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|Ponce de León
[pawn' sA dA lA awn'] the first European to explore Florida
Juan Ponce de León was born in Santervás de Campos, near Palencia, Spain, sometime around 1460. Details about his early life are very sketchy, with some sources saying he was born into a noble family and others saying his family was poor. It is known, however, that he served as a page in the court of King Ferdinand V and Queen Isabella, and that he served with the Spanish troops that drove the Moors out of Granada in 1492. It is believed that he was on Christopher Columbus's second voyage to America (in 1493), but what his role was and how long he stayed is unknown. He returned to America with Nicolás de Ovando in 1502, this time staying for good.
Between 1502 and 1504, Ponce de León led Spanish troops against the natives in Higuey, the eastern province of Hispaniola, for which he was rewarded with an appointment as Governor of Higuey and a grant of land on the lower Yuma River. He made the most of this land, turning it into several productive farms, raising vegetables and livestock. Food was in short supply for all of the expeditions and explorations then taking place, so Ponce de León prospered. At some point he married a woman named Leonor, an innkeepers daughter and founded a town called Salvaleón near his plantation. His house there is still standing and can be visited.
According to legend, Ponce de León first explored what is now Puerto Rico in 1506, but that he did so without royal approval. After discovering gold on the island, he made sure to obtain royal permission before mounting a formal exploration, which he did in 1508. He was made Governor of Puerto Rico the following year, and before long he was one of the wealthiest and most powerful Spaniards in America.
In 1509, Diego Columbus, the son of Christopher Columbus, arrived in the West Indies to assume the governorship of the lands his father had discovered. Since Puerto Rico was supposed to have been one of those lands, Columbus challenged Ponce de León's appointment as its Governor. Ponce de León's governorship was validated by King Ferdinand, but Columbus took his case to a Spanish court, which found in Columbus's favor in 1511. Ponce de León had many friends, however, and Columbus could not get rid of him completely, but it soon became apparent that Columbus was going to win the legal battle for Puerto Rico and Ponce de León began looking for other places to settle.
In 1513, Ponce de León was given royal permission to find and colonize an island called Bimini, said to be the site of much wealth, as well as, possibly, the legendary Fountain of Youth. He set out with three ships and about 65 men on March 3, explored the Bahamas and several other previously unknown islands, and made landfall somewhere near present-day St. Augustine, Florida, on April 2. Whether he named the land "Florida" because of the many flowers he found there or because he landed during the Easter season has never been conclusively proven, but it is likely that the name reflects both since florida is the Spanish word for flowers and pascua florida refers to the Easter season. After briefly exploring the area around the landing site, the expedition sailed down the eastern coast, around the Florida Keys, and part way up the west coast before heading west across the Gulf of Mexico. After stopping at and briefly exploring the tip of the Yucatan Peninsula, he set a course back to Puerto Rico, which was reached on October 19.
Finding his position in Puerto Rico even shakier than when he had left, Ponce de León decided to sail for Spain and give his report to King Ferdinand in person. He was knighted, given a coat of arms, and his rights to Florida were confirmed. He had barely returned to Puerto Rico when word reached him of Ferdinands death. Returning once again to Spain, he met with Regent Cardinal Cisneros, who assured him his rights to Florida were intact.
Troubles with the native Carib Indians and difficulty securing men and supplies delayed Ponce de León's second expedition, but he finally set out with two ships and about 200 men in February of 1521. It is believed that he made landfall near present-day Charlotte Harbor (on the west coast), but few details of this expedition have survived. It is known that the Spaniards were attacked by natives and that Ponce de León was seriously injured, but which natives attacked them and why are unknown. The few survivors sailed to Cuba, where Ponce de León died from his wounds.
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This page was last updated on 05/30/2017.