Key Dates in Puerto Rico History

Puerto Rico history is defined by a series of key events which have coloured the development of the people and culture of the island. From the arrival of the first settlers of the Puerto Rico, to Spanish colonialism and life under the jurisdiction of the United States, the following dates and events are the ones which shaped Puerto Rico history.

 Circa 4000 BC

Puerto Rico history begins around 4000BC, when the first settlers arrived on the island. Originating from the area of the Orinoco River delta in South America, this group of people have been given the name Ortoroid, which means shell midden. Living mainly on the coastline of Puerto Rico, the Ortoroid people on the island were of the group Coroso. Archaeological artefacts and burial sites dating back to this period have been found at Angostura, Cerillo and Maruca. Evidence strongly suggests that this group of people were hunter-gatherers and were technologically advanced to the point of making tools such as hammer-stones, pestles and mortars, as well as jewellery, but no ceramics.

The Ortoroid people were succeeded by a group called the Salanoid. Like the Ortoroid group, Salanoid people arrived in Puerto Rico by sea, as this was the only mode of transport available at this time. The Salanoid people followed a Shamanic religion and brought a number of food crops with them to the island including sweet potato and manioc. The Salanoid were pottery makers, and are notable for their red and white pottery designs which are called Hacienda Grande.

 1000 AD

The next group of people to arrive in Puerto Rico were a branch of Arawak Indians called Taíno. Some of the earliest Taíno sites found in Puerto Rico date back to 1000AD, although it seems that large numbers of Taíno settled between the 7th and 11th Century. Historians suggest that there were still Salanoid people living in Puerto Rico when the Taíno arrived, but similarities in their cultures and beliefs meant that their groups fused comfortably. The Taíno people were hunter-gatherers, collecting shellfish and hunting birds, snakes and manatee, as well as growing their own crops.

The Taino people lived in organised villages lead by hereditary chiefs called Caciques in the Taino language. Due to the nature of their society, high born women were considered to be of great importance, and a Cacique could have as many as thirty wives. Taíno houses were communal, with large groups of people living together in houses surrounding a central ceremonial plaza known as a Batey. The Batey would be used for sports as well as religious activities. The Cacique of a village would have the largest house, called the Caney, which was also used as a council meeting room.

As with the Salanoid religion, the Taíno belief system was shamanistic. The Taíno believes that all natural elements (plants, features of the landscape and weather) had spirits which had to be respected and honoured. Two of the most important spirit figures in Taíno religion were Atabey, the mother of water, and Yuchahu, the god of fertility and spirit of cassava (a staple food crop). Taino people communed with these spirits by sitting on ceremonial seats called Duhos. Duhos were made from wood or stone and had a high, sloping backrest. The seats were carved and decorated, often with designs featuring animal faces.

Although there are no written records to tell us how many Taíno people there were at this point in Puerto Rico history, numbers are estimated at between 30,000 and 60,000. The Taíno called Puerto Rico Boriquen and were undisturbed for many years, apart from occasional spats with another seagoing tribe, the Carib Indians.

 19 November 1493 Christopher Columbus Claims Puerto Rico

During the late 1400s, Spain was focused on extending her overseas empire and trading opportunities, as well as converting people to Catholicism. Christopher Columbus (also called Christopher Colón) made several voyages for the Spanish Crown during this period. During his second voyage, Columbus spotted Puerto Rico, which he decided to claim for Spain and named San Juan Bautista. Columbus’ ship landed on the 19th November 1493, although they only went ashore for a short time to gather food supplies and water. Amongst the 1,200 strong crew of sailors was the “gentleman volunteer” Juan Ponce de Leon, who would come to play a key role in Puerto Rico history.

 1508 Juan Ponce de Leon Returns to Puerto Rico

Despite the fact that the Spanish Crown had given Vicente Yanez Pinzon the right to colonise Puerto Rico in 1505, he had never taken action. It wasn’t until fifteen years after Christopher Columbus claimed the island that colonisation began.

Ponce de Leon had been stationed on nearby Hispanola, and some historians believe that he made several unofficial visits to survey Puerto Rico before finally beginning the colonisation process in 1508. Ponce de Leon took a group of 50 men to the island and established a base in Caparra on the North coast. After a fairly short time, it was decided to move to what is now San Juan, as the natural harbour would be safe and easy to defend. Ponce de Leon became the first governor of Puerto Rico in 1509, spending four years on the island before continuing his travels. His family stayed on the island, while Ponce de Leon set off on a mission from which he would never return. His last voyage was to Florida, where he hoped to discover the legendary “fountain of eternal youth).

