Juan Ponce de León was a Spanish conquistador and explorer, best remembered for settling the island of Puerto Rico and for directing the first major explorations of Florida. He made two trips to Florida: one in 1513 and the second in 1521. It was on this latter expedition that he was wounded by natives and died shortly thereafter. He is associated with the legend of the Fountain of Youth, although it is likely that he was not actively looking for it.
Juan Ponce de León
Ponce was born in Spain around 1474 and arrived in the New World no later than 1502. He proved to be industrious and tough and soon earned the favor of King Ferdinand himself. He was originally a conquistador and assisted in the wars against the natives of Hispaniola in 1504. Later, he was given good land and proved to be an able farmer and rancher.
Ponce de Leon was given permission to explore and settle the island of San Juan Bautista, today known as Puerto Rico. He established a settlement and soon earned the respect of the settlers. He even had decent relations with the island's native population. Around 1512, however, he lost the island to Diego Columbus (son of Christopher) due to a legal ruling back in Spain. Ponce heard rumors of a rich land to the northwest: the natives said the land, "Bimini," had much gold and wealth. Ponce, who still had many influential friends, secured permission to colonize any lands he found to the northwest of Puerto Rico.
First Florida Voyage
On March 13, 1513, Ponce set sail from Puerto Rico in search of Bimini. He had three ships and about 65 men. Sailing northwest, on April 2nd they spotted what they took for a large island: Ponce named it "Florida" because it was Easter season, referred to as "Pascua Florida" in Spanish. The sailors landed on Florida on April 3rd: the exact place is unknown but was likely to the north of present-day Daytona Beach. They sailed up the eastern coast of Florida before doubling back and exploring some of the western side. They saw a good deal of Florida's coast, including the Saint Lucie Inlet, Key Biscayne, Charlotte Harbor, Pine Island, and Miami Beach. They also discovered the Gulf Stream.
Ponce de Leon in Spain
After the first voyage, Ponce went to Spain to be sure, this time, that he and he alone had royal permission to explore and colonize Florida. He met with King Ferdinand himself, who not only confirmed Ponce's rights in regards to Florida but also knighted him and gave him a coat of arms: Ponce was the first conquistador so honored. Ponce returned to the New World in 1516, but no sooner had he arrived than word of Ferdinand's death reached him. Ponce returned to Spain once again to make sure his rights were in order: regent Cardinal Cisneros assured him that they were. Meanwhile, several men made unauthorized visits to Florida, mostly to take slaves or look for gold.
Second Florida Voyage
In early 1521, he rounded up men, supplies, and ships and prepared for a journey of exploration and colonization. He finally set sail on February 20, 1521. This journey was a complete disaster. Ponce and his men selected a site to settle somewhere in western Florida: the exact place is unknown and subject to much debate. They were not there long before they were attacked by furious natives (likely victims of slaving raids). The Spanish were driven back into the sea. Ponce himself was wounded by a poisoned arrow. The colonization effort was abandoned and Ponce was taken to Cuba where he died sometime in July of 1521. Many of Ponce's men sailed down to the Gulf of Mexico, where they joined Hernan Cortes' expedition of conquest against the Aztec Empire.
Ponce de León was a trailblazer who opened the southeastern US to exploration by the Spanish. His well-publicized Florida voyages would eventually lead to a number of expeditions there, including the disastrous 1528 trip led by the unlucky Pánfilo de Narvaez. He is still remembered in Florida, where some things (including a small town) are named for him. Schoolchildren are taught of his early visits to Florida.
Ponce de León's Florida trips are probably better remembered because of the legend that he was seeking the Fountain of Youth. He probably wasn't: the very practical Ponce de Leon was looking more for a place to settle than any mythological fountains. Nevertheless, the legend has stuck, and Ponce and Florida will forever be associated with the Fountain of Youth.
- Fuson, Robert H. Juan Ponce de Leon and the Spanish Discovery of Puerto Rico and Florida. Blacksburg: McDonald and Woodward, 2000.