On November 19, 1493, Christopher Columbus, with a flotilla of Spanish ships, arrived in the bay of a lush Caribbean island. While there, he named the island San Juan Bautista (St. John the Baptist). After briefly replenishing his supplies, he sailed away and continued his second voyage of discovery. Golden, palm-fringed beaches and exuberant tropical vegetation held little attraction for this explorer. Columbus had his sights set on larger islands and the riches he was determined to discover.
Ponce de León, a Spaniard who some say accompanied Columbus on that voyage, resolved to go back to the island, which was known by its natives as Boriquén. Having heard reports of gold ornaments owned by the natives, he believed the island’s hills harbored gold. Fifteen years later he returned to stake his claim. In 1521, the Spaniards established their principal settlement on the northern coast of the island. Ponce de León called the new town Puerto Rico, meaning “Rich Port,” in anticipation of a rich bounty.
Ponce de León’s optimism proved unfounded. The small amount of gold to be found in Puerto Rico was quickly exhausted, and political problems multiplied. Finally, Ponce de León left for what is today the state of Florida, U.S.A. Though the island itself held little mineral wealth, the Spanish soon recognized that Puerto Rico’s main harbor was a valuable asset. During the 16th century, they converted the island’s capital into a secure port for protecting the galleons that carried bullion from the Americas to Spain. Before long, San Juan became known as “the strongest foothold of Spain in America.”
Stout walls, 13 meters (42 ft) high and up to 6 meters (20 ft) thick—as well as two massive fortresses—testify to the extraordinary effort made by the people of San Juan to protect their city. Today, San Juan is still one of the Caribbean’s favorite ports of call. Visitors can imagine life in colonial times as they walk alongside the city walls and explore the ancient buildings.
Few on the island are descendants of the original Native American inhabitants. The present population largely descends from Spanish immigrants and African slaves. Because of this heritage, Spanish is the dominant language, and many of the people are Roman Catholic.
In 1898, Spain ceded the island to the United States. The territory operates under a local constitution and its citizens elect a governor. Puerto Rico remains a U.S. territory.