The historic lighthouse ruins at Punta Borinquen.

History

A Brief History of Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico’s vibrancy derives from more than 500 years of rich history and the subsequent blending of different cultures — a fusion that extends to almost every aspect of the island’s identity.

From the interweaving of the Taíno, African, and Spanish traditions emerged the Puerto Rican, a new identity composed of traits from all three groups. From the Spanish colonial architecture and prominent centuries-old buildings that remain an integral part of island; the savory dishes like mofongo and dance moves inherited from the Africans; to the slang and place names that locals still use from the Taínos, Puerto Rico’s identity is the very definition of a well-blended melting pot.

The cultural identity of the island is something you’ll experience in every sight, taste, and sound during your stay.

Jump to the directory of Historic Sites

The sunlight shines through the window of a guard tower at El Morro.

The sunlight shines through a garita at El Morro.

Taíno Beginnings

Puerto Rico’s first inhabitants were the Taínos, a group of indigenous people that lived on the island for hundreds of years prior to the arrival of the Spanish. Organized in small clans and villages led by caciques (chiefs), they survived by fishing, hunting, and basic agriculture. The Taínos were governed by Agüeybaná and called the island Borikén (Borinquen) – which means “Land of the Valiant and Noble Lord.”

The arrival of the Spaniards in 1493 marked the beginning of the Taíno extinction. Already at war with the Caribs, another indigenous group migrating to the Antilles, the Taínos began to lose territory and under Spanish ruling the original boricuas ceased to exist.

European Arrival

Christopher Columbus arrived in Puerto Rico in 1493 during his second voyage to the New World. Originally, Columbus christened the island as San Juan Bautista (St. John the Baptist), but the name was soon changed to Puerto Rico, or “rich port”, when the Spaniards realized the impressive amount of gold in found its rivers. When the capital city was established, it took the name of San Juan.

Under Spanish governance, the island developed an even more sophisticated agriculture system than what the Taínos had founded. Sugar cane, coffee, and tobacco were among the island’s major exports and, due to increasing demand for products along with the decreasing number of local inhabitants to work the land, Spain brought African slaves to Puerto Rico.

Given its location and richness, Puerto Rico became an important military outpost for Spain and was attacked by the Dutch, French, and English in a series of failed attempts to conquer the island. Forts and Castles like El Morro and San Cristóbal were originally built to protect the strategically significant island. The impressive citadels were never defeated and you can still visit them today.

Brief Puerto Rican Autonomy

In the late 1800s, the desire for independence from the Spanish crown boiled over in Puerto Rico. While the rebellion was quickly suppressed by the Spanish soldiers in San Juan, outbursts and uprisings erupted throughout the island, which led the Spanish crown to grant autonomy to government in the island. This change opened trade channels with other European colonies and the United States.

Becoming a US Territory

The autonomous government granted by Spain didn’t last long. After the Spanish-American war ended in 1898, Puerto Rico and Guam were ceded to the United States as part of the terms of the Treaty of Paris, and Puerto Rico maintains its provincial status to this day.

With Puerto Rico’s colonial state came several changes – mainly in currency, government, and education – with civil rights and political status being decided by U.S Congress, a power it still holds more than a century later. During the first three decades of its rule over Puerto Rico, the U.S. Congress approved a new Puerto Rican Constitution that made the island an autonomous U.S. commonwealth while the islanders retained full American citizenship.

Even after becoming a U.S. territory, Puerto Ricans take pride in preserving much of the island’s indigenous traditions. Many of them can be appreciated in visits to the National Historic Site in San Juan, where you’ll learn more about the history of the discovery of the island; the Cruceta del Vigía, a watch post that sits at the top of a hill in the town of Ponce built by the Spaniards in 1801; and the Cabo Rojo lighthouse, a beautiful 1882 structure on the southwest of Puerto Rico that overlooks the whole natural reserve. These are just a few of the many historic sites you’ll discover while traveling around the island.

Historic Sites in Puerto Rico

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