History of Puerto Rico - Columbus Wasn't First to Arrive

Though most people place the discovery of Puerto Rico with Christopher Columbus's second voyage to the Americas in 1493, the island was actually first discovered much earlier by several waves of indigenous groups. The earliest settlers, the Archales, were living in Puerto Rico possibly as early as 3000 B.C. Around the time of Christ, Arawak Indians began to navigate up the Caribbean archipelago from the Amazon region of South America. Three phases of Arawakan culture evolved in Puerto Rico; the final one, that of the Tafnos, came into being after 1000 A.D. They were the people Columbus saw when he reached Puerto Rico and Hispaniola (today's Dominican Republic and Haiti).

The Talnos developed the most advanced indigenous culture found in the Caribbean. Yet within 50 years of the arrival of Spaniards, they had all but disappeared in Puerto Rico, victims of disease, servitude and other aspects of the colonization process. Little is left of their presence -- a sprinkling of Arawakan words, a musical instrument or two, and a couple of impressive archaeological sites, river-bordered- centers for worship and recreation. One of these, Caguana Indian Park, is encircled by the island's highest mountains; the other, Tibes Indian. Ceremonial Center, is found in low-lying hills near the south coast.

A Fledgling Colony

To envision the island as it was when Columbus first arrived in 1493, visit the lush tropical rain forest of El Yunque along the north coast and the bird-rich dry tropical forest of fuinica on the south coast.

In 1508, Spanish conquistadors led by Juan Ponce de Lern established the first island settlement at Caparra, marking the start of almost four centuries of Spanish rule. But the site proved unsatisfactory, and 13 years later the colonists moved their settlement to the breezy islet at the entrance to San Juan Bay, today's Old San Juan.

Old San Juan is the second city established by Europeans in the New World (after Santo Domingo) and the oldest historic district under the U.S. flag.

Life was not easy for the early colonists, who had to contend with angry Indians, enemy Europeans, tropical diseases and occasional hurricanes as they settled their new land. The earliest years were devoted to a frenetic search for gold, found primarily along river beds. When the largest deposits were mined, the more prudent turned to agriculture. A variety of staples was planted, and sugarcane became the preferred crop. The first sugar mill was built in 1516, and slaves were shipped from the west coast of Africa to work the land. Arriving in ever-increasing numbers, they became an important influence on the island, not only for their work but also for their foods, music, dance, folklore, even language.

Preserving the Empire

Puerto Rico was a very strategic location for the Spanish Crown to maintain. Almost as soon as San Juan was established, the government began to construct fortresses on the islet. La Fortaleza was the first to be built, but its location proved inadequate, and the original tower of El Morro was soon added onto the islet's northwestern-most promontory. Over the centuries, El Morro was enlarged, a massive wall was built around the city, and San Cristobal was erected to guard the city's eastern entrance. Today, these forts are priceless historical sites and fascinating places to visit, but in the late 1700s they were impregnable structures that kept the capital safe from land and sea attacks.

Unfortunately, outside of military matters, Puerto Rico did not fare so well. The population was small, life was harsh, and comforts were few. Trade was permitted only with Spain, yet Spanish vessels often didn't reach Puerto Rico for years at a time. The local economy languished, and contraband trade became the necessary norm. Piracy became a way of life on the seas. Some pirates were agents of enemy nations; others were self-employed entrepreneurs.

Agriculture Reigns

By the 19th century, Spain had lost or was losing most of its possessions in the New World, and the colonial government finally realized it had better take care of the two that remained, Puerto Rico and Cuba. Trade restrictions were eased, immigration was encouraged, and money was spent to improve the island's situation. Many immigrants brought their agricultural skills to the island. Sugarcane remained strong along the coast, and cooler mountainous regions were deforested to make room for such crops as tobacco and coffee. Coffee did especially well. As the economy improved, so too did the appearances of towns across the island. The south-coast city of Ponce became wealthy in part by coffee exports, and the lovely homes and buildings in its carefully restored historic district reflect this wealth. A nearby coffee estate, Hacienda Buena Vista, has been restored as a working 19th-century farm.

During this time, island politicians pressed for greater freedom from Spain. By 1898, Puerto Rico achieved autonomy. Shortly afterwards, the Spanish-American War began; when it was over, Puerto Rico was transferred as war booty to the United States. A year later, a devastating hurricane destroyed much of the island's agriculture. Puerto Rico entered the 20th century with great political and economic uncertainties.

The Twentieth Century

New to the task of running a possession, the United States got off to a rocky start in the early decades of island rule. Important improvements -- U.S. citizenship, universal education, an island-wide network of forest reserves -- were mixed with lackluster government administrations and a frustrating indifference from Washington. But the situation did change, culminating in 1952 when Puerto Rico ratified its own constitution, creating the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. A steady industrial base was established on the island. Per capita income rocketed, Puerto Ricans learned new skills, the population soared, tourism was enhanced, and the economy flourished.

Today, Puerto Rico has the amenities of the modern world, from comfortable shopping malls to state-of-the-art telecommunication facilities. It also enjoys its many imports from the United States -- excellent winter league baseball teams and first-run American movies, as examples. At the same time, Puerto Ricans are committed to retaining the history, culture and traditions that have enhanced our island over the centuries.