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Brief History

December 12, 2002
Copyright © 2002 PUERTORICOWOW. All rights reserved. 

Christopher Columbus and his crew were the first Europeans to discover the island of Puerto Rico on Nov. 19, 1493. They found the island populated by about 60,000 Taínos, peaceful people thriving on their fishing and agricultural skills.

The Spanish newcomers originally named the island San Juan Bautista in honor of St. John the Baptist, and named the capital Puerto Rico, which means rich port. Later, the names were switched, making the capital San Juan and the island Puerto Rico.

The city was later used as a transshipment port for gold being mined in Puerto Rico and gold and silver from South America being stored in the city for transshipment to Spain.

In 1521, concerned about threats from European enemies, Spain began constructing massive defenses around the city of San Juan. The strengthening of El Morro, San Cristóbal, and San Gerónimo forts as well as the city walls were the stronghold elements of these successful defenses. Sugar became Puerto Rico's most important agricultural product, helping establish a thriving economy. It was a very important growth factor for the island because, in 1570, its gold mines were declared depleted. During the 1600s, Puerto Rico's settlements expanded with the establishment of such areas as Arecibo, San Blas de Illescas (later renamed Coamo), and Ponce.

The 18th century brought hurricanes, droughts, plagues, and a constant threat of attack on the island's shores because the British, Dutch, and French were intent on capturing Spain's possessions in the New World. By 1776, the official census stated the population had grown to 70,210 people.

In 1809, Puerto Rico was recognized as an overseas province with the right to send representatives to the Spanish government.  Political unrest characterized this era and, in 1868, a small group of landowners in Lares rose up in arms against Spain. The uprising was quickly put down, and is now commemorated as "El Grito de Lares." In 1897, Puerto Rico was granted a Letter of Autonomy from Spain, allowing it to enter into free commerce with the United States and European colonies. In 1898, as a result of the Spanish-American War, Puerto Rico became a territory of the United States. Legend has it that in 1898--just before the last Spanish governor of Puerto Rico surrendered to the U.S. troops at the end of the Spanish-American War--he took a last look at La Fortaleza's (the executive mansion) grandfather clock and hit it dramatically with his sword, thus stopping it at the exact moment the Spanish lost power over Puerto Rico.

The 20th century saw phenomenal growth for the island. In 1917, the U.S. Congress granted Puerto Ricans U.S. citizenship and, two decades later, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt launched the Puerto Rican Reconstruction Administration, which provided agricultural development, public works, and electrification of the island. By 1951, Puerto Rico acquired the right to establish a government with its own constitution and, in 1952, was declared a semi-autonomous commonwealth territory of the United States.

The island then entered a 20-year period of unprecedented economic development as it heavily promoted and attracted manufacturing plants primarily from the U.S. mainland. By the 1960s, the development was being referred to around the world as the "Puerto Rico Miracle," as other developing economies looked to the island as an example of industrialization.  The 1970 census showed Puerto Rico was mostly urban for the first time in its history.

During the past quarter century, as Puerto Rico's economy diversified into commerce and services, the island's status once again dominated its politics.

The pro-Commonwealth consensus that ruled since 1952 broke down. Commonwealth and statehood are now at rough parity, with independence holding a 5% share of electoral support. Status plebiscites in 1993 and 1998 were inconclusive, and both the public and political leadership remain deeply divided.  This isn't stopping the island from growing, however, because life in Puerto Rico largely resembles most U.S. mainland states in business, education, commerce, dining, day-to-day activities, and more.

History Highlights


Christopher Columbus discovers Puerto Rico.


Spain decrees Puerto Rico is to receive economic aid, historically known as "Situado Mexicano."


Spain lifts some trade and commerce restrictions; first official census taken.


First elected Deputy to the Spanish Court, Ramón Power y Giralt, is sent to Spain.


Royal Decree (Cédula de Gracias) grants tax exemption on agricultural machinery, abolishes previous taxes and opens ports to trade with friendly nations.


A failed uprising against the  Spanish Crown takes place in the town of Lares (Grito de Lares).


The first political parties come into being.


Slavery is abolished.


Spain grants Letter of Autonomy to Puerto Rico.


The island obtains an autonomous form of government under the Spanish Crown; becomes a war booty after the Spanish-American War; a U.S. military government is installed.


The Foraker Act (Organic Act of 1900) regulates the political and economic relations between Puerto Rico and the U.S., and organizes a local civil government.


The University of Puerto Rico is founded.


Jones Act grants U.S. citizenship to Puerto Ricans and provides for the creation of a local Senate.


Women's right to vote recognized.


Under the New Deal, the Puerto Rico Emergency Relief Administration (PRERA) and the Puerto Rico Reconstruction Administration (PRRA) are created.


The Popular Democratic Party wins control of the Senate; begins a change in the political orientation.


Jesús T. Piñero becomes the first appointed Puerto Rican governor.


The first Puerto Rico elections for governor are held. Luis Muñoz Marín becomes the first elected Puerto Rican governor. The island participates in the Olympic Games.


The Commonwealth of Puerto Rico comes into being.


A status plebiscite is held; the Commonwealth formula receives 60.41% of the vote; statehood, 38.98%; and independence, 0.60%.


After 28 years in power, the Popular Democratic Party (PDP) is defeated by the New Progressive Party (NPP), which favors statehood. Luis A. Ferré, founder of the NPP, becomes governor.


PDP wins the election; Rafael Hernández Colón is elected governor.


NPP wins the election; Carlos Romero Barceló is elected governor.


The Pan American Games are held in Puerto Rico.


Romero Barceló (NPP) is re-elected governor. Luis Muñoz Marín dies.


PDP wins the election; Hernández Colón becomes governor.


PDP wins the election; Hernández Colón is re-elected governor.


Spanish is declared the island's official language.


NPP wins the election. Dr. Pedro Rosselló becomes governor and repeals the law declaring Spanish the official language. The official languages become Spanish and English.


A status plebiscite is held; the Commonwealth status formula receives 48.58% of the vote; statehood, 46.34%; and independence, 4.45%.


NPP wins the election. Pedro Rosselló is re-elected governor. Section 936 of the U.S. Internal Revenue Code is eliminated by the U.S. Congress with a 10-year phaseout ending in 2005. The local government lobbies Congress for permanent Section 30A federal tax benefits based on job creation.


A third status plebiscite is held; 50.3% of the voters select the none of the above option; statehood receives 46.5%; independence, 2.5%; free association, 0.3%; and Commonwealth, 0.1%.


PDP wins the elections; Sila M. Calderón becomes the first woman to be elected governor.


Layman Carlos Manuel Rodríguez became the first Puerto Rican to be beatified. Pope Juan Pablo II performed the ceremony at The Vatican.

Gov. Sila M. Calderón presented Congress amendments to Section 956 of the Internal Revenue Code, with the intention of creating jobs in Puerto Rico.

The option for the immediate cessation of U.S. Navy exercises on the island of Vieques won with 68.4% of the votes in a local referendum held in that municipality.

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