Ponce de Leon, Juan (1474- July 1521), Spanish explorer and discoverer
of Florida, was born at Tervas de San Campos, Valladolid Province,
Spain, probably the son of Pedro Ponce de Leon and Leonor de
Figueroa. Both were nobles. Nothing is known of his education;
as a youth he was a page to Don Pedro Nunez de Guzman, a courtier,
and fought in the war to conquer Granada, probably in the late 1480s.
Ponce sailed as a gentleman volunteer on Christopher Columbus's
second voyage (1493) and thereafter resided on Hispaniola. Because
of Ponce's service in the conquest of Higuey, Nicolas de Ovando
made him provincial governor there. Shown gold by an Indian from
the island of Borinquen (now Puerto Rico), Ponce organized an
expedition that conquered that island in 1506-1507. He founded
San German on the Anasco River, just upstream from the bay of
the same name. He was appointed royal governor of San Juan Island
1509 but lost that position to Diego Colon, Columbus's son, in
1512 when the former claimed his father's rights. Ponce returned
to Spain to seek royal favor, claiming to have heard from the
Native Americans of an island called Bimini that held a fountain of youth.
On 23 February 1512 Ferdinand the Catholic signed an agreement
under which Ponce would seek out Bimini and bring it under Spanish
control. In return, he would become governor and adelantado for
life. After purchasing ships in Spain, Ponce went to San German
(Anasco Bay), Puerto Rico, to complete his preparations. Leaving
there on 3 March 1513 with three ships, Ponce sailed toward the
northwest on a course just east of the Bahama Islands. On 2 April
he came on the coast of Florida, at about where Ponce de Leon
Inlet is today. He named the new land "La Florida" because of
the beauty of its vegetation, because it was Eastertide, the
Pascua Florida of the religious calendar, and because that phrase
was a polite way of describing the sexual renewal he expected
to find at the fountain of youth. From his landfall, Ponce sailed
south along the onshore countercurrent to near Jupiter Inlet
and from there past the future site of Miami and down the chain
of the Florida keys an unknown distance but at least to the Marquesas
before turning northeast and finally, on 3 June, reaching islands
off the southwestern coast of Florida, somewhere between Cape
Sable and Charlotte Harbor. Wherever he saw Indians during this
voyage, he tried to find out if they knew of the fountain.
While repairing one of the ships, Ponce and his men traded with
the local Calusa Indians, but fighting soon broke out. On 11
June Ponce sailed southwest, reaching the Tortugas Islands (which
he named for the turtles his crew captured there) and then on
to a landfall in Cuba or, much less likely, Yucatan. After making
repairs and taking on water, the fleet sailed eastward on the
Gulf Stream to the Bahamas. Detaching one of the ships to search
those islands for the fountain, he sailed to Puerto Rico. While
on the coast of Florida he had observed the power of the Gulf
Stream, apparently the first European to do so. This discovery
provided a basis for the historic sailing route for exiting the
Gulf of Mexico and the western Caribbean Sea.
After partially putting down a native rebellion on Puerto Rico,
Ponce sailed to Spain to report on his voyage. On 26 September
1514 he was commissioned to settle Bimini and Florida and to
attack the Caribs on islands southeast of Puerto Rico. That activity
occupied him during 1515. For the next five years he remained
on Puerto Rico, attending to his properties and founding Caparra
and planning the move of that town to the site of modern San Juan.
On 15 February 1521 Ponce again sailed for La Florida with two
ships, two hundred men, fifty horses, other domestic animals,
seeds and rootstocks, and implements for farming. His landing
place is in dispute but was an island in the territory of the
Calusa. When he attempted to build a settlement, the Calusa attacked.
Badly wounded in the battle, Ponce withdrew his men to the ships
and sailed for Cuba. There he died of his wounds. His body was
taken to Puerto Rico and buried before the high altar of the
Dominican church in San Juan. It was placed in the cathedral in 1908.
Ponce married Leonor Ponce de Leon, perhaps a cousin, while
living on Hispaniola. They had four children. Daughters Juana,
Isabel, and Maria married important officials. Son Luis became
a monk and did nothing to make good on his hereditary rights
to Florida and Bimini.
Robert Weddle, Spanish Sea: The Gulf of Mexico in North American
Discovery, 1500-1685 (1985), pp. 38-54, is a careful reconstruction
of the voyages. Samuel E. Morison, The European Discovery of
America, vol. 2 (1974), pp. 502-16 (pp. 529-33 for a discussion
of sources), gives a more colorful rendering based in large part
on Aurelio Tio, ed., "Historia del descubrimiento de la Florida
y Beimeni o Yucatan," Academia Puertorriquena de la historia,
Boletin 2, no. 8 (1972): 13-267, and Nuevas Fuentes para la historia
de Puerto Rico (1961). Tio's works provide new documentation,
but neither Morison nor Weddle agree with all of his ideas. Leonardo
Olschki, "Ponce de Leon's Fountain of Youth, History of a Geographic
Myth," Hispanic American Historical Review 21 (1941): 361-85,
discusses that tale and its Eurasian roots. The basic account
of Ponce de Leon's first voyage is Antonio Herrera y Tordesillas,
Historia general de los hechos de los Castellanos en las Islas
y Tierrafirme del mar oceano (1601), decade 1, libro 9, capitulos
10-12. Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo y Valdes, Historia General
y Natural de las Indias (1851; repr. 1944, 1959), narrates the
first voyage in libro 16, capitulo 11, and the second in libro
16, capitulo 13, and libro 36, capitulo 1. These accounts and
selected documents are published in English translation in David
B. Quinn, ed., New American World: A Documentary History of North
America to 1612, vol. 1 (1979), pp. 231-47.
Paul E. Hoffman
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Paul E. Hoffman. "Ponce de Leon, Juan";
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