COLLIER COUNTY — On the surface, it might seem Juan Ponce de León was one giant failure.
He didn't find the Fountain of Youth.
He didn't conquer the Calusa Indians.
He failed to think he would need more than 200 men and two ships to conquer the Calusa, who killed him with a poisoned arrow.
But in many ways, Ponce de León was a success. He gave Florida its name, and his convoy of explorers were the first to document a landing here.
Now, a yearlong celebration both locally and statewide will celebrate his achievements. Viva Florida 500, as it is called, celebrates the 500th anniversary of Ponce de Leon's arrival on Florida's east coast. The anniversary is unique, according to the Florida Department of State, which is promoting the event, because his convoy of explorers was the first group of Europeans to document such a landing and give a name to Florida — La Florida, which means "the flowery one."
Ron Jamro, executive director of the Collier County Museum, said the planning for the program has been in the works since October 2011, when state officials first announced they wanted to do something special for the 500th anniversary of Ponce de León's landing.
"We're taught that American history began in Plymouth, in Jamestown," he said. "But it really began right here."
Actually, Ponce de León has a Southwest Florida connection as well. He led an expedition in the winter of 1521, sailing with 200 men in two Spanish ships into a deadly ambush while hoping to colonize the Calusa Indians, whom they had met eight years before.
The Calusa attacked the two ships, and the Spanish explorer was mortally wounded in the thigh by a Calusa arrow. It had been slathered with the sap from the manchineel tree, a Florida native that is extremely poisonous.
But Jamro said the museums have expanded those plans to include Florida's history before de León's journey.
"You have all of these influences around here," he said. "The Native Americans were here 12,000 years or more before Ponce de León. They were the true discoverers. But many flags and many people contributed to Florida as we know it.'
Earlier this week, dignitaries from Spain, France and Great Britain were on hand at the Collier County commission meeting to accept a proclamation honoring the event.
Ana Zabia, the curator of the American Museum in Madrid who was representing Spain, spoke last, but pointed out the Spanish came first.
"It is nice to see things from our culture have remained and (you) keep things in your heart," she said.
Even Collier County schools are getting into the act. Jamro said the "Conquistador in the Classroom," played by a re-enactor of Spanish and Portuguese descent, will be on hand to speak to students about who the conquistadors were and how they came to Florida. He said the program will be primarily geared toward the district's fourth grade students, who study Florida history as part of their curriculum.
Marilyn Matthes, executive director of the Collier County Public Library, said the library's marketing committee was asked to determine how the library could participate in Viva Florida. She said the decision to participate was easy.
"We certainly like to have programs about Florida because they are very popular," she said.
One of the bigger projects the library is working on is a time capsule, which is set for burial on May 8, on the 90th anniversary of the founding of Collier County.
"We are going to bury the capsule at the (Naples) Depot, or if that's not logistically feasible, it will be on display in the museum itself. The plan is to open it and add onto it in 10 years for the 100th anniversary of the county," she said. "Right now, we are trying to figure out how we should store things, be it paper or electronic."
Matthes said the library is working hard to have programs celebrating Florida's history all year long. In addition to the time capsule, she said, the summer reading program will be related to the Viva Florida Festival.
Jamro said the museums are working to put on thought-provoking programs. These include:
one at the Marco Island Historical museum on Florida's blues heritage, which is currently on display, "Florida's Got the Blues";
an exhibit at the Collier County museum on Florida's economic booms and busts;
an exhibit on the group of Southwest Florida painters who capture plein-air views of the Fakahatchee at the Museum of the Everglades; and
a lecture at the county museum about "Weird Florida," including the Skunk Ape and the She-Man of the Caloosahatchee River.
"We have a nice lineup that should appeal to visitors and residents, and teach them about the history and culture of their state," he said.
Jamro said 50 years before the pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, St. Augustine had a thriving economy.
"Our history starts here," he said. "We hope people will want to celebrate Florida's heritage. And, we hope they come out to our museums. We'd love to see ya."