FINDING FLORIDA: The True History of the Sunshine State. By T.D. Allman. Atlantic Monthly Press. 528 pages. $27.50.
Truth often is stranger than fiction in the Sunshine State. But it turns out Florida’s history is even stranger: a compendium of lies, distortions, cover-ups and brutal trickery.
That’s the compelling premise of T.D. Allman’s recently published “Finding Florida,” in which he takes a machete to the many outlandish myths and fabrications that to this day often pass for reality in paradise.
Ponce de Leon, for example, did not discover Florida, nor was he some aging, kindly adventurer looking for the Fountain of Youth, despite what the tourism interests in St. Augustine might have you believe.
Allman’s reality check on Ponce? Portuguese navigator Gasper Corte-Real was likely the first European to reach Florida. Ponce de Leon never set foot in St. Augustine, which wasn’t founded until decades after his death.
And the Spanish explorer was a ruthless exploiter who in 1508 arrived in Puerto Rico and “set about enslaving its inhabitants and working them to death,” which earned him the right to colonize Florida in search of gold.
In the ongoing historical dispute about where Ponce de Leon actually landed on Florida’s east coast in 1513, Allman comes down on the side of those who say it was a site in Brevard County, south of Cape Canaveral.
To whom do we owe the Fountain of Youth legend so ingrained in Florida’s pseudo-his-tory? Largely to Washington Irving, the 19th-century writer who, according to Allman, took bits of unsubstantiated whimsy from Spanish archives and published fiction as fact, creating “Florida’s definitive fake event.”
Allman similarly upends the fantastical version of conquistador Hernando de Soto, who arrived in Florida in 1539.
“Even more so than Ponce’s, his subsequent transmogrification from marauding killer into gallant protagonist epitomizes the persistent denial of the tragic element in accounts of Florida’s past.”
“Through a kind of historical gerrymandering,” Tampa Bay in 1936 was declared the site of de Soto’s landing, Allman writes. Monuments were erected where school kids still get nonfactual history lessons, including the chance to wear pieces of armor “just like what de Soto never wore.”
Allman explores how Andrew Jackson’s racist maneuvers and massacres in Florida in the early 1800s have been airbrushed as a noble, patriotic quest and follows the false threads of Florida history through the bloody Seminole Wars, which have been largely forgotten.
The falsification doesn’t get prettier as Allman moves the clock forward through the Civil War, Reconstruction and the Jim Crow era. Entrenched corruption in government at all levels too often allowed for horrors like “convict leasing,” which “turned Florida’s penal system into a profit center while providing Florida’s land barons ... with a government-subsidized supply of slave labor.”
Fast forward to the theme-park era, and Allman provides some comic relief with the surreal narrative of how Walt Disney put one over on the Sunshine State.
Using an array of deceptive legal strategies such as dummy corporations, Allman writes, Disney and his agents pulled off perhaps one of the biggest land grabs and tax-avoidance schemes ever in Florida history, under the noses of dozing state legislators.
Tourists love the scary rides at places like Disney, but the scariest part of all is that such venues are exempt from standard safety reg- ulations and oversight, thanks to Disney lobbyists who “made sure the state of Florida lost even the authority to protect the public from injury and death there,” Allman writes.
Another sacred cow Allman targets in his comprehensive chronicle is the space program. “Most attractions take nothing and pretend it’s something. At the Kennedy Space Center, a site of great historical and cultural as well as scientific importance has been turned into another ride,” he writes.
He deplores what he calls NASA’s disregard for science and safety that led to the 1986 Challenger shuttle disaster and that “neither the manufacturer nor anyone at NASA was ever held accountable, either civilly or criminally.”
Despite his dead-serious themes and depth of scholarly investigation, Allman’s lively writing offers a rollicking good ride through five turbulent centuries in the Sunshine State, mapping its transformation from wilderness swamp to land speculator’s dream and what he rightly tags the populous, political giant now: “The pivot of America.”
That makes “Finding Florida” worthy reading for just about everyone.
Reviewer Annette Clifford is a former editorial writer and columnist for Florida Today in Brevard County, Fla., and currently a resident of Montgomery, Ala.