Juan Ponce de Leon

Juan Ponce de Leon

(1460-1521)

Born in Valladolid, Spain, Juan Ponce de Leon first called attention to himself as a sol¬ dier. As a captain in the nobleman Don Pedro Nunez de Guzman’s private army, Ponce de Leon so impressed King Ferdinand with his valor that the king knighted him on the field at the Battle of Toro.

He joined Christopher Columbus’s second journey to the Americas in 1493. During this journey, Ponce de Leon became the first man of European descent to set foot on what would later be known as Puerto Rico, when his vessel had to stop on the then unknown island to look for water.

On a subsequent trip, in 1302, Ponce de Leon led the war against the Native Higuey tribe on the island of Hispaniola (present-day Haiti). After two years, the Natives were defeated, and Ponce de Leon was promoted to the rank of lieutenant. In 1309, he was appointed governor of San Juan Bautista (pres¬ ent-day Puerto Rico) in recognition of his suc¬ cessful campaign against the Natives on that island.

In 1512, political infighting with the Columbus family forced Ponce de Leon out of the governorship. He subsequently embarked on an exploration to the island of Bimini to find riches, regain his glory, and discover a rumored “fountain of youth.” He led a team of ships through the Bahamas and eventually came to Florida.

Ponce de Leon and his party believed they were on an island, but it was here that the Spanish flag was first planted on the soil of mainland North America. Because the landing took place on Easter Sunday, during a time of year the Catholic Church called Pascua Florida, and because the land contained such lush greenery, Ponce de Leon named the area Florida, the Land of Flowers.

Evading Native people on shore, Ponce de Leon and his men spent most of the time nav¬ igating the coast of Florida, as opposed to exploring inland or establishing any permanent settlements. Their activities represented the first documented navigation of the Florida peninsula.

Also during the expedition, Ponce de Leon’s pilot, Antonio de Alaminos, discov¬ ered the Gulf Stream. Although the trip failed to achieve its original goals, the knowledge gained on this historic voyage triggered a wave of future explorations, which paved the way for the eventual settlement by Europeans of main¬ land North America.

Ponce de Leon concluded his journey and returned to Puerto Rico, where he was rein¬ stated as governor in 1514, but he could not resist the allure of Florida. In 1521, he returned there to establish a permanent settle¬ ment. He again encountered Native people when he landed at Charlotte Harbor. He took a poison arrow in the leg and retreated to Havana, where he died several days later.