Biography of Juan Ponce de Leon

Discoverer of Florida and Explorer of Puerto Rico

Submission of Atahualpa. Colored engraving, 1807.
Corbis via Getty Images / Getty Images

Juan Ponce de León (1474-1521) was a Spanish conquistador and explorer. He was active in the Caribbean in the early part of the 16th century. His name is usually associated with the exploration of Puerto Rico and Florida. By popular legend, he explored Florida to search for the legendary "Fountain of Youth." He was wounded in an Indian attack in Florida in 1521 and died in Cuba shortly thereafter.

Early Life and Arrival in America

Juan Ponce de León was born in the Spanish village of Santervás de Campos in the current-day Province of Valladolid. Historical sources on his status disagree. According to Oviedo, he was but "a poor squire" when he came to the New World, but other historians say he had several blood ties to influential aristocracy.

His date of arrival in the New World is also in doubt: some historical sources place him on Columbus' Second voyage (1493) and others claim that he arrived with Nicolás de Ovando's fleet in 1502. He could have been on both, and gone back to Spain in the meanwhile. In any event, he was in the New World no later than 1502.

Farmer and Landowner

Ponce was on the Island of Hispaniola in 1504 when native Indians attacked a Spanish settlement. Governor Ovando sent a force in reprisal: Ponce was an officer on this expedition. The natives were brutally crushed. Ponce must have impressed Ovando because he was awarded a choice piece of land on the lower Yuma River. This land came with a number of natives to work it, as was the custom at the time.

Ponce made the most of this land, turning it into productive farms, raising vegetables and animals like pigs, cattle, and horses. The food was in short supply for all of the expeditions and exploration taking place, so Ponce prospered. He married a woman named Leonor, an innkeeper’s daughter and founded a town called Salvaleón near his plantation. His house is still standing and can be visited.

Ponce and Puerto Rico

At that time, the Island of Puerto Rico was called San Juan Bautista. Ponce’s plantation was relatively close to San Juan Bautista and he knew much about it. He made a clandestine visit to the island sometime in 1506. While there, he built a few cane structures at the site that would later be the town of Caparra. He was most likely following rumors of gold on the island.

In mid-1508 Ponce asked for and received a royal permission to explore and colonize San Juan Bautista. He set out in August, making his first official voyage to the other island in one ship with about 50 men. He returned to the site of Caparra and began setting up a settlement.

Disputes and Difficulties

Juan Ponce began running into troubles with his settlement with the 1509 arrival of Diego Columbus, Christopher's son, who was made Governor of the lands his father had found in the New World. San Juan Bautista was among the places Christopher Columbus had discovered, and Diego did not like that Ponce de León had been given royal permission to explore and settle it.

Diego Columbus appointed another governor, but Ponce de León's governorship was later validated by King Ferdinand of Spain. In 1511, however, a Spanish court found in favor of Columbus. Ponce had many friends and Columbus could not get rid of him completely, but it was apparent that Columbus was going to win the legal battle for Puerto Rico. Ponce began to look for other places to settle.


Ponce asked for and was granted royal permission to explore for lands to the northwest: anything he found would be his, as Christopher Columbus had never gone there. He was looking for "Bimini," a land vaguely described by the Taíno natives as a wealthy land to the northwest.

On March 3, 1513, Ponce set out from San Juan Bautista with three ships and about 65 men on a mission of exploration. They sailed northwest and on April second they discovered what they took for a large island: because it was Easter season (known as Pascua Florida in Spanish) and because of the flowers on the land Ponce named it "Florida."

The exact location of their first landfall is unknown for certain. The expedition explored much of the coast of Florida and several of the islands between Florida and Puerto Rico, such as the Florida Keys, Turks and Caicos and the Bahamas. They also discovered the Gulf Stream. The small fleet returned to Puerto Rico on October 19.

Ponce and King Ferdinand

Ponce found that his position in Puerto Rico/San Juan Bautista had weakened in his absence. Marauding Carib Indians had attacked Caparra and Ponce’s family had only narrowly escaped with their lives. Diego Columbus used this as an excuse to enslave any natives, a policy which Ponce did not agree with. Ponce decided to go to Spain: he met with King Ferdinand in 1514. Ponce 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 Ferdinand’s death. Ponce returned once again to Spain to meet with Regent Cardinal Cisneros who assured him his rights to Florida were intact. It wasn’t until 1521 that he was able to make a second trip to Florida.

Second Trip to Florida

It was January of 1521 before Ponce could start preparations for a return to Florida. He went to Hispaniola to find supplies and financing and sailed on February 20, 1521. Records of the second trip are poor, but evidence suggests the trip was a total fiasco. Ponce and his men sailed to the western coast of Florida to found their settlement. The exact location is unknown. They had not been there long before a ferocious Indian attack drove them back to the sea: many of the Spanish were killed and Ponce was seriously wounded by an arrow to the thigh. The effort was abandoned: some of the men went to Veracruz to join with Hernán Cortes. Ponce went to Cuba in the hopes that he would recover: he did not and died of his wounds sometime in July of 1521.

Ponce de Leon and the Fountain of Youth

According to popular legend, Ponce de León was searching for the Fountain of Youth, a mythical spring that could reverse the effects of aging. There is little hard evidence that he was looking for it. Mention of it appears in a handful of histories that were published years after he died.

It was not uncommon at the time for men to search for or supposedly find mythological places. Columbus himself claimed to have found the Garden of Eden, and countless men died in the jungle searching for the city of "El Dorado," the Golden One. Other explorers claimed to have seen the bones of giants and the Amazon is of course named after mythological warrior-women. Ponce may have been looking for the Fountain of Youth, but it would certainly have been secondary to his search for gold or a good place to establish a settlement.

Legacy of Juan Ponce de León

Juan Ponce was an important pioneer and explorer. He is most often associated with Florida and Puerto Rico and even to this day, he is best known in those places.

Ponce de León was a product of his time. Historical sources agree that he was relatively good to those natives who were assigned to his lands…relatively being the operative word. His workers suffered greatly and did, in fact, rise up against him on at least one occasion, only to be brutally put down. Still, most of the other Spanish landowners were much worse. His lands were productive ones and very important for feeding the ongoing colonization effort of the Caribbean.

He was hard working and ambitious and might have accomplished much more had he been free of politics. Although he enjoyed royal favor, he could not avoid local pitfalls, as is shown by his constant struggles with the Columbus family.

He will forever be associated with the Fountain of Youth, even though it is unlikely that he ever deliberately searched for it. He was far too practical to waste much time on such an endeavor. At best, he was keeping an eye out for the fountain - and any number of other legendary things, such as the fabled kingdom of Prester John - as he went about the business of exploration and colonization.


  • Fuson, Robert H. Juan Ponce de Leon and the Spanish Discovery of Puerto Rico and Florida Blacksburg: McDonald and Woodward, 2000.