Juan Ponce de León Biography
Juan Ponce de Leon was a Spanish explorer and conquistador who is credited to have led the first European expedition to Florida. The major purpose of his expedition was to find gold and his quest for finding treasures led him to the southeast coast of what would become the United States. Further exploration of the region brought him to the place which he named “Florida”. De Leon was inspired by the legend of the ‘Fountain of Youth’ which was believed to be located in the Florida region and spent considerable time searching for the elusive spring which he could never find. Born in Spain, he was a brave young boy who grew up to become a soldier who fought against the Moors during the completion of the re-conquest of Spain in 1492. After the historic victory of the Spanish in the battle, he ventured abroad to seek out his fortunes. Adventurous by nature, he joined Christopher Columbus for his second voyage to the New World. The crew visited several places including a large island that would eventually become known as Puerto Rico. He returned home to Spain and after a few years led a European expedition for gold which took him to the modern-day United States. This voyage led him to a region in mainland North America which was rich with floral vegetation. He named this place “Florida”.
- Juan Ponce de León was born in the village of Santervás de Campos, Castile, Spain, in 1474. Not much is known about his childhood and even the identity of his parents is not known. There is however ample proof to suggest that he might have hailed from a distinguished and influential noble family. Rodrigo Ponce de León, Marquis of Cádiz, a celebrated figure in the Moorish wars, was a relative of his.
- As a young man, he served as a squire to Pedro Núñez de Guzmán, Knight Commander of the Order of Calatrava. Eventually he became a soldier and fought in the Spanish campaigns against the Moors in the successful completion of the re-conquest of Spain in 1492.
- In September 1493, de Leon joined the 1200 sailors, colonists, and soldiers who accompanied Christopher Columbus on his second voyage to the New World. The fleet reached the Caribbean in November 1493 and visited several islands, including the large island that would later become known as Puerto Rico. They finally arrived at their primary destination in Hispaniola.
- It is generally believed that de Leon returned to Spain after the voyage and spent some years in his homeland.
- In 1502, he was employed by Nicolás de Ovando, the governor of Hispaniola, to curb the rebellions by the natives against the Spanish. De Leon successfully quelled the rebellion and impressed Ovando who appointed him frontier governor of the eastern part of Hispaniola.
- He soon heard rumors about presence of gold in the nearby Puerto Rico. He explored the land and confirmed the presence of gold in response to which Ferdinand II of Aragon gave permission to Ponce de Leon for the first official expedition to the island in 1508.
- He went to Puerto Rico and collected a good quantity of gold before returning to Hispaniola in 1509. He was told by the crown to return to Puerto Rico and build a settlement there. Named the governor of Puerto Rico, he went on to establish a successful colony. However he soon lost his governorship due to some political issues.
- By the early 1510s, news of undiscovered islands to the northwest of Hispaniola reached Ferdinand who asked de Leon to seek out the new lands. It was rumored that along with gold, "the Islands of Benimy" also had a miraculous spring--“fountain of youth”—which could rejuvenate aging bodies.
- He set sail from Puerto Rico in March 1513 with a fleet of three ships—the Santiago, the San Cristobal and the Santa Maria de la Consolacion—and around 200 men. After several days, they sighted land which de Leon believed to be another island. The land was lush with flowers and he named it ‘La Florida’.
- He returned to Puerto Rico and found the island in disarray. A neighboring tribe of Caribs had destroyed the Spanish settlement and killed many Spaniards. De Leon travelled to Spain in 1514 to report to Ferdinand.
- Impressed by his findings, Ferdinand made him the military governor of Florida and gave him permission to colonize the region. But prior to that, he was ordered to return to Puerto Rico to organize an army there to quell native uprising during his absence.
- Over the next few years he traveled back and forth between Spain and Puerto Rico before deciding to embark on another voyage to Florida. He organized a colonizing expedition on two ships in 1521 and landed on the southwest coast of Florida. However, he did not live to colonize the region.
- Juan Ponce de Leon is widely credited with the discovery of Florida. Several sources suggest that he might not have been the first European to reach the peninsula, but he is the earliest documented European explorer to do so. He named the region ‘La Florida’ with reference to its lush floral vegetation.
- In the 1500s, de Leon married Leonora, an innkeeper's daughter. The couple had three daughters and one son.
- While on his second voyage to Florida, the colonists were attacked by Calusa braves. De Leon was hit by an arrow smeared with poison. Following the attack, the colonists sailed to Cuba where de Leon died of the wound in July 1521.
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