|Artists rendering of Puerto Real, ca. 1520. Courtesy of the Florida Museum of Natural History|
Puerto Real was founded just ten years after Columbus made his first voyage to the Americas, as part of the very first wave of European imperial expansion into the New World. It was one of 17 towns established as part of an island-wide colonizing effort between 1502 and 1506 specifically to control and exploit the native peoples and natural resources of Hispaniola, and to firmly establish Spanish town life as an institution. It was in Puerto Real and these other earliest towns that the first experiments and solutions in establishing the New World Spanish colonial system took place.
Puerto Real was never a large city, and was often economically marginal. It was established in 1503 by Captain Rodrigo de Mexía after he and his forces vanquished the Taíno people living in the vicinity of Puerto Real. The number of initial settlers is not known, but many of them were adventurers and men at arms in Mexía’s forces looking for wealth and adventure. By 1514 there were probably some 200 to 250 Spaniards living in the town, among them a barber, a blacksmith, a school master, public officials such as notaries and magistrates, members of the clergy, merchants, a cassava planter, and shipmasters. Of the five vecinos (landowning citizens) whose wives were listed in 1514, two were married to Indians and three to Spaniards. Thirty-four Spaniards held allocations of native workers totaling 504 Taínos, many of whom labored away from the town on farms and ranches.
Copper mines were discovered in the vicinity of Puerto Real during the first years of settlement, and occasioned Royal interest and support. Early in 1505 King Ferdinand sent a caravel of tools, supplies, a German mining expert and seventeen African slaves, and event representing one of the first arrivals of African slaves to America. Despite royal support and foreign expertise, the copper mine at Puerto Real never produced the riches that were expected. In a letter of 1528, it was noted that Puerto Real at that time had only 15 vecinos (reduced from 19 in 1514).
|Artists rendering of the burning of Bayahá by Spanish authorities, 1605. By Barbara Hodges, ca. 1981. Courtesy of William Hodges and Jennifer Hamilton, Musee de Guahabá, Haiti|
By that time the economy of Puerto Real was based on cattle ranching and cattle hide production, most of which was sold illegally (rescate) to foreign ships that traded regularly with the isolated Spanish towns of northern Hispaniola. Despite repeated attempts by officials in Santo Domingo and in Spain to end this regularized rescate , they could not control the colonists of Puerto Real. In 1578, the Crown finally decreed that Puerto Real was to be abandoned and merged with the town of Lares de Guahabá in a new location- Bayahá- that could be more closely controlled. Puerto Real was forcibly evacuated and destroyed by Spanish officials themselves in 1579. The new town of Bayahá, however, proved no easier to control. Its residents enthusiastically continued rescate and contraband trade until it, too, was destroyed by authorities in 1605. Bayahá was also found by Dr. Hodges, and was excavated by him and Jennifer Hamilton of the University of Florida (See Jennifer Hamilton and William Hodges chapter in Deagan, 1995, Puerto Real).