Juan Ponce de León Explores Florida and the Bahama Channel

views updated

Juan Ponce de León Explores Florida and the Bahama Channel


Unknown to the indigenous people of the New World, their destiny was being determined by political and economic forces taking place across the Atlantic Ocean in Europe. Toward the end of the fifteenth century, thousands of daring adventurers would be crossing the ocean to conquer within a few centuries what had taken the Indians thousands to years to inhabit. This "Age of Exploration" was fostered by technological advancements in maritime practices, the belief in an economic philosophy called mercantilism, and an interest in converting the religious beliefs of native populations. Mercantilism was the idea that if a nation was not self-sufficient in its affairs, then its neighbors would dominate it. The two areas that seemed ripe for establishing this ideal were the Middle East and the Americas. Many of the Spanish conquistadors headed for the New World seeking wealth and adventure. One such man was Don Juan Ponce de León (1460?-1521), commonly referred to as simply Ponce de León.


Ponce de León was a Spanish conqueror and explorer. He was born in Spain around 1460. He is well known for claiming and naming what is now Florida, being the first European to discover Mexico, conquering and governing Puerto Rico, and searching endlessly for the mythical Fountain of Youth. While there are some authorities who dispute the claim that he was indeed searching for the Fountain of Youth, Ponce de León's name has been associated with this endeavor more often than with anything else.

While details involving Ponce de León's family background are sketchy, it is believed that he was born into a noble family. He was an experienced soldier, having fought against the Moors; he later traveled to the New World in 1493 as part of Christopher Columbus's (1451-1506) second voyage. In 1502, while in the West Indies serving as a captain under the governor of Hispaniola, Ponce de León suppressed an Indian uprising and was rewarded by being named the provincial governor of the eastern part of Hispaniola. However, he was dissatisfied with political life and looked for further conquests in Puerto Rico. After exploring and settling that island, he was named governor but was displaced by the political maneuverings of his rivals. Though Ponce de León needed little encouragement, the Spanish crown implored him to seek out new lands and opportunities, which led to his exploration of Florida.

As legend has it, Ponce de León learned of a miraculous spring that could rejuvenate those who drank from it. While the Indian who told him about it had never seen it, he indicated that a number of his comrades had left to seek it and had never returned. The Indian reasoned that they must have found the Fountain of Youth. Ponce de León was quite interested in finding this place, so he led a privately outfitted expedition from Puerto Rico in March of 1513. In April of that year, after investigating various islands, he landed on the coast of Florida near the site of modern-day Daytona Beach. He claimed the land for his king. Ponce de León initially assumed that he had landed on an island, not a large continent. When he first sighted land it was during the Easter season known as pascua florida. Because of the flowers that he saw and in the spirit of the season, he named the newly discovered land la florida. He mapped a part of the Florida coast, but never ventured to the interior because he was under constant attack from Indians. Ponce de León was never even given a chance to find his Fountain of Youth. He eventually returned to Spain where he secured the title of governor of Florida with permission to colonize the area.

Indian insurrections prevented Ponce de León from returning to Florida until 1521, when he attempted to establish a colony there. Upon landing, he was struck by a Seminole arrow during an Indian attack, and the colonists were repelled. He was rushed back to Cuba in order to seek medical help, but died soon after his arrival. It took many years and countless numbers of lives before Europeans were able to colonize the area.


Ponce de León is credited as being the first European to discover both Mexico and the United States. Specifically, he named Florida and took possession of it in the name of Spain. However, there is ample evidence that Europeans had previously been to Florida on slave-trading missions. Because the people enslaved on Hispanola and other islands were dying due to disease and inhumane treatment, expeditions were formed to gather replacements. It is believed that some of these made it to the Florida coast. This would, at least in part, explain why the native population in this area was so aggressive. They had experienced previous interactions with Europeans that result in disaster, so they vehemently defended themselves.