When Ponce de Leon arrived in Puerto Rico, he was greeted by representatives of the Taíno people. At this point, it is thought that the Taíno saw opportunities in collaborating with the Spanish. Raids by the Carib people, who may have been based on San Croix, had become a threat to Taíno society. The Taíno thought that the Spanish, with their advanced weaponry would prove to be good allies. Rumours that the Carib people were cannibals spread like wild-fire, although there is some evidence that the Spanish promoted this.

As Spain was a Catholic country, they were deeply preoccupied with spreading the word of their faith and converting so-called heathens. By encouraging the belief that the Caribs were a warlike tribe who committed vile crimes such as eating human flesh, the Spanish strengthened their evidence against other belief systems.

The Spanish colonists soon found traces of gold in the rivers of Puerto Rico and began to build settlements. They began to force the Taíno people to work for them, and at first the Taíno were willing to do so. This may have been partly due to the Higuey Massacre in Hispaniola, where many Taíno had been killed for resisting Spanish rule. The alliance between the Spanish and the Taíno quickly soured, as cruel treatment and cultural suppression began to take its effects. In 1511, a revolt against the Spanish was led by Agueybana II, nephew of the head Cacique of the same name who had greeted Ponce de Leon on his arrival in Puerto Rico. Agueybana gathered support from indigenous people from other islands, and made a stand against their treatment. However, the Taíno were no match for the Spanish, and the revolt was quickly crushed, and Agueybana executed under Spanish law.

Essentially, the Taíno people became slaves to the Spanish conquistadors, and their traditional peaceful way of life was all but lost. A system known as encomiendas gave each Spanish conquistador the responsibility of a certain number of indigenous people, sometimes even whole villages. The system, which had been created by Nicolas de Oveido in Hispaniola, obligated the Taíno people to labour and provide food and goods for the Encomedero. In return the Encomedero was to provide protection and religious instruction in Catholicism to those he was responsible for. In 1512, Bartoleme Las Casas spoke against the encomiendas at the Council of Burgos in Spain. He was a supporter of the Taíno people’s rights, and noted that many masters refused to abide by the rules and treated the Taíno people very badly.

Under harsh Spanish rule, the Taíno population began to diminish. With the arrival of the colonists, the Taíno society were newly exposed to illnesses such as smallpox, measles and the common cold. With no natural resistance to these diseases, many of the Taíno people died. Thousands more lost their lives through mistreatment in the hands of their masters under the encomiendas system, which was not changed until 1542. Small numbers of Taíno people did escape, making their homes in the mountainous regions to the north of the island and ensuring the race was not entirely wiped out. The loss of the Taíno left the Spanish colonists with the issue of finding workers to continue building the colony.

 1517 The African Slave Trade Begins

A new chapter of Puerto Rico history began with a Royal Decree by the Spanish crown. The decree allow each Spanish subject living in Puerto Rico to own 12 slaves. The majority of these slaves were brought from Africa, in particular, the Gold Coast. Although the slave trade in Puerto Rico was not as extensive as it was on other Caribbean islands during this period, the African slaves would play a significant role in the development of Puerto Rican culture as we know it today.

The influx of slaves also meant that Puerto Rico’s economy began to strengthen. The Spanish used African labour for building, and also working on sugar plantations. Between 1530-1560, records show that the slave population on Puerto Rico rose from 2,000 to 15,000. Slaves had no rights and were subject to the same mistreatment that the Taíno had suffered before them. Masters could brand the foreheads of their slaves, and this brutal practice became a common way of identifying runaway slaves.

By 1789, changes were being made to give African slaves in Puerto Rico more rights. A Royal Decree of Graces abolished branding in 1784, while a later change in ruling allowed slaves to buy their freedom. Many slaves worked in their spare time to earn the money to be released from their masters. When freed, many Africans chose to set up home on Puerto Rico, with some becoming slave owners themselves.

Despite an 1817 agreement between England and Spain to stop the slave trade, it continued on for years. On 22 March 1873, the slave trade was finally brought to an end. Approximately 15% of the population of Puerto Rico, or 29,335 people, were freed from slavery by the ruling. Slave owners were compensated a sum of 35 million pesetas for their losses, but the deal was not so sweet for the former slaves, who were obligated to complete a 3 year contract for their former owners before they could enjoy true freedom. Nor were they allowed political rights until five years had passed.

