Ponce de Leon and the Early Exploration of Florida Juan Ponce de Leon was born in 1460, in Tierra de Campos Paleia, in Leon, Spain (Ponce, 1996). He came from a noble family and entered the royal household as a page for Pedro Nunez de Guzman, at the Court of Aragon. Later, young Ponce de Leon would become a solider for Spain and fight in the battles to drive the Moors from Granada (Blassingame, 1991). In 1493, Leon sailed with Christopher Columbus on his second voyage to America (Ponce, 1996). He was a member of the forces that enslaved the Indians in Hispaniola.This was the European and Spanish way. Few explores would look upon the natives they encountered as anything more than talking animals. For the year of 1502 he was a captain under the governor of Hispaniola, Nicolas de Ovando (Thompson, 1990).
During his time as captain he would suppress an Indian uprising. For this he was rewarded with the governorship of Higuey (Blassingame, 1991). Ponce de Leon would remain in Hispaniola until 1503. In this year he would be intrigued by the tales of gold to be found in Borinquen, known as the modern Puerto Rico (Ponce, 1994). He sailed to explore and settle the island. He landed on August 12, 1508 and soon conquered the island and was granted governorship of the island.
There he carved himself a large estate, where he built a castle (Thompson, 1990). Ovanado was soon replaced with Diego Columbus, as governor of Hispaniola. And Columbus placed Juna Ceron as the new governor of Puerto Rico. For two years Leon fought to keep his governorship, but he was removed from the position. He was advised by King Ferdinand to find new land (Thompson 1990).
The Indians of Hispaniola worked as slaves for the Europeans. They would tell great stories of a place called Bimini. It was a land filled with great riches. Ponce de Leon heard a different story from an old Indian woman. She added an interesting twist to her story.
In her tale she told him of a magic fountain that turned middle aged and old persons in to young vibrant men and women. If the riches did not attract Ponce de Leon, the story of this fountain did. He was in his fifties and since his political career had failed, he figured, it was as good a time as any to explore the land (1990). Ponce de Leon left San German, Puerto Rico on March 3, 1513 and sailed with a fleet of three ships heading northwest toward Bimini. The chain of seven hundred Bahama islands was on his route but time would not allow him to explore each of them.
He did visit the island of San Salvador where Columbus made his first landfall two decades before. The crew sighted the coast of America on March 3, 1513. This was Easter Sunday so he named the land Florida after the Spanish name for Easter, Pascua de Flores (Ponce, 1993). The first sighting took place near present day St. Augustine, which was to be founded fifty-two years later (1990). Six days after they sighted land they found a safe place to dock their ships.
The royal banner of Spain was then flown over the new land. They expected the same lack of resistance as they had experienced when they came ashore at Hispaniola, but they were in for a surprise. The natives were fierce fighters and less enthusiastic of the appearance of these strange white men. Although their bow and arrows were not of significance to the Spaniards, but the poisoned arrows they used were. Ponce de Leon only went upon land when it was absolutely necessary.
He never had the chance to explore the land for himself (1990). Ponce de Leon felt it was best to find a safer harbor. The fleet sailed south to the modern-day Cape Canaveral. The ships were caught in the strong current of the Gulf Stream which forced them to struggle for weeks along the Florida Keys. Ponce de Leon finally decided to turn around and head home.
He was so overwhelmed with his discovery that he sailed directly to Spain (Ponce 1994). Ponce de Leon figured that this was a smart move on his part because three ships were not enough to do a proper job exploring the new land. He hoped that the king would give him permission and the equipment to explore his new land. Coming before the king, Ponce de Leon told him about the great island of Florida. The king agreed that the land should be explored further.
He promised Ponce de Leon that if he conquered it, he would be rewarded with its governorship (1990). Ponce de Leon was kept busy by the Carib Indians in the West Indies. It was not until 1521 that he departd for Florida. This time he was prepared; he sailed with two armed ships, two hundred men and fifty horses. The conquistador was to blame for the great fighting force.
