Don Juan Ponce de Leon was born about 1474 in present-day Spain, at Santervás de Campos, Valladolid Province, in the kingdom of Castile-León; and, he died in a Cuban hospital located in Havana in July 1521 — 44 years before Pedro Menendez founded the City of St Augustine.
In an account provided to local Historic City News reporters by Florida Living History, Inc., we learned that Ponce was probably the son of Don Pedro Ponce de León and Doña Leonor de Figueroa, both of minor nobility.
Little is currently known of his early life and nothing of his education. As a youth, he served as a page to the Grand Master of the Military Order of Calatrava. In the late 1480s-1492, Ponce fought in the final battles of the 800-year-long Reconquista. He participated, along with another soldier named Cristóbal Colón (Christopher Columbus), in the fall of Granada, the last Moorish stronghold in Europe.
In 1493, Ponce appears to have sailed as a gentleman-volunteer on Columbus’s second voyage to the New World. Thereafter, he resided in La Isabela, the first Spanish town in America, and elsewhere on the island of Hispaniola in the present-day Dominican Republic.
Because of his military service during the conquest of Hispaniola’s Higüey region, Ponce was appointed as provincial governor of Higüey in 1504 and awarded a considerable estate by the governor. The following year, Ponce established the town of Salvaleón de Higüey and married a Castilian-born woman, believed to have been named “Leonor.”
Their union produced three daughters – Juana, Isabel, and Maria – and one son, Luis. Ponce’s daughters all married important officials. Luis became a Dominican monk and, following his father’s death, did not claim his hereditary rights to Florida and Bimini.
From 1506 to 1508, Ponce led the invasion and conquest of the neighboring island of Puerto Rico; founding the town of Caparra in 1508 — the first capital of Puerto Rico and the oldest-known European community currently under United States authority.
In 1510, at about age 36, Ponce was appointed royal governor of the Isla de San Juan Bautista – the original, Spanish name for today’s Puerto Rico. In 1511, Ponce lost the position of governor to Diego Colón, Columbus’s son, when Colón claimed his father’s rights. Ponce returned to Spain to seek royal favor from King Fernando, claiming to have heard from the native Taino of an island to the north of San Juan called “Bimini”.
Fernando II signed an agreement on February 23, 1512, under which Ponce would seek out Bimini and bring it under Castilian control. In return, he would become governor of that land for life. After purchasing ships in Spain, Ponce travelled to Añasco Bay, Puerto Rico to complete the preparations for his voyage of exploration.
This “First Fleet” carried approximately 60 mariners, soldiers and landsmen – white, black, Native American; male and female; soldier and sailor; slave and free – who became the first documented Europeans and Africans to set foot on what is now the continental United States.
On March 4, 1513, at about 39 years old, Ponce sailed northwest by north from present-day Puerto Rico with three ships:
• the Santa Maria de la Consolación, a nao captained by Juan Bono de Quejo, a business partner of Ponce, and which served as Ponce’s flagship;
• the Santiago, a caravel captained by Diego Bermúdez, who had been one of Columbus’ officers, and guided by the fleet’s chief pilot, Anton de Alaminos, another of Columbus’ companions, who later became one of the most famous European navigators in the early Caribbean;
• and the San Cristóbal, a little bergantín captained by Juan Pérez de Ortubia.
To date, the only detailed account of Ponce’s 1513 “discovery voyage” is the account of Antonio de Herrera published in Madrid in 1601 — almost a century after the expedition took place. It is based on a number of resources; some of them partial, inaccurate, or dating from after Ponce’s death.
According to Herrera, the “First Fleet” passed through the modern-day Turks and Caicos Islands and along the eastern side of the Bahamas, anchoring at various islands. On Saturday, April 2, 1513, the fleet sighted another “island” which Herrera records at 30 degrees 8 minutes North Latitude. Ponce named this land “La Florida,” because of the beauty of its vegetation and because it was Eastertide, the Pascua Florida — “Feast of Flowers”.
That evening, or on the next day, Juan Ponce de León landed on the eastern coast of La Florida and became the first, documented European to set foot on what is now the continental United States – Herrera states, “They went ashore to gather information and take possession.”
Several days later, the “First Fleet” sailed south along the Florida peninsula. On April 21, somewhere off present-day Jupiter and West Palm Beach, they encountered the Gulf Stream current, the first known European expedition to do so. This discovery provided the basis for the historic sailing route for exiting the Gulf of Mexico and the western Caribbean Sea – as his comrade, Columbus, had discovered the route to the New World, so Ponce discovered the return route to Europe.
At this spot, Ponce went ashore again and encountered, for the first time, the natives of Florida – possible the Ais or the Jeaga. From this second landfall, Ponce sailed down the chain of the Florida Keys for an unknown distance, before turning northeast along Florida’s Gulf coast.
On June 3, the “First Fleet” reached the islands off the southwestern coast of Florida. After a bloody encounter with the fearsome Calusa natives on June 11, Ponce sailed southwest, reaching the Tortugas Islands (which he named for the turtles his crew captured there) on June 21.
From there, the “First Fleet” sailed eastward on the Gulf Stream to the Bahamas and so returned to the Island of San Juan; present-day Puerto Rico.
In April of 1514, Ponce sailed to Spain to report to Fernando II on his exploratory voyage. Ponce was knighted by King Fernando for his services to the Crown. On September 27, 1514, Ponce received a royal commission to settle and govern “the Islands of Bimini and Florida, which are in the Indies of the Ocean Sea” and to lead an armada against war-like Carib raiders from islands southeast of Puerto Rico.
Puerto Rico had, indeed, proven to be the “Rich Port” for Ponce, as he was now one of the wealthiest Castilians in the Caribbean. His fortune was based primarily on farming, ranching, and the selling of cassava-flour “ship’s biscuit” and other such supplies to the fleets returning to Spain from the New World.
In 1519, Ponce’s wife, Leonor, died.
In March 1521, Ponce de León established the first European colony in the continental United States on the southwest coast of Florida, possibly near today’s Charlotte Harbor, in the territory of the native Calusa.
This “First Colony” included the first, documented clergy to evangelize Christianity in the continental United States; “monks and priests” charged with “the conversion of that land and province.” Hernán Ponce de León, Ponce’s young nephew, and Juan Garrido, the black “conquistador” who would later fight in Mexico under the command of Cortés, were also part of the colony.
After four months of building and planting, on about July 1, the “First Colony” was overrun and destroyed by native warriors. As the Spaniards fought their way to their ships, Ponce was badly wounded in the thigh; the survivors sailed to Havana, Cuba. Ponce’s nephew, Hernán, died of his wounds aboard ship and was buried at sea.
In early July 1521, Ponce, the “First Conquistador” and first governor of Puerto Rico, of the Bahamas, and of Florida, died of his wounds in Havana at the approximate age of 47. His body was taken to Puerto Rico and buried before the high altar of the Dominican church in San Juan.
In 1908, Juan Ponce de León’s remains were relocated to the Cathedral of San Juan Bautista in San Juan, Puerto Rico. The epitaph on his sepulcher reads: Here rest the bones of a valiant lion — mightier in deeds than in name.
Florida Living History, Inc. is a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization dedicated to educating the public about Florida’s colonial and territorial history, from the time of Don Juan Ponce de León’s first landing in 1513 to the time of Florida’s statehood in 1845, using living history programs, demonstrations, and re-created portrayals of significant historical events.