Puerto Rico

On October 18, 1898, American troops fighting in the Spanish-American War raised the United States flag in Puerto Rico formalizing U.S. control of the former Spanish colony. General Nelson A. Miles had landed approximately 3,500 U.S. troops on the island on July 25. On August 12, Spain and the United States agreed to an armistice; on September 13, the Protocol of Peace was ratified; and on December 10, the Treaty of Paris was signed, ending the Spanish-American War.

General View of Harbor at San Juan, Porto Rico Looking South. United States. Army. Corps of Engineers, 1927. Cities and Towns. Geography & Map Division

Spanish exploration of the island, located between the Caribbean Sea and the North Atlantic Ocean, began in 1493 when Christopher Columbus visited during his second journey to the New World. In 1508, Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León established the first permanent Spanish settlement there at the town of Caparra.

Goff’s Historical Map of the Spanish-American War in the West Indies, 1898. c. Eugenia A. Wheeler Goff & Henry Slade Goff; Fort Dearborn Publishing Co., 1899. Military Battles and Campaigns. Geography & Map Division

Puerto Rico was subjected to frequent raids by the Carib Indians and, later, by French, British, and Dutch pirates. The Spanish built a number of forts for protection from these raiders. They included La Fortaleza (begun in 1533), Fort San Felipe del Morro (1539), Fort San Cristóbal (1634), and Fort San Juan de la Cruz (1606). La Fortaleza, also known as the “Palacio de Santa Catalina,” was and continues to be the residence of Puerto Rico’s governors.

In the nineteenth century, improved colonial administration fostered a successful plantation economy based on the production of sugar, tobacco, and especially coffee. Slavery was gradually abolished peacefully between 1866 and 1873. In the early 1880s, Puerto Ricans (at the time under Spanish rule) began to work for independent government. They reached their goal in 1897; however, a year later, Spain ceded the island to the United States under the provisions of the 1898 Treaty of Paris, which ended the Spanish-American War.

In 1917, Puerto Rico became a U.S. territory and its people became U.S. citizens. Migration from rural areas to metropolitan regions increased during the twentieth century as industry supplanted agriculture in the island economy. Starting in the 1920s, Puerto Ricans began leaving the island to seek employment in cities like New York where they formed communities called barrios.

A Town in Puerto Rico. Jack Delano, photographer, Dec. 1941. Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Color Photographs. Prints & Photographs Division

Popularly elected governors have served in Puerto Rico since 1948. In 1952, a constitution was enacted providing for internal self-government. Since then, Puerto Rico has been an incorporated, organized territory of the United States with commonwealth status.

Aurora Calderon, Elinor Rodriguez, and Cruz Losada, group portrait. Oakland, California, April 10, 1939. California Gold: Northern California Folk Music from the Thirties Collected by Sidney Robertson Cowell. American Folklife Center

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