Don Juan Ponce de León
Don Juan Ponce de León
Spanish Explorer and Soldier
Juan Ponce de León was one of the leading early Spanish explorers and colonizers of the Western Hemisphere. He is best remembered for his discovery of Florida and for conquering and settling Puerto Rico.
Little is known of Ponce de León's early life. His family was part of the Spanish nobility, and he served as a page in the court of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. In 1492, he participated in a military campaign against the Moors in Granada that successfully expelled the Muslims from their last foothold in Spain.
The time in which Ponce de León lived was an age of exploration and Spanish expansion, and he took full advantage of the opportunities this afforded. His countryman Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) discovered America in 1492, thinking it to be the Far East, and the following year, Ponce de León sailed with him on his second expedition to the New World. Upon arrival, Ponce de León apparently responded eagerly and successfully to the many challenges of the colonization enterprise. During 1502-1504, he commanded the effort to subdue the natives on the island of Hispaniola, which the Spanish were attempting to colonize. As a reward for his success, he was made provincial governor of northeastern Hispaniola, a post he held until 1508.
Attracted by reports of gold, he left Hispaniola in 1508, leading an expedition to Puerto Rico. He quickly conquered the island and established a settlement there. He was made governor of Puerto Rico in 1509, retaining the position until 1511. In this case, the stories of gold proved to be true: a large supply was discovered, and he became one of the wealthiest men in the New World.
The natives throughout the Caribbean spoke of a spring located on an island, that they called Bimini, located somewhere north of Cuba. According to the legend, the water of this spring would make anyone who drank from it young again. This story corresponded with a European legend concerning such a Fountain of Youth located at the site of the Garden of Eden. In 1513, the king commanded Ponce de León to search for Bimini and its legendary Fountain of Youth. He obeyed, setting sail as soon as an expedition could be organized. On this voyage, he explored the Bahamas and discovered Florida. Landing near the present site of St. Augustine, he claimed what he thought was a large island for Spain, unaware that he had landed on the mainland of a large continent. He then sailed south along the coast around the isthmus of Florida, exploring as he went. On the return trip to Cuba, he discovered the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico. In 1514, he was named military governor of Florida and told to conquer and settle it. In 1515, he returned to the Caribbean under orders to subdue a tribe of cannibals that was causing considerable problems for the new Spanish settlements. Again he was successful.
In 1521, he returned to Florida with a large armed force, intent on conquering and settling what was still thought to be a large island. Landing near either present-day Sanibel Island or Charlotte Harbor, the Spanish force was attacked and defeated by the natives. In the fighting, Ponce de León received a wound from a poison-tipped arrow and died soon after the survivors returned to Cuba.
Although Ponce de León's explorations and his attempts to form colonies in the New World appear to have been motivated by a desire for personal wealth and glory, they were an important part of a tenacious and successful effort which resulted in opening the Western Hemisphere to European influence and, ultimately, control.
J. WILLIAM MONCRIEF