Discovering Florida: Juan Ponce de León

deleonMap tracking Ponce de Leon’s voyage to Florida. Photo courtesy of State Archives of Florida.

On April 2, 1513, conquistador Juan Ponce de León became the first Spanish explorer to arrive in Florida. Many know the legend of Ponce de León and his search for the Fountain of Youth, but few are familiar with the role he played in the early history of the New World. His business and political involvement with the Spanish development of Puerto Rico was what lead him directly to discover Florida.

In 1508 Ponce de León discovered an island named Borinquen.  He was ordered by King Ferdinand to colonize and explore this new land. Ponce de León renamed the island Puerto Rico, and became the territory’s governor for two years, until the political maneuvering of rivals replaced him with Christopher Columbus’ son.

After losing control of Puerto Rico, Ponce de León set sail again to explore the rest of the region. He navigated his ships north through the Bahamas and headed towards Florida. Native people living in the Caribbean told stories of a fabled magical spring whose water was believed to make the old young again. According to the Indians, the Fountain of Youth was located on the island of Bimini. Some claimed that Ponce de León’s discovery of Florida was accidental, and he may have been searching for the legendary Fountain of Youth.

In 1513, Ponce de León’s ships settled on Florida’s east coast near present-day St. Augustine. He claimed the tropical paradise in the name of Spain and called it La Florida, the “place of flowers.”

Determined to build a settlement, Ponce de León and his men returned to Florida in 1521. They landed on the Gulf Coast beaches between Charlotte Harbor and Estero Bay with over 200 settlers, horses, tools, and seeds. Shortly upon their arrival, Ponce de León and his men were attacked by the Calusa Indians. During the battle, Ponce de Leon was wounded by an arrow. He and his men fled and sailed back to Cuba where he later died of sepsis.

 -Ursa Gil

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