Juan Ponce de León

gigatos | May 21, 2022


Juan Ponce de León y Figueroa (Santervás de Campos, Valladolid. April 8, 1460-Havana, July 1521), adelantado, was a Spanish explorer and conquistador, first ruler of Puerto Rico and discoverer of Florida (present-day United States).

Juan Ponce de León was born on April 8, 1460 in Santervás de Campos (province of Valladolid). The surname of León does not refer to his place of origin, but was added by the descendants of Pedro Ponce de Cabrera, husband of the Infanta Aldonza, illegitimate daughter of King Alfonso IX of León, in the 13th century, and he was educated in the house of a relative in Seville, Ramiro Núñez.

Of noble descent, he was a page of Ferdinand the Catholic at the court of John II of Aragon. He was in the army for ten years and fought in the conquest of the kingdom of Granada with his uncle Rodrigo when he was 32 years old. Granada was taken on January 2, 1492 and Juan participated in the triumphal march into the city. Another person who took part in this march was Christopher Columbus, who would discover the New World on October 12 of the same year. Ponce de Leon, although he could have moved to the land of Leon at the end of the Reconquest, to continue with a life within the feudal system, he preferred to participate in the Spanish enterprise overseas.

Arrival in the New World

It is doubtful whether he made his first trip to America with Christopher Columbus on his Second Voyage in 1493 or with Nicolás de Ovando in 1502. On Columbus” second voyage, he traveled to an island guided by Arawak Indians who wanted Columbus to protect them from the Carib Indians. On November 19, 1493, when the ships entered Boquerón Bay, the Indians jumped into the water and swam to the coast. Columbus named the island San Juan Bautista and 18 years later Ponce de León would name his port town, Cáparra, Puerto Rico.

The Second Voyage of Columbus, in which Ponce de León is believed to have actively participated, served to conquer the island of Hispaniola, the turning point being the Battle of the Vega Real. After the departure of Christopher Columbus and his brother Bartolomé and the death at sea of Francisco de Bobadilla, Nicolás de Ovando was appointed governor of Hispaniola in 1502.

Others suggest that Ponce de León first arrived in the New World with Nicolás de Ovando in 1502, disembarking where Cockburn Town is today, on Grand Turk Island in the Turks and Caicos, but soon settled in Hispaniola.

In 1502 he collaborated with Nicolás de Ovando and stopped a rebellion of the Taino people in the eastern zone of Hispaniola. For this action he was rewarded with the position of governor of the recently created province of Higüey. In that position, he rented Indians to search for gold or to work in the abundant cassava crops. Ponce de León became rich serving as governor and especially thanks to the cultivation of yucca. The port of Higüey, at Paso de la Mona, was a must stop for Spanish ships returning to Europe, since the bread made from the yucca kept very well in humidity, was nutritious and tasted very good. Because of this prosperity, Ponce built a villa in Higüey that he called Salva León and sent for his wife and children.

In 1502 he had married in Santo Domingo with an Indian woman who served as an innkeeper in Santo Domingo, who changed her name to Leonor at her baptism. With her he had three daughters, Juana, Isabel and María, and a son named Luis.

Governor of Puerto Rico and subsequent withdrawal

During his stay in Higüey, he heard stories of the riches existing in Borinquén, San Juan Island. From that moment on, he concentrated all his efforts on being able to go to that site, and he was granted the necessary permission. On August 12, 1508, Ponce de León left Higüey to explore Borinquén. He gave orders to plant yucca in case the exploration missions in search of gold failed.

He was welcomed with open arms by Agüeybaná, a Taino chief, and quickly took control of the island. As a result, Ponce de León was named Governor of the island in 1509.

In 1506, after Christopher Columbus -who had been appointed military governor of his discoveries- died in the Convent of San Francisco de Valladolid, the Spanish authorities refused to grant the same privilege to his son Diego. Despite Diego Columbus” opposition, Ponce managed to be appointed governor.