 22 November 1595 Francis Drake Attacks San Juan

Growing tensions between England and Spain, along with Francis Drake’s desire for the favour of Queen Elizabeth of England led to a failed attack in San Juan. Francis Drake entered San Juan harbour on the tail of a floundering Spanish galleon and attempted to attack the city. Legend has it that his plot was foiled when the Spanish fired a cannonball directly into Drake’s cabin, killing two of his men but leaving Drake himself unharmed. Some people embellish this tale by mentioning that the stool that Drake was sitting on was destroyed, although this does not appear in historical records of the time.

 16 June 1598 The English Capture San Juan

England’s intentions of taking Puerto Rico from Spanish control continued in 1598, when the Third Earl of Cumberland, George Clifford led an attack on San Juan. Unlike previous attempts, the English started out well, and were on the path to success when the Spanish stronghold of El Morro was surrendered. England held San Juan for five months, but were forced to retreat due to an outbreak of dysentery among the men.

 September 1625 The Dutch Attack San Juan

England were not the only country who had cast a keen eye over the colony of Puerto Rico. The Dutch were discontented with Spanish rule over their homelands and had long strived for independence. Captain Boudewijn Hendricksz lead a bombardment of the city, ordering his men to fire 4,000 cannonballs to break the defences of the city and landing with 2,000 soldiers to do battle. Fortunately for the inhabitants of the city, the walls had been fortified and at 8 metres in height, and 5 metres in width, withstood much of the attack. The Dutch may have been victorious, had it not been for the arrival of Spanish reinforcements. As they retreated they caused as much damage as possible by setting the city on fire.

 1797 England Make Another Attempt on San Juan

After the previous failures to take control of Puerto Rico, England made a third attempt on San Juan. Lead by Sir Ralph Abercromby, 60 ships carrying 10,000 men engaged in battle against Puerto Rico. Abercromby gave the order to retreat as the defences of Puerto Rico were stronger than they could have imagined, and they stood no chance of breaking through. In fact, they were in such a hurry to leave, that they abandoned their cannons and other supplies in San Juan.

 1815 Royal Decree by Spanish Crown to Improve Puerto Rican Economy

By 1815, the economy of Puerto Rico was still fairly stagnant, however a Royal Decree was presented to encourage immigration to the island and to open trade with other countries. People from Catholic countries such as France and Corsica were invited to settle in the Puerto Rican colonies, and were promised free land if they agreed their allegiance to the Spanish Crown and Catholic faith. Many people from the Canary Islands also immigrated at this time.

 September 1868 Grito de Lares

In September 1868, a revolutionary action which aimed to free Puerto Rico from Spanish rule began. The Grito de Lares was led by Ramon Emetero Betances, who was joined by African and Creole slaves, and Jibaro – peasant workers. The Grito de Lares lasted just ten hours before Spanish military ended the fight, but the action had stirred unrest amongst the people.

 1898 The United States Invade Puerto Rico

A new chapter in Puerto Rico history began in 1898. On 12th May 1989, US military forces attacked San Juan, while troops landed in the southern zone of the island in Guanica. This spelt the end of the Spanish empire in the Americas and made Puerto Rico the oldest European founded colony under US rule.

Puerto Rico appealed to the United States in part as a refuelling site for warships, and for tropical agriculture. Having the island in their control also reduced the threat of further Spanish expansion. Spain officially surrendered Puerto Rico on 10th December 1989, leaving the island under military administration. During the initial period, the military government was responsible for finances and set up public school systems, sanitation and roadways. Despite some positive developments which would improve the quality of life for many Puerto Ricans, like the Spanish before them, the Americans were unwilling to co-exist alongside the indigenous culture.

 1900 The Foraker Act & Civil Government in Puerto Rico

In 1900, changes were made to the Puerto Rican governmental systems under the Foraker Act. Passed by president McKinley, the act was named for its sponsor, Joseph Benson Foraker, and is also called the Organic Act.

One of the most significant clauses of the Foraker Act was the creation of Puerto Rico’s first civil government. An executive branch and upper senate would make important decisions regarding the way Puerto Rico would be run, but the representatives would all be chosen by the United States President. The first governor of Puerto Rico under the act was Charles H Allen. At this point, Puerto Ricans were still not considered to be citizens of the United States despite Roosevelt and Stimson suggesting that this would be a positive move.

