Who Discovered Florida?

Marvellous counties and lands
Who Discovered Florida?
Historical Data Concerning Florida
The Gulf Stream
Collecting Old Maps
Map Printing Methods
Latitude and Longitude
Exhibition Checklist
Glossary and Bibliography


Who Discovered Florida?

By William Straight

Fragment du planisphere envoye de Lisbonne a Hercule d'Este duc de Farrare avant le 19 novembre 1502.
Fragment du planisphere envoye de Lisbonne a Hercule d'Este duc de Farrare avant le 19 novembre 1502.


"Official credit for finding Florida goes to Juan Ponce de Leon because his voyage in 1513 was made under official Spanish auspices, recorded and recognized."1

For over two hundred years, however, the English claimed that the whole east coast of America as far south as Cape Florida had been discovered in 1497-1498 by John Cabot and his son Sebastian, from Bristol, England. Others have attributed the discovery of Florida to Saint Brendan, who set out from Ireland in 535, or to an unnamed Viking explorer.

Several maps have been discovered that seem to show the Florida Peninsula prior to 1513. Some of these maps are:

1500 Juan de la Cosa Map: shows Florida oriented east to west. Many think it is based on the voyage of John and Sebastian Cabot in 1497-1498. (see exhibit #2)
1502 Alberto Cantino Map (see exhibit #3): thought to be a pirate copy of the official Portuguese map (Padron Real) on which new discoveries were recorded. The first to show clearly peninsular Florida.
1502-1504 Nicolas de Canerio Map: first to show Mexico.
1507 Martin Waldseemüller Maps: 1507 (see exhibit #4) and 1516. Portrays a well-shaped Florida. First to show, without a doubt, two continents, North and South America, connected by an isthmus and separated by an ocean from Asia; and first to use the name "America" for the New World.
1508 Francesco Rosselli Map of the World: historian James Williamson says this should be dated 1506.
1511 Peter Martyr Map: Florida labeled, "Isla de beinende parte."
Also of interest although after 1513 is:
1514-1515 Conte Ottomano Freducci Map: first map to use the designation "I. Florida." Shows the designation "Chequiche" near the southern tip of the peninsula. This is spelled "Chequescha" by Herrera (Antonio de Herrera y Tordesillas: Historia General de los Hechos de los Castellanos en las Islas y Tierra Firme del Mar Oceano (1728-1730). These designations are thought to mean "Tequesta," the name of the Indians living at the mouth of the Miami River.
Globus-Karte des Leonardo da Vinci, ca. 1515 (1991).
Globus-Karte des Leonardo da Vinci, ca. 1515 (1991).

It seems very likely that Spaniards in search of slaves had visited Florida before 1513. The hostile reception Ponce de Leon received suggests this. Furthermore, when Ponce de Leon landed on the West Coast of Florida, he encountered an Indian who understood Spanish.

Who then might have discovered Florida? In 1954, Mr. David O. True of Miami maintained the discoverers where the Englishmen, John Cabot and his 17-year-old son, Sebastian. True maintained that they sailed down the east coast to Florida as far as Cape Florida in 1497, and may have also sailed around and up the west coast.

Unfortunately we have no log of this voyage and John Cabot's map and globe were lost when his ship probably foundered in 1498 taking him to a watery grave. We do have the statement of an historian, Peter Martyr, who interviewed Sebastian Cabot in 1512, about the voyage of 1497. Martyr says: "And he (Cabot) extended his course furthermore to the southward owing to the curve of the coastline, so that his latitude was almost that of the Strait of Gibraltar and he penetrated so far to the west that he had the island of Cuba on his left hand almost in the same longitude with himself." Martyr further quotes Sebastian Cabot that his father called those lands "the Baccallaos because in the adjacent sea he found so great a quantity of a certain kind of great fish like tunnies, called bacallaos by the inhabitants." True felt that by "tunnies" Cabot meant tuna, which inhabit the tropical waters, rather than codfish, which prevail off the northern coast. Sebastian Cabot also described an inshore current flowing gently to the west in contrast to the swift flowing waters the Spanish had found in their passage to their southern possessions (possibly the first recognition of the Gulf Stream). (see exhibit #23)

To further support his theory that the Cabots discovered Florida, True notes:

1. Because of primitive navigational instruments and poorly trained observers, the latitudes of all maps before 1520 are 10° to 20° too far north. Thus the Cabots' New World land fall was likely 20° south of where they thought they were.
2. Locations in the New World are colder than locations in the Old World at the same latitude, causing the explorers to misjudge latitudes.
3. Place names, on what appears to be peninsular Florida in the early maps, seem to apply to Florida as the early explorers described it and as we see it today.
4. Finally, True believes that the Cabots, on their 1497 voyage, set out from Ireland intending to sail to Labrador, but actually made land fall about the latitude of Cape Hatteras. This navigational error was due to a combination of unrecognized magnetic variations, winds and currents. They then coasted south 300 leagues (900 miles), which brought them along the coast of the Florida peninsula.
There are those who disagree with David O. True. One of these, Giuseppe Caraci of Rome, maintains that:
1. The land mass northwest of Cuba portrayed on the Cantino (1502) (see exhibit #3) and Canerio (1502-1504) maps was thought to be the coast of Asia by the mapmaker.
2. One cannot rely on the resemblance between the shapes of the coastline depicted on a map of 1502 and that of a modern map to identify that coastline.
3. True's interpretation of place names is incorrect.


1 Thebeau, Charlton. A History of Florida. Coral Gables, FL: University of Miami Press, 1917, p. 19.

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