|Born: 1474 in Santervás de Campos, Castile|
|Died: July 1521 (at age 47) in Havana, Cuba|
|Nationality: Castilian, Spaniard|
|Famous For: Led expedition to Florida|
Juan Ponce de León was a conquistador and explorer from Spain. He was the very first European to discover and explore Florida. He established the first European community in Puerto Rico. Ponce de Leon’s name is forever linked with the very famous Fountain of Youth legend, which was thought to be located in Florida.
His birthplace is believed to have been in Santervás de Campos, a small village in an area now called Valladolid, a Spanish province. Many historians, in the past, believe he was born in 1475, but newer evidence reveals he was most likely born a year earlier, in 1474. His parents’ identity continues to be unknown, but this famous explorer may have been a descendant of an influential and very distinguished noble family.
When he was young, Juan Ponce de León served as a squire to Pedro, a member of the Núñez de Guzmán family, an important figure in the military. Today, may believe that he became a very experienced soldier by fighting in several Spanish campaigns against the Moors.
After fighting, he joined the second trip that Christopher Columbus was making in September of 1493 to Hispaniola. The fleet arrived in the Caribbean in November, 1493. They stopped at several islands before going to their main destination in Hispaniola.
Historians are not in agreement on exactly what he did over the next few years. Many believe he went back to Spain at one point and then returned again to Hispaniola with the man who would become the governor of the island, Nicolás de Ovando. In 1502, Nicolás de Ovando, had an order from the King of Spain to subjugate the native Taínos. Ponce de León played an important role in stopping a rebellion of Taínos in 1504.
In 1508, he was given permission to explore the island of San Juan Bautista, now called Puerto Rico. This journey started in July of 1508 and there he built a fortified house and storehouse which was the first European settlement in Puerto Rico. He spent much time looking for gold. In early 1509, he returned to Hispaniola.
This expedition was regarded as a great success. Ovando then appointed Ponce de León as the governor of San Juan Bautista and this appointment was also confirmed by the King of Spain in August, 1509. Juan Ponce de León was told to expand the settlement and to continue his mining efforts for gold. He returned to the island with his wife, Leonora, and their four children. Ponce de León had a stone house built for his family and today, this house still stands near Salvaleón de Higüey.
Later, he was given the rights to finding and taking the Bimini island in the Bahamas while he was in search of the fountain of youth. He left Puerto Rico in March of 1513, with three ships, the San Cristobal, Santiago, and Santa Maria, along with two hundred men.
They landed on Florida’s east coast on April, 1513. He named this area the “Pascua de Florida” or the “feast of flowers” because they found the land on Palm Sunday. Ponce de León then claimed the territory for Spain. Next, he went back to Spain and the King of Spain named him a Captain General in September of 1514. Once again he sailed back to Puerto Rico to find Bimini.
In 1521, Ponce de León went back to Florida, this time to the southwest coast, near the Caloosahatchee River. The crew was attacked by many Calusa braves and Juan Ponce de León was injured. Many historians believe that a poisoned arrow struck his thigh. Following this attack, Ponce de León and his colonists sailed back to Havana, Cuba, and that is where he died from the wound. He was then laid to rest in Puerto Rico, in a crypt at the San José Church. In 1836, Ponce de León’s remains were exhumed and moved to the Cathedral of San Juan Bautista in Puerto Rico.