He had sunk his whole fortune in to the expedition to colonize this new land (Ponce, 1993). Little did Ponce de Leon know that Florida’s geography had already been settled. In 1519, the same year Magellan was searching for a strait into the Pacific Ocean far to the south, Alonzo Alvarez de Pineda was searching for the same strait in the area of Florida. He sailed up the coast of Florida and then continued west following the coastline until he reached the modern-day city of Tampico, Mexico. On his way home Pineda came upon a river that he named Rio del Espiritu Santo (River of the Holy Ghost).
It is now believed that this river was the Mississippi (1990). Ponce was now hoping to find the land of Bimini which he believed to be in the interior of Florida, because the coast line was mapped. At this time Leon was in his sixty’s and time was short. They were met by a large group of Indians when they made their way to shore. Although the Spaniards were well equiped, the Indians would defeat them. The Indians had powerful bows and arrows; the arrows were so strong that they were able to crack helmets.
Many of the men were killed, many more were wounded, including Ponce de Leon. An Indian arrow had pierced his armor and struck him in the thigh. His men carried him off the beach during their retreat (1990). The plans for a settlement were now destroyed. There was no doctor aboard their ship, so the crew had no choice but to immediately set sail for Havana.
Juan Ponce de Leon did not make it; he died before they reached Cuba. Other explorers would try to follow Ponce de Leon example in the exploration of Florida, but most of them would encounter the same result as he did (1990). Panfilo de Narvaez was the first after Ponce de Leon to come to Florida. He came in 1528, arriving near Tampa Bay with about 400 men. They met the unfriendly natives there, but they also found a small amount of gold.
The Spaniards became very excited with this discovery. The indians told them that they could find the gold in the land of Apalachee which is today the Tallahassee area. They did not find any gold in the land of Apalachee so they decided to turn back. They built rafts and drifted along the coast of Florida. Most of the men were dead by now but a few were able to make it to the coast of Isla de Malhado. This island was possibly Galveston Island.
After eight years only four men survived. One man was Nunez Cabeca de Vaca who reached Mexico. The survivors told stories of finding wealth in the interior of Florida. The stories encouraged many explorers; Marcos de Niza, Coronado, Cabrillo and Soto (Coler & Shofner, 1991). Hernando de Soto and his fleet, with over six hundred people left Cuba and reached the Florida coast on May 25, 1539.
It would be left to Soto to end the mystery surrounding Florida. There he found an indian prisoner, Juan Ortiz. The natives had no gold or silver, but they told stories of Indians living in the North that had an immense amount of gold and silver that they were looking for. Soto went in search of those indians only to discover that they had no precious metals. Soto took many natives hostage.
He seized Indian chiefs and many Indian women. He demanded that many Indians be provided as bearers and the Indian women be provided as concubines for the Spaniards (1991). Soto decided to travel further north in search of the fabled riches. When he left his camp he took the Pensacola chief. He then traveled to the Indian village of Cofitachequi. There he was greeted by the chieftainess, who gave him a string of pearls.
There the Spaniards found a vast amount of pearls, about two hundred pounds of them in the local burial sites. They left Cofitachequi and headed north, then toward west, and finally toward the south. Hernando de Soto died on May 21, 1542 (1991). The viceroy of New Spain, Luis de Velasco, choose Tristan de Luna y Arellano to head the expedition to Santa Elena. Luna’s expedition reached Mobile Bay on August 14, but then quickly moved to Pensacola Bay. They named Pensacola Bay Santa Maria Filipina, after the Virgin Mary and King Philip II of Spain.
The viceroy ordered Luna to move immediately to Santa Elena. Luna was then suffering from a mental depression and was not able to make the trip to Santa Elena so the viceroy replaced him with Angel de Villafane (1991). References Blassingame, W (1991). Ponce de Leon. Philadelphia: Chelsea Juniors.
Coler, W.S., & Shofner, J.H. (1991). Florida: From the Beginning to 1992. Houston: Pioneer Publications, Inc. Ponce de Leon (1993). Microsoft (R) Encarta, Copyright Microsoft Corporation. Copyright 1993 Funk & Wagnall’s Corporation.
Ponce de Leon (1994). Compton’s NewMedia Inc. Compton’s learning Company. Ponce de Leon (1996). Prodigy (R) interactive personal service.
Excerpted from Compton’s Encyclopedia. Thompson, J (1990, November). Ponce de Leon. Stamps, pp 245-246.