Juan Ponce de León, born into Spanish nobility, was a soldier and explorer who served as governor of the eastern province of Hispaniola when he decided to explore a nearby island, now known as 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 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
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 Native Americans, Ovando rewarded him with the governorship of the eastern province of Hispaniola.
Exploration of Puerto Rico
Rumors of a place called Boriquen — where large deposits of gold were to be found — led Ponce de León to the nearby island of San Juan Bautista, as Puerto Rico was then known. 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 by Diego Columbus, the son of Christopher Columbus.
Fountain of Youth
Encouraged by the Spanish crown to discover more lands, Ponce de León allegedly decided to follow rumors he had heard from local natives about an island called 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
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 because of the region’s lush, 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 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 there 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 — plus horses, tools, and seeds — to set up a farming colony. 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 July of 1521 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.
Ponce de León never found the Fountain of Youth — perhaps because he never looked for such a thing, according to researchers. No mention of a mythical fountain appears in any records or documents from that era, and some historians believe it was a tall tale designed to discredit Ponce del León by making him appear foolish.
Nonetheless, there exists today a 15-acre park in St. Augustine, Florida, named Ponce de Leon’s Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park. The park is located where Spanish explorers and missionaries established a small settlement beginning in 1565. Among other archaeological finds, human remains discovered on the property were identified as the earliest-known Christian burial of Native Americans in the United States.
Ponce de León: Florida's First Spanish Explorer. University of South Florida: Exploring Florida.
Ponce De Leon Never Searched for the Fountain of Youth. Smithsonian Magazine.
Juan Ponce De Leon. The Mariners’ Museum and Park.
Timeline of Significant Events. Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park