Ponce de León, Juan
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Ponce de León, Juan

Juan Ponce de LeÓn

Born: c. 1460
San Servas, Spain
Died: July 1521
Havana, Cuba

Spanish explorer and conqueror

The Spanish conqueror and explorer Juan Ponce de León conquered the island of Puerto Rico and explored the coastline of Florida, which he claimed for the Spanish crown.

Early life

Juan Ponce de León was born in San Servas, Spain. Although born into a noble family, he was poor, and like many in similar situations, he sought fame and fortune as a soldier. He received an education in fighting skills, manners, and religion while serving a knight named Pedro Nunez de Guzman, and later helped in the ten-year conquest of the Muslim kingdom of Granada in southern Spain.

Afterward, Ponce de León heard stories of Christopher Columbus's (c. 14511506) discovery of a new world and volunteered to go along on a return trip. In September 1493 he was one of twelve hundred men who set out for the island of Hispaniola (modern Dominican Republic and Haiti). Ponce de León survived disease, bad weather, and a shortage of food and drink to help colonize the new lands by forcing the Indians into slavery.

Conquering and governing

Ponce de León spent most of the early 1500s in Hispaniola, establishing farms, distributing land rights, helping construct buildings to aid in defense, and working to set up an island economy (system of production, distribution, and use of goods and services). He also married and fathered four children. He was named deputy governor of Hispaniola by Governor Nicolas de Ovando after helping put down an Indian uprising in the eastern province of the island in 1504.

The Indians told Ponce de León that he would find gold on a neighboring island to the east, called Boriquien (Puerto Rico). Four years later he crossed over and conquered the island. During the conquest he shared the honors with a famous greyhound dog named Bercerillo. It was said that the Indians were more afraid of ten Spaniards with the dog than one hundred without him. Ponce de León was appointed governor of Puerto Rico by King Ferdinand of Spain (14521516). The island became popular with other settlers because it was well run by Ponce de León and it had a large number of slaves and many natural resources. Ponce de León was also noted for his nonviolent treatment of the Indians, which was rare for the time.

Stripped of his title as governor by King Ferdinand in 1512 after a political conflict, Ponce de León obtained permission from the king to discover and settle the island of Bimini, which was believed to lie somewhere to the northwest. He was also interested in locating a famous body of water that was said to have the power to restore youth to the aged. This myth, repeated to Ponce de León by the Indians, was of European origin. According to the legend, the spring was in the Garden of Eden, which was located somewhere in Asia (the early Spaniards believed America to be Asia).

Important discoveries

In March 1513 Ponce de León sailed from Puerto Rico and a month later anchored near the mouth of the St. Johns River on the northeast coast of Florida. Impressed with its many beautiful flowers, and having landed on Easter day, he named the land Florida, from the Spanish Pascua florida, or "flowery Easter." While traveling southward he encountered the strong current of the Gulf Stream as it poured through a channel. He had discovered the Bahama Channel, which later became the route of the treasure ships on their return voyage to Spain. He continued exploring the East Coast and then sailed up the Gulf Coast to Pensacola Bay. During his return voyage to Puerto Rico he sighted several small islands crowded with tortoises and named the islands the Tortugas, or "tortoises."

In 1514 Ponce de León returned to Spain where he received another grant, to establish colonies in the "Island of Florida" at his own expense. In February 1521 the colonizing expedition landed on the Florida coast near Charlotte Harbor. A fierce attack by Native Americans caused the settlement to be left abandoned. Ponce de León, wounded in the battle, died a few days after returning to Cuba. He was buried in Puerto Rico; the words on his gravestone read, "Here rest the bones of a valiant LION [León], mightier in deeds than in name."

For More Information

Dolan, Sean. Juan Ponce de León. New York: Chelsea House, 1995.

Fuson, Robert Henderson. Juan Ponce de León and the Spanish Discovery of Puerto Rico and Florida. Blacksburg, VA: McDonald & Woodward Publishing Company, 2000.

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Juan Ponce de León

Juan Ponce de León

The Spanish conqueror and explorer Juan Ponce de León (1460-1521) conquered the island of Puerto Rico and explored the coastline of Florida, which he claimed for the Spanish crown.

Juan Ponce de León was born in San Servas. Although of noble lineage, he was penniless and like so many destitute bluebloods sought fame and fortune as a soldier. He served in the 10-year conquest of the Moslem kingdom of Granada in southern Spain. Afterward, he heard exaggerated accounts of Columbus's discovery and migrated to the island of Hispaniola (modern Dominican Republic and Haiti).

After he had put down an Indian uprising in the eastern province of the island in 1504, the Indians told Ponce de León that he would find gold on a neighboring island to the east, called Boriquien (Puerto Rico). Four years later he crossed over and conquered the island. During the conquest he shared the honors with a famous greyhound dog named Bercerillo. It was said that the Indians were more afraid of ten Spaniards with the dog than one hundred without him. Ponce de León governed Puerto Rico until the King removed him from office in 1512.

