Who is Juan Ponce de Leon?

    By VISIT FLORIDA staff

    Who is Juan Ponce de León? His accidental discovery of Florida led to his settling the coast.

    On Easter Sunday, March 27, 1513, a small fleet of three Spanish ships first sighted land off the Atlantic coast of the peninsula they would name Florida, in honor of the feast day (Pasqua Florida) on which it was discovered. In command of the expedition was Juan Ponce de León, veteran of the second expedition of Christopher Columbus, recently-deposed governor of San Juan del Puerto Rico, and holder of a royal contract issued the previous year to grant him the right to settle and govern the fabled island of Bimini, and any nearby lands he might discover.

    Ponce's fleet of three ships had sailed from Puerto Rico just over three weeks earlier, passing northwest through the Bahamas on their way to the as-yet unexplored territory to the west. Though surprised by the unexpected land mass of the North American continent, over the course of the next two and a half months following first landfall, Ponce's fleet scoured the entire southern coast of Florida, rounding the Florida Keys and reaching the west coast in Calusa Indian territory before returning to Puerto Rico via Cuba.

    In addition to making several landfalls during which the Spanish skirmished with the native inhabitants of this new land, Ponce is also credited with discovering the currents of the Gulf Stream, which would ultimately shape Spanish maritime fortunes through the Florida Straits for centuries to come.

    In the aftermath of his accidental discovery of the "Island" of Florida, Ponce quickly moved to consolidate and reinforce his claim to the new land, obtaining the title of Adelantado of both Florida and Bimini, and a revised contract with the Spanish crown, in the fall of 1514. At the same time, however, the new Adelantado of Florida was also named captain of an armada commissioned to search out and destroy the Carib Indians in the lower Caribbean, a task which ultimately occupied the next six years, delaying his return to Florida.

    During this period, however, other Spaniards began to encroach on Ponce's newly-discovered territories. Exploratory slaving expeditions to the mainland were increasingly common during these years, including at least two that apparently reached the northern coast of what would become greater Spanish Florida by 1516. At least two formal complaints against such activities were lodged by Juan Ponce de León by 1517, including a lawsuit against Diego Velázquez, lieutenant governor of Cuba, who was accused of having brought back 300 Indian slaves from the islands of Bimini and Florida, at that time under Ponce's jurisdiction.

    It was only in February of 1521 that Juan Ponce de León finally launched his second expedition to Florida, this time with two ships and colonists planning to settle along the coast as originally instructed. Still not entirely sure that Florida was a separate land mass from Cuba (despite Alonso de Pineda's 1519 circumnavigation of the Gulf of Mexico), Ponce de León led his ships back to the site of earlier skirmishes along the southwest Florida coast.

    While primary accounts of this expedition are unavailable, secondary sources agree that the nearby Indians once again attacked the Spanish not long after their arrival, wounding Ponce himself and forcing a retreat to the nearby Spanish town of Havana, where the expedition's leader soon perished from his wound. His remains were later transferred to San Juan, Puerto Rico, where they lie today.

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