Biography of Juan Ponce de León, Conquistador

Submission of Atahualpa. Colored engraving, 1807.
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Juan Ponce de León (1460 or 1474-1521) was a Spanish conquistador and explorer who was most 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, where, according to popular legend, he searched for the legendary Fountain of Youth. He was wounded in an Indian attack in Florida in 1521 and died in Cuba shortly thereafter.

Fast Facts: Juan Ponce de León

Known For: Exploring the Caribbean and discovering Florida

Born: 1460 or 1474 in Santervás de Campos, Spain

Died: July 1521 in Havana, Cuba

Spouse: Lenora

Children: Juana, Isabel, Maria, Luis (some sources say three children)

Early Life and Arrival in America

Ponce de León was born in the Spanish village of Santervás de Campos in the current-day province of Valladolid. Historical sources generally agree that he had several blood ties to influential aristocracy, but his parents are unknown.

His date of arrival in the New World isn't certain: Many historical sources place him on Columbus' second voyage (1493), while others claim that he first arrived with Spaniard Nicolás de Ovando's fleet in 1502. He could have been on both and gone back to Spain in between. In any event, he arrived in the Americas no later than 1502.

Farmer and Landowner

Ponce de León was on the Island of Hispaniola in 1504 when native Indians attacked a Spanish settlement. Ovando, by then governor of Hispaniola, sent a force in reprisal that included Ponce de León as an officer. The natives were brutally crushed. He must have impressed Ovando, because he was awarded a choice piece of land that came with a number of natives to work it, as was the custom at the time.

Ponce de León made the most of this plantation, turning it into productive farmland and raising vegetables and animals including pigs, cattle, and horses. Food was in short supply for all the expeditions and exploration taking place, so he prospered. He married a woman named Leonor, an innkeeper’s daughter, and founded a town called Salvaleón de Higüey, now in the Dominican Republic, near his plantation. His house still stands and is open for tours.

Puerto Rico

At that time, nearby Puerto Rico was called San Juan Bautista. Ponce de León made a clandestine visit to the nearby island sometime in 1506, probably following rumors of gold. While there, he built a few cane structures at a site that would later become the town of Caparra and, even later, an archaeological site.

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

Disputes and Difficulties

Ponce de León was appointed governor of San Juan Bautista the next year, but he quickly ran into trouble with his settlement following the arrival of Diego Columbus. Christopher Columbus' son was made governor of San Juan Bautista, Hispaniola, and the other lands his father had found in the New World. Diego Columbus wasn't happy that Ponce de León had been given royal permission to explore and settle San Juan Bautista.

Ponce de León's governorship was later validated by King Ferdinand of Spain, but in 1511, a Spanish court found in favor of Columbus. Ponce de León had many friends, and Columbus couldn't get rid of him completely, but it was apparent that Columbus was going to win the legal battle for San Juan Bautista. Ponce de León began looking for other places to settle.

Florida

He 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 de León set out from San Juan Bautista with three ships and about 65 men. They sailed northwest and on April 2 discovered what they took for a large island. Because it was the Easter season (known as Pascua Florida, roughly 'Easter flowers," in Spanish) and because of the flowers on the land, Ponce de León named it "Florida."

The location of their first landfall is unknown. 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 San Juan Bautista on Oct. 19.

King Ferdinand

Ponce de León found that his position in San Juan Bautista had weakened in his absence. Marauding Carib Indians had attacked Caparra and Ponce de León’s family had narrowly escaped with their lives. Diego Columbus used this as an excuse to enslave any natives, a policy that Ponce de León didn't support. He decided to go to Spain.

He met with King Ferdinand in 1514. He was knighted, given a coat of arms, and received confirmation of his rights to Florida. He had barely returned to San Juan Bautista when word reached him of Ferdinand’s death. Ponce de León returned once again to Spain to meet with the regent, Cardinal Cisneros, who assured him his rights to Florida were intact.

Second Trip to Florida

In January 1521 Ponce de León started preparations to return to Florida. He went to Hispaniola to find supplies and financing and sailed on Feb. 20. Records of the second trip are poor, but evidence suggests it was a fiasco. He and his men sailed to the western coast of Florida to found their settlement. The exact location is unknown. Soon after they arrived a ferocious Indian attack drove them back to the sea. Many of Ponce de León's soldiers were killed, and he was seriously wounded in his thigh by an arrow that possibly was poisoned.

The trip was abandoned. Some of the men went to Veracruz, Mexico, to join conquistador Hernán Cortes. Ponce de León went to Cuba in the hopes that he would recover there, but it was not to be. He died of his wounds in Havana sometime in July 1521.

The Fountain of Youth

According to legend, while Ponce de León was in Florida he was searching for the Fountain of Youth, a mythical spring that could reverse the effects of aging. There is little hard evidence that he seriously searched for the spring; mentions appear in a handful of histories published years after he died.

It wasn't uncommon for explorers of the time to search for or supposedly find mythological places. Columbus himself claimed to have found the Garden of Eden, and countless men died in the jungles searching for El Dorado, "the gilded one," a mythical place of gold and precious jewels. Other explorers claimed to have seen the bones of giants, and the Amazon is named after mythological warrior-women.

Ponce de León might 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 his next settlement.

Legacy

Juan Ponce de León was an important pioneer and explorer most often associated with Florida and Puerto Rico. He was a product of his time. Historical sources agree that he was relatively good to natives who were assigned to his lands—"relatively" being the operative word. His workers suffered greatly and rose up against him on at least one occasion, only to be brutally put down. Still, most other Spanish landowners were much worse. His lands were productive and very important for feeding the ongoing colonization effort of the Caribbean. He was known, however, for brutal attacks on indigenous populations.

He was hard working and ambitious and might have accomplished much more had he been free of politics. Although he enjoyed royal favor, he couldn't avoid local pitfalls, including constant struggles with the Columbus family.

He will forever be associated with the Fountain of Youth, although 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 as he went about the business of exploration and colonization.

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