Born into Spanish nobility, Juan Ponce de León (1460-1521) may have accompanied Christopher Columbus on his 1493 voyage to the Americas. A decade later, he was serving as governor of the eastern province of Hispaniola when he decided to explore a nearby island, which became Puerto Rico. In pursuit of a rumored fountain of youth located on an island known as Bimini, Ponce de León led an expedition to the coast of what is now Florida in 1513. Thinking it was the island he sought, he sailed back to colonize the region in 1521, but was fatally wounded in a Native American attack soon after his arrival.
Early Life and Career of Juan Ponce de León
Born in 1460 into a noble family in León, Spain, Juan Ponce served as a page in the royal court of Aragon. He later became a soldier, fighting in the Spanish campaign against the Moors in Granada. After that war ended, he may have gone along on the second voyage to the West Indies led by Christopher Columbus in 1493.
Nearly a decade later, he was serving as a captain in the force commanded by Nicolás de Ovando, Spain’s royal governor of the island of Hispaniola (present-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic). After Ponce de León suppressed a mutiny by Indigenous Americans, Ovando rewarded him with the governorship of the eastern province of Hispaniola.
Exploration of Puerto Rico and Search for Bimini
Rumors of large amounts of gold to be found on the nearby island of San Juan Bautista (as Puerto Rico was then known) drove the Spanish crown to give Ponce de León permission to explore the island in 1508-09. (He may have unofficially traveled there on his own before that.) On the official expedition, he took 50 soldiers and a single ship and founded a settlement at Caparra, near what is now San Juan. When he returned to Hispaniola for supplies, Ponce de León was named governor of Puerto Rico, though he had many rivals for influence and was soon displaced.
Encouraged by the Spanish crown to discover more lands, Ponce de León decided to follow rumors he had heard from local Natives about an island known as Bimini, home to a magical spring or fountain whose waters would rejuvenate those who drank from it. In search of this “fountain of youth,” as well as more lands and gold, he set sail from Puerto Rico in March 1513. The following month, the expedition landed on the coast of what is now Florida, near the site of modern-day St. Augustine.
Ponce de León in Florida
At the time, Ponce de León thought that he had landed on another island, and not the coast of mainland North America. He named the site Florida, not only because they landed around the time of Easter (Pascua Florida in Spanish), but also in honor of the region’s lush and florid vegetation. On that first expedition to Florida, Ponce de León explored the coast, including the Florida Keys, and discovered the Gulf Stream, the warm ocean current that would help future Spanish ships maneuver their way home from the New World. He then returned to Puerto Rico and made his way to Spain, where he was named military governor of Bimini and Florida and given permission to colonize the region. The Spanish crown also ordered him to organize an army to subdue a native uprising on Puerto Rico, and he sailed with a small fleet in mid-1515.
In February 1521, Ponce de León departed San Juan on his second expedition to Florida, accompanied by two ships and around 200 people. They landed on the southwest coast of Florida, near what is now Charlotte Harbor, with the intention of founding a colony. The exact circumstances of what happened next are uncertain, but it appears that in early July local Natives attacked the party of settlers, leaving Ponce de León fatally wounded by an arrow in his thigh. His comrades sailed back with him to Havana, Cuba, where he died.