Ponce de León, Juan

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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.

Ponce de León, Juan

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Juan Ponce de León

Juan Ponce de León was the first European to visit Florida and explore its coastline. According to legend, he came to the New World in search of the mythical fountain of youth, but his principal motivation was probably the pursuit of gold and riches.

Born in 1460 to a poor but noble family in Spain, Ponce de León spent his boyhood as a page (a young person in training) to a powerful nobleman and his teen years in military training. He later fought with the Spanish army against the Moors (Muslims) in southern Spain. His bravery led to an assignment to travel with Italian explorer Christopher Columbus (1451–1506) on his second voyage to the New World in 1493. Ponce de León remained in Hispaniola (the Caribbean island presently occupied by the Dominican Republic and Haiti). In 1504, he helped stop a revolt by Native Americans in the province of Higüey (pronounced EE-gway), on the eastern part of the island. As a reward, the king of Spain made him governor of Higüey.

A few years later, a Native American from a neighboring island arrived in Higüey with a large nugget of gold. Ponce de León immediately organized an expedition to investigate. His army conquered the island, and he was named governor of the new Spanish possession of Puerto Rico. There, he grew rich from the island's gold, its exotic fruits, and slave labor.

The fountain of youth

In 1511, Spain replaced Ponce de León with Diego Columbus (c. 1479–1526) as governor of Puerto Rico. Ponce de León decided to set off in search of other lands. He wanted to find and settle an island he had heard about called Bimini, which supposedly contained a mysterious spring that restored youth to all who drank its waters. It is likely that Ponce de León was searching for gold, but the myth of the fountain of youth may also have intrigued him.

In 1513, Ponce de León left Puerto Rico with three ships. Sailing north, the expedition sighted land. When they went ashore, Ponce de León named the place Florida (“flowery” in Spanish). It is unclear whether he chos this name because of the colorful beauty of the land or because it was the feast of Easter, or la pascua florida in Spanish. In the name of the Spanish king, he took possession of the new land near the present-day city of St. Augustine on the eastern coast of Florida.

Discovers Gulf Stream

Ponce de León's expedition then headed south, but its boats were slowed by a heavy current. This was the Gulf Stream and its discovery opened a new route for Spanish travel from the Caribbean to North America. The Spanish ships dropped anchor at points along the shore, but several unfriendly encounters with Native Americans encouraged Ponce de León to continue on. He and his men followed the shoreline around the southern tip of Florida and past the Florida Keys. Coming upon a group of islands, he and his men captured 170 turtles. He named the islands Tortugas (“turtles” in Spanish), and today it is known as the Dry Tortugas.

The expedition sailed north along the Gulf coast of Florida as far as Sanibel Island, then turned and headed back toward Cuba. Ponce de León sent one ship in a continued search for Bimini. Ponce de León returned to Puerto Rico where he was again involved in settling Native American rebellions.

Fatally wounded by Native Americans

Ponce de León spent years in Puerto Rico before setting out on a final adventure. In 1521, he loaded two ships with supplies, about two hundred men, fifty horses, and many domestic animals for his second journey to find Bimini. Included in his group were several priests to help spread Christianity among the native people. After the group landed on the west coast of Florida, Native Americans immediately attacked them. Ponce de León was badly wounded and taken back to his ship, which immediately sailed for Cuba. Ponce de León died on the ship in July 1521. His body was shipped to Puerto Rico for burial.

Ponce de León died without really knowing the importance of his discoveries. The explorer was laid to rest beneath the altar of a San Juan church. The inscription on his gravestone reads, “Beneath this stone repose the bones of the valiant Lion (León is ‘lion’ in Spanish) whose deeds surpassed the greatness of his name.”

Juan Ponce de León

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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). □

Ponce de León, Juan

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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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