In 1508, Ponce de León founded the first settlement in San Juan, Cáparra, present-day San Juan, and would also found a villa in San Germán. In Cáparra he established a home for his family, ordered the construction of a gold smelter, distributed workers among the Spanish followers and established a hacienda in Toa.

Ponce de Leon, along with other conquistadors, forced the Tainos to work in the mines and build forts. Numerous Tainos died from exposure to the diseases brought by the European sailors and the lack of immunity to those diseases.

Although the Crown had by then selected Ponce de León to colonize and govern the island of San Juan, Diego Colón had filed a claim in the superior court in Madrid and won his rights. Ponce de León was removed from office in 1511.

However, to show royal favor, Ferdinand the Catholic sent Ponce 30 men, Catholic religious from Seville, cattle and horses, and granted the island its own coat of arms, the first in the New World. To celebrate this gesture of the King, Ponce called Cáparra, his villa, Puerto Rico. Among those commissioned by the Catholic King was Captain Don Diego Guilarte de Salazar, later named Regidor of the Cabildo of San Juan, and hero of the Battle of Aymaco.

Upon the death of the indigenous chief Agüeybaná, who gave his approval to Ponce, he was replaced by his nephew Agüeybaná II the Brave, who established resistance. The Arawaks joined the Caribs to fight against the Spaniards, paralyzed gold production and killed half of the Spaniards. After this, Ponce de León organized the defense, managing to defeat Agüeybaná II and provoking the flight of many Indians. Due to the shortage of workers, noticing that gold production had reached its maximum and not wishing to serve Diego, he requested a title from King Ferdinand to explore the areas north of Cuba. This title was given to him thanks to the intervention in his favor of Bartolomé Colón.

The first trip and the discovery of Florida

Ponce de León went to Salva León, where he outfitted two vessels, the larger one in the hands of Juan Bono de Quejo and the smaller one in the hands of a helmsman named Antón de Alaminos, who had participated in Columbus” Fourth Voyage and who knew the Caribbean best. The two ships set sail for San Germán, where the flagship, the caravel San Cristóbal de Juan, was ready. In 1513, the three ships departed and sailed through the Bahamas, arriving at the island of San Salvador.

Around March 27, Easter Sunday, he sighted an island, but there was no possibility of docking. On April 2, Ponce de León got into a boat to head for land, which he thought would be a very large island. He disembarked, crossed the beach and climbed the dunes. From the top he saw a flat, wooded landscape stretching to the horizon. This landing must have taken place on the eastern coast of the Florida peninsula, at a still disputed point between Melbourne Beach, near Cape Canaveral, and Ponte Vedra Beach, in northern Florida, near Jacksonville, where on April 8 he claimed all that land for Spain, and called it “Florida”, because it was the feast of Easter.

They sailed up the eastern coast to an area where the St. Johns River now flows. At a place he called the Canas River, at present-day Cape Kennedy, friendly natives invited them ashore. In a lagoon in the shape of a cross, which Ponce baptized as Rio Crucis, he gave orders to erect a carved stone pillar crowned with a wooden cross and they began to pray, suffering after that an Indian attack that forced them to flee. They decided to continue their exploration and sail southward, skirting the present-day Florida Keys and sailing up the western coast as far as Cape Romano. While sailing south, on April 21, they noticed a current that, in spite of having the wind in their favor, did not allow them to advance, but rather caused them to retreat. The two ships that were closest to land anchored, but the current was so strong that it caused the anchor cables to be re-drawn.

This was the discovery of the Gulf Stream, already intuited by Christopher Columbus. The current flowed from the Caribbean to the Atlantic and allowed from that moment on a fast maritime route back to Europe from the Spanish possessions in America.

On May 23, 1513, they stopped near present-day Fort Myers, where some Indians approached and one, who knew some Spanish, possibly learned from other Indians who had fled there, told them that their chief had a lot of gold to trade on the coast. However, once they landed, they suffered another Indian attack. In Florida there were Apalachee, Calusa and Matacumbes, who moved around a lot. The Indians used arrows with points that were fishing hooks, or normal points impregnated with animal blood mixed with cobra venom.

