Juan Ponce De León

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       In the age of discovery and exploration, the Spanish voyager known as Juan Ponce de León was recognized all throughout Europe as one of the utmost explorers of his time. Through his exploits and adventures, the Spanish conquistador discovered the island of Puerto Rico and was one of the first to venture to the North American mainland. While his greatest claim to fame in modern times is The Fountain of Youth, the mythical fountain said to bestow youth to all who drink from its miraculous waters, his achievements far surpass the legend falsely attributed to his name.

       Born circa 1460 in San Servas, Spain, Juan Ponce de León’s childhood was characterized by poverty, even though he was of noble decent. Seeking glory, he joined the military, where he served for ten years helping to conquer Granada from its Moslim occupants. Afterwards, the Spaniard heard stories of Columbus’s adventures in the New World and set sail for the islands of the Caribbean with Columbus on his second voyage to the Americas in 1493.

       By 1503, Ponce de León had become a permanent resident of the island of Hispaniola, serving as a captain of the Spanish occupants of the region. After suppressing a rebellion led by the native Tainos peoples, he was promoted to governor of the eastern half of the island, now present day Haiti. Many of the natives mentioned an island rich in gold, known as Borinquen. Around the year 1509, Ponce de León, desiring the wealth and fame associated with discovering such an island, set sail for what is now known as Puerto Rico. He established the first settlement in Puerto Rico, Calparra, and was able to quickly gain control over the island. While initially greeted warmly by the Tainos residing on the island, he would soon force the natives into slavery, having them mine for gold while exposing them to European diseases. In recognition for his conquest of Puerto Rico, Ponce de Leon was granted the title of Governor of Puerto Rico.

       Whilst Ponce de León was gaining wealth and power in Puerto Rico, Diego Columbus, the son of Christopher Columbus, had made his own claim to the island. After a court hearing, Diego was given the title of Governor, effectively removing Ponce de León from office. In order to avoid shame, Ponce de León quickly requested permission to explore the regions north of Cuba.

       Historians have traditionally linked Ponce de León’s name with a story involving the Fountain of Youth, a legendary fountain supposedly located on the island of Bimini, now part of the present day Bahamas. However, the fable was not attributed to his name until 1565, forty-four years after his death. Some modern researchers believe the tale was fabricated by the first Spaniards to recount the tale as a means of insulting and discrediting the conquistador’s significance. Regardless, Ponce de León did set sale searching for Bimini in March 1513. One month later, he discovered what he thought was an island, although he would soon be proven incorrect.

       Ponce de León most likely landed in the area of what is now St. Augustine, Florida, the Europeans’ first settlement in the North American mainland. He christened the land La Florida as the land was rich in vegetation, and the discovery was made during the Easter Season, which in Spanish is known as la Pascua Florida. The three vessels under his command charted the waters south of their landing point before returning to Puerto Rico. He returned to Spain the next year and was permitted the title of provincial governor for any lands he conquered in Bimini or Florida, which was still considered to be an island.        

       After failing to conquer the island of Guadalupe in 1515, Ponce de León, having given up the search for Bimini, ventured off once more toward Florida in 1521. On this journey, he was accompanied by some 200 other people in an effort to establish a settlement in Florida. Shortly after their arrival, the Spanish settlers were attacked by Native Americans inhabiting the southwest coast of Florida. While many of his crew were killed outright, Ponce de León managed to survive, but was gravely injured by a poison arrow to the thigh. The survivors made a desperate escape, sailing for Cuba with their dying captain in tow. A few days after their arrival in Havana, Cuba, Ponce de León finally succumbed to his injuries. His body was buried in San Juan, Puerto Rico.