Age of Discovery
He was a Spanish explorer who became the first governor of Puerto Rico, the first European known to reach the mainland of present day United States, and he gave Florida its name.
Juan Ponce de Leon was a Spanish explorer who traveled around Hispaniola, Puerto Rico, and Florida. He is credited with establishing a European settlement in Puerto Rico, being the first European to reach Florida, giving the land its name. Although there is no evidence to support this claim, legend says that Ponce de Leon found Florida while searching for the fabled Fountain of Youth.
Juan Ponce de Leon was born in Santervás de Campos, Spain in 1474. His father, Luis Ponce de Leon, and his mother, Leonor de Figueroa, were nobles. As a boy, he served as a squire – personal attendant – to Don Pedro Núñez de Guzmán. Guzmán was a Knight Commander in the royal court, a very important position.1 As a squire, young Ponce de Leon would have attended to the requests of Guzmán, such as taking care of his horse, helping him dress, and other duties. In return, he would receive training in social etiquette, hunting, and heavy military training. His military skills were put to the test in 1487 when he went off to the Kingdom of Granada to fight against the Muslim Moors. The war ended in 1492. A year later in September 1493, Ponce de Leon went on Christopher Columbus’ second voyage to the New World.2 He settled on the island of Hispaniola (modern day Dominican Republic and Haiti). In 1502, he married a Spanish woman named Leonor, and they had four children. He had three daughters – Juana, Isabel, and Maria; and a son named Luis.3
As a soldier on Hispaniola, Ponce de Leon helped fight against the native people. The Europeans fought and enslaved many indigenous natives. Nicolás de Ovando, governor of Hispaniola, rewarded Ponce de Leon for his help in the native rebellion. Ponce de Leon became governor of one of the provinces in eastern Hispaniola.4 He was given about 200 acres of land and native Taino slaves. He found wealth as a farmer. Despite his success in farming, Ponce de Leon wanted to find gold. He often heard tales from sailors and natives alike of the bountiful land called Boriquen – the native name for modern day Puerto Rico.5 Ponce de Leon set out to see for himself if the stories of gold in Puerto Rico were true. In 1506, Juan Ponce de Leon went to Puerto Rico to see if the stories were true. He did not have official permission from authorities. So Ponce de Leon went secretly. He discovered that the island had both gold and other valuable resources. So he went back to Hispaniola with plans to return to Puerto Rico.
Juan Ponce de Leon petitioned King Ferdinand of Spain asking for royal permission to journey to Puerto Rico. The king agreed. In August 1508, Ponce de Leon gathered a crew and some boats, and set sail. From 1508-1509, he explored the island, and founded the oldest settlement of Caparra near San Juan. In 1510, the Spanish king made Ponce de Leon governor of Puerto Rico. But he was replaced by Diego Columbus in 1511.6 When Christopher Columbus found the land, he was given rights to rule. When he died in 1506, his son Diego inherited those rights. Diego went to court, and the Spanish monarchy had no choice but to give him ownership. But the Spanish crown wanted Ponce de Leon to find new lands. He heard stories from natives about a Fountain of Youth and a lot of gold on an island called Bimini (now in the Bahamas). In March 1513, he left Puerto Rico in search of this fountain.
On March 3, 1513, Ponce de Leon and his men departed from modern day San Germán. The expedition consisted of three ships, the Santiago, the Santa María de la Consolación, and the San Cristóbal. On April 3 they landed just outside of modern day St. Augustine. Ponce de Leon realized they were not at Bimini. He noticed the land, which he thought was an island, was filled with lush vegetation. So he named it La Florida meaning “The Flowered One” in Spanish. It was also a week after the Easter season known in Spain as the Pasqua florida, or the “feast of flowers.”7 He continued sailing south along Florida’s coast, exploring some of the inland and inlet areas. Ponce de Leon and his crew encountered some natives along the way. At one point the Calusa Indians attacked the Spanish crew and forced the Spaniards to retreat.8 He sailed onward reaching the Florida Keys, Key West, and ending his expedition near Charlotte Harbor on Florida’s west coast. He left Florida in 1514, briefly returned to Puerto Rico, and then headed back to Spain.
Although he did not find the Fountain of Youth, the Spanish king was happy with Ponce de Leon’s discovery. He was knighted, given a coat of arms, and made adelantado (Spanish for “governor”) of both Florida and the island of Bimini.9 Bimini had not yet been found, but the king was still hopeful. Ponce de Leon made several trips back and forth between Puerto Rico and Spain over the next few years. During a trip to Spain in 1516, he married his second wife Juana de Pineda of Seville. His first wife appeared to have died sometime before he left Puerto Rico.10 He and his new bride returned to Puerto Rico in 1518. Ponce de Leon was also given permission to colonize the Florida region he had explored. Unfortunately, he would not get to see his colony thrive.
Later Years and Death
Ponce de Leon sailed again for Florida in 1521 landing near Charlotte Harbor. Not long after his arrival he had a fatal encounter with the natives. During an attack by the natives, Ponce de Leon was shot and wounded by an arrow. The Spaniards retreated to Havana, Cuba. In July 1521, a few days after the incident, in Havana, Juan Ponce de Leon died from his wounds. He was buried in Cuba but later relocated to the San Juan Cathedral in Puerto Rico.
Juan Ponce de Leon is credited as the first European known to have visited present day United States. He was also Puerto Rico’s first governor. Although he was never able to establish a colony in Florida, his discovery of the land led to continued Spanish exploration of the Americas. After his death, more and more Spanish explorers wanted to sail west to explore Florida. Many of the colonies he set up in Puerto Rico survived long after his death, and his influence is still known throughout the area. Ponce, Puerto Rico’s third largest city, is named in his honour.
- Louise Chipley Slavicek, Juan Ponce de León (Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2003), 14.
- Marc Tyler Nobleman, Juan Ponce de Leon (Mankato: Capstone Press, 2005), 7.
- Sandra Wallus Sammons, Ponce de Leon and the Discovery of Florida (Sarasota: Pineapple Press, Inc., 2013), 17.
- Kenneth Pletcher, ed., The Britannica Guide to Explorers and Explorations That Changed the Modern World (New York: The Rosen Publishing Group, 2009), 101.
- Sammons, Ponce de Leon and the Discovery of Florida, 18.
- Rachel Eagen, Ponce de Leon: Exploring Florida and Puerto Rico, (New York: Crabtree Publishing Co., 2006), 11.
- Steven Otfinoski, Juan Ponce de Leon: Discoverer of Florida (New York: Benchmark Books, 2005), 37 – 38.
- Otfinoski, Juan Ponce de Leon, 46.
- Otfinoski, Juan Ponce de Leon, 52.
- Otfinoski, Juan Ponce de Leon, 55.
Eagen, Rachel. Ponce de Leon: Exploring Florida and Puerto Rico. New York: Crabtree Publishing Co., 2006.
Nobleman, Marc Tyler. Juan Ponce de Leon. Mankato: Capstone Press, 2005.
Otfinoski, Steven. Juan Ponce de Leon: Discoverer of Florida. New York: Benchmark Books, 2005.
Pletcher, Kenneth ed. The Britannica Guide to Explorers and Explorations That Changed the Modern World. New York: The Rosen Publishing Group, 2009.
Sammons, Sandra Wallus. Ponce de Leon and the Discovery of Florida. Sarasota: Pineapple Press, Inc., 2013.
Slavicek, Louise Chipley. Juan Ponce de León. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2003.