History of Puerto Rico

Columbus landed on the island on November 19th, 1493, and him and his crew were welcomed by the native Taino people. In 1508, First European settlement on the Island called “Caparra” was founded by Ponce De Leon. Massacres of native Taino occured not long after European arrival. Seeing the gold worn by the natives, the Spanish sought to colonize and exploit the resources. In 1509 the settlement of Puerto Rico was established in a defensible harbor inlet, becoming the main center of Spanish power as Caparra was in a less defensible location. Around the 1520’s, the Island took on the name of Puerto Rico, and the settlement was renamed San Juan.


The Enslavement began in 1508, when Ponce De Leon was tasked by the Spanish Crown in the subjugation of the Taino. Slaves were forced into mines
to meet unattainable quotas from the Spanish for gold, facing abhorrent conditions and punishments. The Repartimiento system was established in order to institutionalize the system of subjugation and natives were distributed among Spanish officials and clergy for slave labor. In 1511, the first native revolt broke out against the Spanish, set in motion by the killing of a Spanish officer by the Taino.


Common knowledge assumes the Taino were mostly killed off from disease, violence, suicide, and that most of their culture was lost. In contrast to those widely held beliefs, 61% of Puerto Ricans have Amerindian roots meaning that although the culture may have gone away, the people were integrated into the Spanish colonial structure. There was assimilation by the growing Spanish population of Taino natives, and remnants of their language and traditions continue to survive. Things like the names of certain Caribbean islands, farming practices, hammocks, and knowledge of the land made its way into Spanish colonial culture. There is a renewed interest on the island of native heritage and the history of their indigenous culture.


African slaves was first brought in 1513 to support the establishment of Sugar plantations. As the island grew to be the last major port of call before Spanish Galleons set off for Spain loaded with resources form the continent, the island was heavily fortified. The fortifications proved their worth when European powers sought to raid and establish their own colonies in the Caribbean. There were attacks by the Dutch, French, and English, with the English actually invading and occupying the island of Puerto Rico for a few months before being driven out by the Spanish. Between 1815 and 1830, Puerto Rico gained a degree of self governance by a local governor appointed by Spain. Slave revolts broke out across the Island during this period, but were crushed by the Spanish. In the 1870's, slavery was abolished by the Spanish government and the practice died out in the colony.


At the turn of the 19th century, the United States consolidated it holdings from western expansion on the continent. The official policy of the government became one of colonization, and seeing a weakened Spanish Empire, the United States looked to overseas territory. In 1898, a formal declaration of war was recognized between Spain and the United States. The U.S.S. Yosemite arrived off San Juan harbor, to blockade the port. The same year, the treaty of Paris ended the war and in 1899 after the signature of both parties Spanish island holdings like Puerto Rico and the Philippine Islands were transferred to the US Government.

In 1900, the U.S. Congress passed the Foraker Act, establishing a civilian government in Puerto Rico under U.S. control. In 1904 a Unionist Party was found to fight against the colonial government established under the Foraker Act. In 1906 U.S. President Roosevelt recommended that Puerto Ricans become United States citizens. In 1909, the Olmsted Amendment to the Foraker Act was passed by both houses of Congress. In 1917, President Woodrow Wilson signed the Jones Act which gave Puerto Ricans U.S. citizenship and a bill of rights. In 1922, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that Puerto Rico was a territory rather than a part of the Union.

Historical Built Environment

The Spanish implemented a system for the planning of colonial settlements with the settling of Santo Domingo in the modern day Dominican Republic in 1498. The plan for a Spanish colony was based on orthogonal streets branching off of a central plaza, planned around central institutional buildings. Most structures remained European in character, drawing on multiple styles. Every style from Gothic to Neoclassical can be found represented in Latin American cities. Notably, Puerto Rico has the only Gothic church on American soil. The south of the island has developed an architectural style around Ponce, which draws on classical and renaissance references.

Columbus landing on island, 1492.

Torture of Taino natives.

Battle of San Juan with Rough Riders.

Castillo San Felipe del Morro Fort, San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Castillo San Felipe del Morro entrance, San Juan, Puerto Rico.