Ponce de Leon

Ponce de Leon

(c. 1460-1521)

Juan Ponce de Leon was born into a distinguished noble family in Santervas, Spain. He joined the army and fought to drive the Moors out of Granada, their last outpost in Spain in 1492. He probably sailed on Columbus’s second voyage in 1493 and stayed briefly at the Spanish settlement on Hispaniola.

In 1502, de Leon was called back to Hispaniola to help put down a rebellion by the native inhabitants in Haiti, where he remained and became the deputy governor in 1504.De Leon first explored Puerto Rico in 1508, and returned to Hispaniola with some gold given him by a native chief.

In 1509, he became governor of Spain’s colony in Puerto Rico. He secured Spain’s military dominance there and soon became one of the richest and most powerful Spaniards in the New World. When political rivals managed to have him removed from office in 1512, he decided to seek new adventures.

De Leon persuaded King Ferdinand to give him permission to find and colonize an island near Puerto Rico that the Indians called Bimini. De Leon was influenced by legends that there was a magical spring, whose waters restored one’s youth. He set off in 1513 and explored what became the Bahamas.

In April of that year, he landed on what he believed was another island, naming it “Florida,” Spanish for “full of flowers.”De Leon had probably landed near the site of modern-day St. Augustine. He explored the coast all the way south, around the tip, and part way up the western coast.

He engaged in skirmishes with native fighters, and after a major engagement that June, he sailed away from Florida. After cruising in the Caribbean, he returned to Puerto Rico. Proud of his discoveries, he sailed to Spain in 1514. King Ferdinand commissioned de Leon to colonize Florida and Bimini; he was also ordered to get rid of the Carib Indians who inhabited the West Indies.

De Leon returned to the West Indies and proceeded to kill many natives. Finally, in February, 1521, he sailed from Puerto Rico with 200 men and supplies to colonize Florida. The party landed on Florida’s west coast, probably near modern-day Charlotte Harbor. Native forces immediately attacked them. De Leon was wounded by an arrow, and he and his men fled to Cuba, where de Leon died of his wound.