U.S. Takes Possession of Puerto Rico
On October 18, 1898, U.S. troops raised the American flag over Puerto Rico, marking the start of U.S. possession of the island.
The Taino tribe, part of the Arawak Indian group which migrated up the Orinoco River in Venezuela and settled on the island sometime around 700 A.D, populated Puerto Rico. The Taino called the land Borinquen, which means “Land of the Noble Lord.”
In 1493, Christopher Columbus landed on Borinquen during his second voyage to the new world. He named the island San Juan Bautista. In 1508, Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León was sent to conquer the Tainos, as their conflict with the Caribe was mistaken for aggression against Spain. He founded the first settlement, called Caparra, in 1508. A year later, the settlement was moved to a nearby island and named Puerto Rico, which means “Rich Port.” A second settlement was established in 1511, on the southwest part of the island, named San Germán.
Within a couple of decades, the Taino population dropped from as much as 60,000 to approximately 5,000. A dispute arose between Columbus’ son Diego and Ponce de León about titles and trading privileges related to the island. Spanish authorities denied Diego’s claim and named Ponce de León governor. A system of slavery was installed that persecuted the Tainos. It was later modified to be less harsh, but abuses continued.
By 1510, there were rising tensions between Tainos and Spaniards. The Tainos had believed the Spanish had divine powers and were immortal. To test it, the chieftain Urayoán had his warriors drown Diego Salcedo, a Spanish soldier. They waited for three days to see if Salcedo would rise back to the surface, and when he did not, they rose in revolt against their mortal Spanish oppressors. The revolt failed, and Ponce de León ordered many Tainos put to death. The rest of the natives fled to the mountains. In 1511, Ponce de León left on a voyage that eventually led to the discovery of Florida. In 1521, the island and the city switched names – the island became known as Puerto Rico, and the city became San Juan.
The Spanish maintained control throughout the 19th century, despite several armed attempts by France, England, and the Netherlands to take over. Puerto Rico’s defense was helped greatly by the presence of Fort San Felipe del Morro, commonly referred to as El Morro. The fort was built in 1539, and is still standing.
The early 1800s ushered in abolition movements in most European Colonial powers. Spain abolished slavery in 1820, but allowed it to continue in its colonies. Efforts by people such as José Julián Acosta resulted in the end of slavery in 1873 in Puerto Rico.
By the mid-1800s, more than half a million people lived in Puerto Rico. The vast majority were illiterate and living in poverty. Tensions boiled over in 1868 when hundreds of men and women in the town of Lares rose in revolt. It became known as the “Lares Uprising,” or the “Lares Cry.” While the uprising was quickly put down, it helped inspire social reforms such as the Moret Law in 1870, which led to the first freeing of slaves. The Lares Cry also influenced the formation of local political parties, which tried to establish a political identity for Puerto Rico that resembled Spain. In 1897, Spain approved the Carta Autonómica, which granted administrative and political self-government to Puerto Rico.
Combined with the issues of Cuban independence, United States expansionist movements brought America and Spain into conflict at the end of the 19th century. Inflamed by “yellow journalism” (biased reporting) by publishers such as William Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer, sentiment in America led President William McKinley to declare war on Spain in 1898. The bulk of the fighting occurred in Cuba and the Philippines, but American forces also invaded Puerto Rico at Guernica and engaged Spanish forces there.
American forces first landed on Puerto Rico in July 1898. They faced little resistance and suffered just seven deaths, securing the island by mid-August. After the armistice was signed, America and Spain held an official hand over ceremony on October 18, 1898, with U.S. General John R. Brooke serving as military governor.
The short war and American victory resulted in the freedom of Cuba, the surrendering of Guam and Puerto Rico from Spain to the United States, as well as the sale of the Philippines by Spain to the U.S. for $20 million. The treaty details were first discussed in San Juan, and eventually signed in Paris.
After the war, the U.S. Congress passed the Foraker Act, which established a civilian government and commerce between the U.S. and Puerto Rico. In 1915, a Puerto Rican delegation traveled to Washington and petitioned President Woodrow Wilson to grant Puerto Rico more independence. This resulted in the Jones Act in 1917, which established Puerto Rico as an American Territory, “organized but unincorporated.” It granted United States citizenship to all Puerto Ricans – and also made them available for the military draft. More than 20,000 Puerto Ricans were drafted and served in World War I.
The Puerto Rican economy grew rapidly until the onset of the Great Depression. The Depression, followed by World War II, resulted in the migration of many Puerto Ricans to mainland America. Changes came in politics, as well. President Harry Truman named Jesús Piñiero as the first Puerto Rican-born governor in 1946. A year later, Congress passed a law that allowed Puerto Ricans to hold elections for their own governors. In 1950, Puerto Rico’s status was upgraded from Protectorate to Commonwealth. This move angered some citizens who wanted full independence. This discontent was shown in the Jayuya Uprising, where dissidents in seven cities and villages engaged local forces (mostly police).
In recent years, the island has held several “plebiscites,” or referendums, to determine Puerto Rico’s relationship with the United States. In 2012, the referendum consisted of two questions. The first asked citizens whether they thought Peurto Rico should continue with its current status (46% voted yes, 54% voted no). The second asked for the preference of three new options, regardless of how the first question was answered. The choice for becoming a U.S. state received 61.2% of the vote, though a significant 27.4% of the votes were invalid or left intentionally blank. That choice reflected the dissatisfaction with the options listed, and it is likely those voters opposed full statehood. A small percentage voted for independence.
Postage Stamps of Puerto Rico
The U.S. military arrived on Puerto Rico in July 1898. The acting governor authorized provisional mail service one month later. U.S. stamps bearing the overprint “PORTO RICO” were placed into use. The overprinted stamps were issued in 1¢, 2¢, 5¢, 8¢, and 10¢ denominations.
In 1900, the 1¢ and 2¢ provisional stamps were reissued with a “PUERTO RICO” overprint. Later that same year, the Puerto Rico mail system was integrated into the U.S. Post Office Department and the use of overprinted stamps was discontinued. Today, Puerto Rico is a self-governing commonwealth of the United States.
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