Dispossessed of his office, Ponce de León obtained a royal grant to discover and settle the island of Bimini, which was believed to lie somewhere to the northwest. An incidental objective was to locate the wondrous spring whose waters would restore youth to the aged. The myth, repeated to Ponce de León by the Indians, was of European origin. According to the legend, the spring was in the Garden of Eden, which was located somewhere in Asia—the early Spaniards believing America to be Asia.

On March 3, 1513, Ponce de León sailed from Puerto Rico and a month later anchored near the mouth of the St. Johns River on the northeast coast of Florida. Impressed with its floral beauty and having landed at Eastertide, he named the land Florida, from the Spanish Pascua florida, "flowery Easter." While voyaging southward he encountered the strong current of the Gulf Stream as it poured through a channel. He had discovered the Bahama Channel, which later became the route of the treasure ships on their return voyage to Spain. He continued exploring the east coast and then sailed up the Gulf coast to Pensacola Bay. During his return voyage to Puerto Rico he sighted several small islands crowded with tortoises and named them the Tortugas, "tortoises."

In 1514 Ponce de León returned to Spain, where he received another grant, to colonize the "Island of Florida" at his own expense. In February 1521 the colonizing expedition landed on the Florida coast near Charlotte Harbor. The Native Americans attacked with such ferocity and persistence that the settlement was abandoned. Ponce de León, mortally wounded in battle, died a few days after having returned to Cuba. He was buried in Puerto Rico, the epitaph on his sepulcher reading, "Here rest the bones of a valiant LION [León], mightier in deeds than in name."

Further Reading

Accounts Ponce de León's life include Florian A. Mann, The Story of Ponce de León (1903); Frederick A. Ober, Juan Ponce de León (1908); and Edward W. Lawson, The Discovery of Florida and Its Discoverer, Juan Ponce de Leon (1946). Excellent accounts of his career are in Woodbury Lowery, The Spanish Settlements within the Present Limits of the United States, 1513-1561 (1905); Herbert E. Bolton, The Spanish Borderlands (1921); and Anthony Kerrigan's translation of Andres Barcia, Chronological History of the Continent of Florida (1951). □

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Ponce de León, Juan

Juan Ponce de León (pŏns də lē´ŏn, Span. hwän pōn´thā dā lāōn´), c.1460–1521, Spanish explorer, first Westerner to reach Florida. He served against the Moors of Granada, and in 1493 he accompanied Columbus on his second voyage to America. From 1502 to 1504 he assisted in the conquest of Higuey (the eastern part of Hispaniola, now the Dominican Republic) and was made governor of that province. After finding gold on Boriquén (Puerto Rico) in 1508, he conquered the island and, as governor (1509–12), made a fortune in gold, slaves, and land.

Hearing tales from the Carib of a wonderfully rich island called Bimini, said to be N of Cuba, Ponce de León secured a commission (1512) to conquer and colonize that land. The legend that he was seeking a spring whose waters could restore youth (the "Fountain of Youth" ) appears to have been fabricated after his death by one of his enemies at court to discredit the explorer. From Puerto Rico on Mar. 3, 1513, with three vessels, he sailed NE through the Bahamas, sighting the Florida peninsula (which he took to be an island) late in March and landing near the site of St. Augustine early in April. Probably because his arrival in Florida occurred at the time of the Easter feast (Pascua Florida), Ponce de León named the land (which he claimed for Spain) La Florida. He turned south, exploring the coast to Key West, and proceeded up the west coast as far as Cape Romano. Then, retracing his route, he sailed to Miami Bay via Cuba and from there returned to Puerto Rico, arriving Sept. 21, 1513.

After partly pacifying Puerto Rico, which had been in revolt, he sailed to Spain, where the king commissioned him (Sept., 1514) to subdue the Carib of Guadeloupe and to conquer and colonize the "isle of Florida." In 1515 he led an unsuccessful expedition against the Carib and returned to Puerto Rico, where he resided until 1521. With two vessels, 200 men, 50 horses and other domestic animals, and farm implements, he sailed for Florida in 1521. Upon landing on the west coast, probably in the vicinity of Charlotte Harbor or Tampa Bay, his party was fiercely attacked by Native Americans, and he was severely wounded by an arrow. The expedition sailed immediately for Cuba, where Ponce de León soon died.

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Ponce de León, Juan

Ponce de León, Juan (1460–1521) Spanish explorer. A veteran of Columbus' second voyage, he conquered Puerto Rico for Spain (1508–09), and in 1513 led an expedition to explore rumoured islands north of Cuba. He reached land near what is now St Augustine, Florida, USA. In 1521, he returned with a colonizing expedition and received an arrow wound from which he later died.

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León, Juan Ponce de

Juan Ponce de León: see Ponce de León, Juan.

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