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American Latino Heritage
Caparra Archeological Site
Guaynabo, Puerto Rico
The Caparra Archeological Site is a National Historic Landmark that encompasses the location and significant remains of Puerto Rico’s first capital – some of the oldest evidence of the Spanish in the “New World.” The archeological site at Caparra has provided information that has been instrumental in understanding early construction materials and techniques in Puerto Rico, as well as Spanish colonialism in the Caribbean Island region.
Decorated Spanish soldier Ponce de León first arrived in the Caribbean Islands along with Christopher Columbus, who was on his second voyage to the New World in 1493. The Spanish quickly made him a provincial governor in Santo Domingo (today the Dominican Republic), where he established his first settlement. De León’s position in government allowed him to travel to the unexplored neighboring island of Puerto Rico. Between 1508 and 1509, he founded the first capital on the island, and became the first governor of the new Spanish province.
First called La Ciudad de Puerto Rico, the city was at a site noted for its gentle breezes, good ventilation, and flat lands that were well suited for construction. The first permanent building in the new city was the Casa de Tapias, which took its name from the horizontal bands, or tapias, used in its construction. Builders in some parts of Spain and Europe still use this somewhat rare construction method. Its continued use has allowed archeologists to envision how the Casa de Tapias must have looked in the 1500s. Not long after, more impressive buildings with stone walls and outdoor patios appeared. Their façades featured imported tiles from Seville arranged in decorative patterns.
In 1512, a small chapel built at Caparra became Puerto Rico’s first cathedral. The original population of 175 had almost doubled to 320 at the time of the chapel’s construction, and it is likely that Ponce de León intended to expand the city’s architectural appeal based on regulations stipulated by the Spanish Crown. By 1518, the development of Caparra was coming to a sudden close. Settlers were not convinced that the site was a good location for the island’s capital. Tribal attacks were frequent, and the city remained cut off from the sea by a thick and dangerous mangrove region that separated Caparra from the San Juan Bay.
Ponce de León himself insisted that the settlement remain where he originally intended it, but colonists resisted and eventually the Spanish Crown sent a representative of the Crown, Rodrigo De Figueroa, to look into the settlers’ concerns on the matter. In 1519, despite Ponce de León’s protests, De Figueroa reported to the Spanish king, Charles V, that Caparra was indeed a poor location for the settlement, and that the Spanish should move the capital. The new site for the city would be on San Juan Bay, in the area today known as Old San Juan.
The Spanish officially abandoned Caparra between 1519 and 1521, after the king of Spain approved De Figueroa’s recommendation. The site remained largely untouched until 1936 when Don Adolfo de Hostos, official Historian of Puerto Rico, began an archeological excavation in the area. Throughout the mid-to-late 20th century, further investigation of Caparra revealed its treasures: stone foundations, tile shards, and other small artifacts that provided evidence that helped to explain the history of the island’s oldest European city.
Today, the site features exposed ruins that visitors can see, including the foundations of Ponce de León’s original house. The Museum of the Conquest and Colonization of Puerto Rico (Museo de la Conquista y Colonizaciòn) displays artifacts, historical documents, exhibits, and offers interpretive signage to help guests envision the lives of Caparra’s Spanish colonists in the early 16th century.