Juan Ponce de Leon conquered the island of Puerto Rico, was the first to explore Florida, mapped its coast and made a failed attempt to start a settlement there. Ponce de Leon was born about 1460 in San Tervas de Campos, Spain. As a young man he joined the war to conquer Granada, the last Moorish State on the Iberian Peninsula. He first visited the New World on Columbus's second voyage in 1493 and settled there in 1502. He and his family settled on an island in the Caribbean named Hispaniola (present-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic). He became a military commander and helped conquer the native Tainos tribe of the eastern part of Hispaniola and was rewarded with the Governorship of the Province of Higuey that was created there. He forced the Tainos to work in the mines and to construct fortifications. The Tainos died in great numbers after exposure to European diseases. Ponce de Leon became rich while serving as Governor, married a Spanish woman named Leonore and had two daughters and one son.
In 1506 after the death of Christopher Columbus Spanish authorities refused to grant his son Diego Columbus lifetime governorship of his father's discoveries. Spanish Crown had selected de Leon to colonize and govern Puerto Rico. Diego took his claim to the top court in Madrid and won his rights. De Leon was removed from office in 1511. Not wanting to serve Diego, de Leon obtained title to explore areas north of Cuba. Ponce le Leon searched for an island said to lie north of Cuba called Bimini. There were stories of a Fountain of Youth. A legendary, magical spring whose water was believed to make older people young again and to cure all illness. He left Puerto Rico in March 1513 sailing northwest skirting the Bahamas. He named the beautiful mainland Tierra La Florida or Land of Flowers. He landed just north of present-day St Augustine and stayed for six days.
De Leon and his pilot, Anton de Alaminos, made several more voyages of discovery in the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico, then followed the coast southward, found the Florida Keys, and explored Florida's west coast northward to Pensacola Bay and then returned to Puerto Rico.
The expedition was a most important one. Not only was Ponce de Leon the first European to visit the territory of what is now the United States, but he had found the Bahama Channel, which gave a shorter route between Cuba and Europe. Alaminos, who had noticed the unusually strong contrary current at Florida's south coast is now considered the discoverer of the Gulf Stream.
The king honored Ponce de Leon with knighthood and governorship of Florida. In 1521 he left from Puerto Rico with an expedition to colonize what de Leon still thought was the island of Florida. He landed on the west coast and attempted to establish a colony. The colony was soon attacked by the Calusa Indians and had to be abandoned. De Leon had been wounded and died shortly after his arrival back in Havana, Cuba in July 1521.
- W.J. van Balen: Pioniers. Amsterdam: Elsevier(1940)
- Richard E. Bohlander (ed): World Explorers and Discoverers. New York: Macmillan(1992)
- Catholic Encyclopedis:Juan Ponce de Leon