Expeditions similar to those conducted by Ponce de León in Florida served to motivate thousands of Spanish peasants to join the military. The discovery of riches and wealth enticed these peasants to travel to the New World in search of a new life. A successful colonial mission could possibly lead to a governorship or a pension for the participants. If one were particularly lucky, he could procure untold riches. Other men were drawn to the New World by promises of adventure. They looked for quick advancement in the military and diplomatic careers. Still others came on a mission of God. These men wanted to convert the native population to Catholicism. By converting the Americas to God, they believed they would receive eternal blessings.

The discovery of Florida did not initially prove to be a huge downfall for the natives. They fought well and resisted early efforts to colonize the land. Five years after Ponce de León's ill-fated attempt in 1521, Spanish explorer Lucas Vázquez de Ayllon (1475?-1526) sought to establish a colony in Florida. In addition to 600 colonists, he brought a contingent of African slaves with him. This is the first record of slaves being used in the United States. The settlement lasted for less than two months when an uprising of the slaves killed the majority of the population and just 150 survivors made it safely away. The next conquistador to test himself and his men in Florida was Pánfilo de Narváez (1480?-1528), who landed near Tampa Bay with 300 men and 40 horses in 1528. His expedition has become famous because it was chronicled by one of the five surviving members, Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, in what is regarded as one of the greatest stories of survival ever written. Cabeza de Vaca's descriptions are the first surviving documents from a European regarding the interior of Florida. According to Cabeza de Vaca, the expedition was first attacked by Indians, then the Spanish missed a connection with their ships. Building rafts in an attempt to sail to Mexico, they were beset by a hurricane, which killed their leader; only 80 men made it safely to the Texan coastline. The death rate continued to climb until 1536, when the remaining five of the expedition arrived safely in Mexico, more than eight years after they had landed in Florida. After many other failed attempts at colonization, it was reported that Florida would be too difficult to colonize, and there was nothing of value to be had. Furthermore, there should be no fear that any other country would try to colonize it because of the previously stated conditions. This stood as the official Spanish position until the French attempted to establish a settlement in Florida.

Eventually, modern weaponry and unfamiliar disease overwhelmed the Native Americans, and like most other indigenous populations, they were overrun by the Europeans. Ponce de León had opened the door for explorers like Spaniard Hernando de Soto (1500?-1542), who marched throughout the southeastern portion of the United States looking for treasure and exploring the countryside. The most significant result of de Soto's march was the devastation of several native populations. Many native warriors were severely injured or killed following confrontations with the Spanish, and entire villages were wiped out, though not as the result of warfare, but from the introduction of European diseases against which the Indians had no natural immunity. These included such diseases as smallpox, measles, and the flu.

Ponce de León also popularized the use of ferocious dogs as warriors against native populations. These fierce dogs would terrorize the natives, as they were not accustomed to such attacks. His most famous dog was one that he owned personally, named Berezillo. His dog was so valued and renowned throughout the Caribbean that Ponce de León even awarded him soldier's pay.

Another important discovery associated with Florida and Ponce de León is that he was the first to describe the Gulf Stream (the world's strongest ocean current). While he was trying to sail south with the prevailing wind, his vessel was in a current so strong that he was actually going backwards. He was able to extricate himself from the current and found a countercurrent running south closer to the coast. The Gulf Stream is part of a general clockwise-rotating system of currents in the North Atlantic. It is fed by the westward-flowing North Equatorial Current moving from North Africa to the West Indies. In the region Ponce de León discovered, it flows roughly parallel to the eastern coast of the United States in a northerly direction. This current made Florida a valuable asset because the Gulf Stream could be used to help propel ships from North America to Europe.


Further Reading

Berger, Josef. Discoverers of the New World. New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., Inc., 1960.

Faber, Harold. The Discoverers of America. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1992.

Quinn, David. North America: From Earliest Discovery to First Settlements. New York: Harper Row, 1977.

About this article

Juan Ponce de León Explores Florida and the Bahama Channel

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article