Profiles in History: Juan Ponce de Leon

It seems like we all know Juan Ponce de Leon for his quest to find the “Fountain of Youth”, but here in St. Augustine we have a special love for this explorer; he is credited with naming Florida in 1513!

There aren’t a lot of definitive answers about Ponce de Leon’s early years. He was born in the 1460’s to a noble family in Spain, and served as a page in the court of Aragon. He participated in the Spanish wars against the Moors in Grenada, and after his military service ended he probably traveled with Christopher Columbus on his voyage to the New World.

Ponce de Leon had returned to Hispaniola by 1500 and began establishing settlements to create an island colony for Spain. In 1504, he was named the Provincial Governor of the eastern side of the island, where the Dominican Republic is today, after he had defeated an uprising of the native people. His success in the Caribbean continued in 1508, when the Spanish crown sent him on an exploratory trip to look for gold in Puerto Rico, which he found. Spain named him Governor of Puerto Rico, and he moved to the island to set up goldmining operations and claim the land for Spain. His success on this island didn’t last too long; Diego Colon, son of Christopher Columbus, disputed Ponce de Leon’s right to lead, and he lost the governorship of Puerto Rico.

Ponce de Leon portrait

The King of Spain sent Ponce de Leon on a series of exploratory missions to settle more Caribbean islands, promising him leadership on any land he conquered and settled. It’s at this time that he allegedly began his search for the fabled Fountain of Youth. In March 1513, he led a fleet of ships into the Caribbean and ended up landing on the eastern coast of Florida. He named the land he discovered “Pascua Florida”, because of the lush vegetation he found and the fact that it was near Easter.

Ponce de Leon returned to Puerto Rico and found his settlement largely destroyed by native peoples. He continued exploring the Caribbean for the next 7 years attempting to settle new lands in the name of the Spanish crown. In 1521 he led an expedition back to Florida, but his fleet landed on the western coast this time and were attacked by the Calusa tribe. Ponce de Leon was greatly wounded by what was believed to be a poisoned arrow and his ship sailed back toward the Caribbean. He died later that year in Cuba. His remains were first buried in the crypt of San Jose Church in Puerto Rico, but they were exhumed in 1836 and transferred to the Cathedral of San Juan Bautista in San Juan.

An antique map of Hispaniola.

Ponce de Leon remains one of the most well known Spanish explorers and conquistadors in Florida’s history, and his legacy appears throughout the state in statues, hotels, street names, and probably most notable of all, a number of “Fountain of Youth” sites. The marble portrait of Ponce de Leon hangs in the Royal Governor’s Suite here at Governor’s House was donated to the Preservation Board in 1986 from former Board member Major General Henry MacMillan.

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3 thoughts on “Profiles in History: Juan Ponce de Leon

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