Generally, Puerto Rican’s were unhappy with the way their country would be governed under this act. Other clauses in the act moved towards distinct Americanisation, making English the obligatory language in schools and government office. The countries currency was also changed to dollars, at a rate of 60 peso to 1 US dollar. Additionally, exports from Puerto Rico had to be carried exclusively on US merchant ships.

By 1913, as many of 80% of Puerto Ricans qualified for financial assistance from the government, though statistics show that only half of them received the help they needed.

 1917 The Jones Act and US Citizenship for Puerto Ricans

In 1917, Woodrow Wilson signed the Jones Act which finally made Puerto Rican people into legal US Citizens, although they were not able to vote in US presidential elections. This act also allowed Puerto Ricans to be drafted to fight in the First World War, leading to the conscription of as many as 20,000 men.

The Jones Act also divided the Puerto Rican government into Executive, Judicial and Legislative branches, to be elected by the US President, essentially keeping Puerto Rico firmly in the grasp of the US.

 1922- 1950 Nationalism in Puerto Rico

The issue of independence from the United States is one which continued as a concern for Puerto Ricans. In 1922, the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party formed, with its main aim being freedom from the US. Throughout the 1930s, Nationalist agitators engaged in battle against the police, protesting against the American influence on the island. Pedro Albizu Campos was one of the leaders of the Nationalist movement, and along with others was jailed for his actions against the United States. This was a significant time of unrest in Puerto Rico history, as the general population struggled to meet their daily needs, but the Nationalists maintained that unlike Communism and Marxism, this was not a class war, but one of independence. In 1928 and 1932, Puerto Rico was battered by severe hurricanes, which had a detrimental effect on the economy and caused massive destruction of homes and businesses.

One of the most significant actions by the Nationalist movement did not take place until 1950. By this time Pedro Albizu Campos had completed his ten year jail sentence and became involved in plans to revolt against the United States government. On 30th October 1950, several protests took place in Puerto Rico, the best known being the Jayuya Uprising. A woman called Blanca Canales lead a march into Jayuya and began an attack. The US reacted by declaring martial law on the island, and allowed the National Guard and police to fire at the Nationalist protesters. An order was given by the US President to the media, forcing them to hide images of the battle and claim that the fighting was between Puerto Ricans. When the US finally regained control, the leaders were jailed for their part in the actions.

 1947 Changes to the Jones Act

In 1947, it was clear that changes were due in the way Puerto Rico chose its government. The Jones Act was updated to allow Puerto Rican people to vote for their own government every four years. Finally, after hundreds of years of being forced to live under a government chosen by a ruling nation, the Puerto Rican people would have a voice.

 1949 Luis Munoz Marin is Elected Governor of Puerto Rico

1949 brought the election for the first governor of Puerto Rico, as voted for by the population. With an overwhelming 64% of the vote, Luis Munoz Marin became the Governor Elect. Representing the Popular Democratic Party(PDP), Marin spotlighted social and economical issues as being his main focus. Although independence was a key issue, the difficulties faced by Puerto Rican people were a priority.

The PDP had formed in 1940 and took “Bread, Land and Liberty” as their slogan, with the silhouette of a Jibaro farm worker against a red background as their symbol. This image greatly appealed to the Puerto Rican people, who saw their cultural identity as vital. Luis Munoz Marin worked to improve life for Puerto Rican’s and they showed their appreciation by choosing him as governor on three successive terms. After the fourth term, he stepped down, and another representative of the PDP was voted in as governor.

 1952 Puerto Rican Constitution and Commonwealth

In 1952, the US granted the Puerto Rican government the right to produce a Constitution and gave them status as a Commonwealth. This took place under Public Law 600 and had two restrictions : the government must be republican and the Constitution would include a Bill of Rights.

The changes stimulated fresh action from the Nationalist movement, with attacks on police stations and the governor’s house, La Fortaleza. These were quickly suppressed by the National Guard.

Puerto Rico celebrate the Constitution with Puerto Rico Constitution Day, a national holiday on July 25. Previously this has been known as Occupation Day.

 1964 – Today Puerto Rico Status Referendums

Puerto Rico’s position as a commonwealth came under the microscope with studies into the countries relationship with the United States requested by congress. This resulted in a series of three referendums, which allowed Puerto Rico to vote as to whether they should remain a commonwealth become a free associate state, a statehood or independent. Puerto Rico remained a commonwealth as a result of these votes, however further discussion continues to this day, with the current governor Luis Fortuno suggesting a referendum in 2012