History of Puerto Rico

Although long and complicated, the history of Puerto Rico has fueled a rich culture

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Puerto Rico History

While Puerto Rico was under Spanish control for more than 400 years, from 1493 until 1898, the culture and history of the island has been shaped by numerous other cultures, including Amerindian, African, and eventually American. Still, it is the Spanish who dominate the history of this rich and vibrant Caribbean nation.

This summary article covers a great deal of Puerto Rico's history, still, those who wish to learn a bit more can read more detailed articles, arranged chronologically. Those seeking out a specific event may also choose to browse a timeline, which includes links to articles.

The early history of Puerto Rico is monopolized by a number of different indigenous tribes. The first Arawaks, the Archaic Indians from Venezuela, are believed to have been in Puerto Rico as early as 4500 B.C. Another group, the Igneri, arrived around 200 A.D. but were quickly replaced by the Taínos. The Taíno Indians, a group of Arawaks that slowly made their way north through the Caribbean from South America, inhabited the island between 500 A.D. and 800 A.D. The Taíno, a deeply religious group of people, survived primarily on the cultivation of indigenous crops such as cassava and sweet potato. The Tainos called the island Boriquén or Borinquén, meaning "land of the great lords."

After the successful first voyage of Christopher Columbus that landed on San Salvador in The Bahamas in 1492, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain sent Columbus back across the Atlantic with the intent of colonizing the newly discovered land. When Columbus did land in Puerto Rico in 1493, he found as many as 50,000 Taínos and a river full of gold nuggets. The island was immediately claimed for Spain and called San Juan Bautista. In 1508, Juan Ponce de León, a soldier who had served with Columbus, would found the first Spanish settlement on the island at Caparra. In 1521, the settlers moved to a peninsula where they would call their settlement "rich port," or Puerto Rico. Under threat from other European colonial powers, the Spanish quickly strengthened their defenses on the island.

Almost immediately upon settling, tensions arose between the Spanish and Taínos. Quickly subjected to forced labor, the Taínos drowned a Spanish settler in hopes of discovering whether the Spanish were mortal. The reaction from the Spanish was severe, and 6,000 Taínos were ordered shot by Ponce de León. In 1513, African slaves were also introduced to Puerto Rico, and the slave practice would not be abolished until 1873. The African slaves, along with the Taíno Indians, would marry with Spanish settlers and create a rich and diverse culture that survives to the present day. While the British would persistently test the resolve of the Spanish on the island, and would even control it for a few months, the Spanish essentially ruled uninterrupted until the end of the 19th century. Hurricanes and even earthquakes would also frequently complicate life for the settlers.

In 1869, political parties began to form on the island, and in 1873 the monarchy was replaced by a republic in Spain. Spanish rule in Puerto Rico would be nearing an end, however, as the United States would acquire Puerto Rico and a number of other Spanish possessions after the conclusion of the Spanish-American War in 1898. The inhabitants of Puerto Rico were granted United States citizenship by Woodrow Wilson in 1917. The same year, approximately 20,000 Puerto Ricans were drafted into the United States Army to serve in World War I. Later to become a topic of hot controversy, the United States would purchase land for naval bases at Culebra and Vieques in 1941.

Puerto Rico would draft and approve its own constitution in 1952, giving the island commonwealth status under the United States. Since 1952, citizens have repeatedly voted on whether to remain a commonwealth, become the 51st state, or gain independence. Typically, voting has resulted in the option for becoming a state finishing in a close second to remaining a commonwealth. In the 1970s, a Puerto Rican nationalist group coordinated a series of bombings in the United States, adding to the controversy of the issue. The presence of the United States naval base at Vieques was also a long standing source of anger for residents of Puerto Rico. The United States planned to conduct a cleanup of the site after its last operation in 2003.

While it remains unclear how Puerto Rico will ultimately relate itself to the United States, the rich culture of the island has created a unique atmosphere that can only be found at this rich port.

Puerto Rican History Time Line
1400 - 1597: Puerto Rico strengthens itself against foreign invaders
1598 – 1700: Puerto Rico struggles to defend itself against many troubles
1701 – 1800: Trade, piracy, and culture develop in Puerto Rico
1801 – 1898: Slavery is abolished, and Puerto Rico becomes a U.S. territory
1899 – Present: Puerto Rico has struggled to form a stable economy under America's wing
Timeline: A listing of the events in Puerto Rico's history
Resources: Recommended Reading

Looking for something specific? Check this alphabetical list of detail articles concerning the history of Puerto Rico:


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