Puerto Rico Historical Overview

The first inhabitants of Puerto Rico were Archaic Indians who most likely arrived from Venezuela around 4500 BC. They were followed by the Igneri tribes, beginning about 200 AD, who were replaced in turn by the Taínos around 800 AD.

Christopher Columbus landed on the island, which the Indians called Boriquén or Borinquén, in 1493 and claimed the land for Spain. He named it after San Juan Bautista (St. John the Baptist). In 1508 Juan Ponce de León founded the first settlement, Caparra, and in 1521 moved it 4 miles away to a small peninsula along a beautiful bay. He called it Puerto Rico (Rich Port). The whole island eventually became known as Puerto Rico and the capital city as San Juan.

Puerto Rico was a Spanish colony from 1493 until 1898, when it became a part of the United States as a result of the Treaty of Paris, which ended the Spanish-American War. During those 405 years, the bedrock of Puerto Rican culture was laid: the Spanish language, the Roman Catholic religion, architecture, and art.

The Indian population dwindled and disappeared soon after the arrival of the Spaniards, leaving behind countless place names and other influences on the language and culture of the island—including their DNA, according to recent studies.

To replace the Indians the Spanish imported slaves from West Africa to work the land. Slavery was abolished in 1873, but by then many elements of African culture had been absorbed into the island’s heritage. In the 19th century there was also significant immigration from Europe, South America, and other Caribbean islands.

Puerto Rico became a possession of the United States in 1898, US citizenship was granted to its inhabitants in 1917, and the island became a self-governing U.S. commonwealth on July 25, 1952. Elections are held every four years.

This is a simplified outline of our heritage. The true history of Puerto Rico is reflected in our literature, art, music, architecture, and in our spirit. You can see it everywhere, from our oldest cities to our newest urban developments. Puerto Rico is many, many things. We hope you will enjoy discovering a few of them!