He returned to Havana and then came back again, stopping at “Chequesta” Bay (Bahía Vizcaína) before returning to Puerto Rico.

The existence of a Spanish-speaking Indian could be indicative that a Spaniard had arrived earlier in the area, although it is also possible that these Indians were informed of the Spanish presence in the area by others who had already been in contact with them.

Legends of Cíbola, the Seven Cities of Gold and the fountain of eternal youth existed at that time, so it is likely that they influenced Ponce de León”s exploration.

It is said that since then he spent his life looking for the fountain of eternal youth, which according to a legend was in Florida. He never said anything about looking for the fountain, although the explorer Hernando de Escalante Fontaneda in his work Memoria de las cosas y costa y indios de la Florida, of 1575, affirmed that he had gone to look for it because he had been told about it by Indians from Cuba and Santo Domingo. Also the “official” (and not at all reliable) historian Antonio de Herrera y Tordesillas, in his Décadas, published in the early 1600s, attributes this search to Ponce de León.

It is known that these legends did have some influence on other Spanish conquistadors in North America, such as Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, although this influence was anecdotal.

Failed campaign against the Caribs

In 1514 he returned to Spain and received commissions to conquer the Caribbean, and the supposed “Island of Florida”. His expedition reached the island of Guadeloupe in 1515 but was ambushed: when the women went ashore with some men to wash clothes, the inhabitants of the island suddenly jumped on it and killed the men and captured the women. Ponce did not dare to counterattack from the ships and set sail for Puerto Rico where he stayed until 1521.

His last trip

Perhaps encouraged by the success Hernán Cortés had had in Mexico in 1519, Ponce de León organized an expedition in 1521 to colonize Florida with two ships carrying approximately 200 men, including priests, farmers and artisans, 50 horses and other domestic animals as well as farming implements.

The expedition traveled along the southwest coast of Florida, somewhere in the vicinity of the Caloosahatchee River or Charlotte Harbor. Near a large Indian encampment at Espero Bay they began to build a colony. For 5 months all went well but the settlers were soon attacked by the Calusa and Ponce de Leon was wounded by a poisoned arrow in the shoulder. Other sources suggest that it was actually an arrow wound in the leg, which became gangrenous.

After this attack, he and the colonists went by ship to Havana, where he soon died of his wound. His tomb is in the cathedral of Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, in a monument erected and paid for by the Spanish Casino of San Juan. The remains had been exhumed on June 18, 1907 from the San José Church in San Juan and were kept there, awaiting the construction of a mausoleum in the Cathedral.

According to Francisco Frías Valenzuela, Juan Ponce de León doubted the rationality of the natives (Indians); he maintained that they were not men but beasts and, therefore, incapable of receiving the faith and governing themselves.

In 2011, the 500th Anniversary of the Governorship of Puerto Rico -Juan Ponce de León was the first governor- was celebrated with various events in Spain, Puerto Rico and the United States (in Washington D. C.). In Spain, on January 21, 2011, various events were held in Santervás de Campos and the University of Valladolid with the presence of Governor Luis Fortuño, Rector Marcos Sacristán and other authorities, as well as historian István Szászdi, member of the Fifth Centennial Commission, and Professor Mercedes Gómez, Executive Director of the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture.

Several events have taken place in the United States to honor Ponce de Leon”s discovery of Florida. Among them was the traditional simulation of the landing on the two beaches where Ponce is believed to have first arrived in what is now the United States, with Ponce de Leon being played by a direct descendant of the conquistador. The Spanish Navy training ship Juan Sebastián Elcano docked on the shores of Miami in an event attended by the Spanish Foreign Minister, García Margallo, who with U.S. representation of the Secretary of State of Florida, Kent Dentzer, made a floral tribute to a monument to Ponce de León. Tomás Regalado, Mayor of Miami, was also present at the commemoration ceremonies, both in Madrid and in Florida. Five Spaniards took advantage of the presence of the ship Juan Sebastián Elcano to swear the oath of allegiance in front of the Minister of Foreign Affairs.


  1. Juan Ponce de León
  2. Juan Ponce de León
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