 the settlement was moved to the harbor and called Puerto Rico, Spanish for “Rich Port.” In 1521 the town was called San Juan Bautista de Puerto Rico, for John the Baptist, which was the name Christopher Columbus originally called the island.

San Juan is a fortified city, with most of its walls still intact today. There are a ring of fortresses around the walls, to protect the harbor. The first attack was by the French in 1528. Attacks on the city were lead by Sir Frances Drake in 1595, the Dutch in 1625, the English again in 1797, and so on until the Spanish American war in 1898. Pirates and pirateers were also a concern, as the gold and silver laden Spanish ships would stop in San Juan to resupply before crossing the Atlantic to return home with their booty.

In Colonial times the city was quite large, including the Fortresses of San Felipe del Morro, San Cristobal and the fortified Palacio de Santa Catalina (now the governor’s home). There were large palatial homes such as the Casa Blanca, home to the Ponce de Leon family. Many churches, including the Cathedral which was began in the 1520s, were already built before the pilgrims even landed in Massachusetts. During our Christmas Mass last week the priest announced the 500th anniversary of the Catholic Church on the island of Puerto Rico. All this happened before the English had a foothold in the Americas. By 1530 San Juan had a university, a hospital and a library.

My father-in-law was born in Spain, yet he grew up in the care of the Jesuit fathers in the new world when he was a young man. After serving for over ten years in the United Nations and becoming an American citizen, he decided to remove to San Juan, Puerto Rico. My husband attended prep school in San Juan, and then came to Massachusetts for college and never lived in Puerto Rico again. If you looked at the vital records of the family, no was born, married or died in Puerto Rico, yet the family lived there for 30 years. I imagine that in the future, a genealogist tracing the family might not know they even lived in San Juan.

My father-in-law was professor in Puerto Rico, and he taught about the colonial beginnings of the Spanish in the New World. I’m a history buff, descended of Mayflower passengers and many colonial figures from New England. However, a trip to Puerto Rico makes the history of New England seem like current events! Even the explorations of John Cabot, John Smith and Bartholomew Gosnold along the New England coast seem like afterthoughts to what was happening in Puerto Rico and other Spanish settlements in North America.

Copyright 2010, Heather Wilkinson Rojo

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