Born: c. 1474 in Santervas de Campos, Castile (Spain)
Died: July 1521 in Havana, Cuba
Best known for: Exploring Florida and searching for the Fountain of Youth
Juan Ponce de Leon was born in the Spanish kingdom of Castile around the year 1474. While still a young boy, Juan went to work as a squire for a knight named Don Pedro Nunez de Guzman. As a squire, he helped take care of the knight's armor and horses. He attended to de Guzman during battles and basically was a servant for the knight.
As Juan grew older, the knight taught him how to fight. He learned how to fight from a horse and took part in battles. At the time, the leaders of Spain (King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella) wanted all of Spain to become Christian. Juan was part of the army that defeated the Moors in 1492 to bring the entire Iberian Peninsula under Spanish control.
The New World
After the war was over, Ponce de Leon was looking for his next adventure. He joined Christopher Columbus on his second voyage to the New World. Juan ended up as a military leader on the Island of Hispaniola. After helping to crush a native rebellion, Juan was made governor over a section of the island and given a large portion of land. He would soon become rich farming the land and selling produce to ships traveling back to Spain.
In 1506, Ponce de Leon decided to begin exploring. He went to the Island of Puerto Rico where he discovered gold and fertile land. In 1508, he returned with the king's blessing and established the first Spanish settlement in Puerto Rico. The king soon named Ponce de Leon as the first governor of Puerto Rico.
The Spanish, under Ponce de Leon, made the local natives (called the Tainos) work for them as slaves. They forced the Tainos to farm the land and mine for gold. Between the harsh treatment of the Spanish soldiers and new diseases (like smallpox) brought by the settlers, at least 90% of the Tainos died.
After several years of politics in Spain, Ponce de Leon was replaced as governor of Puerto Rico. The king, however, wanted to reward Juan for his service. Juan was granted an expedition to explore islands north of Puerto Rico. In 1513, Ponce de Leon headed north with 200 men and three ships (Santiago, San Cristobal, Santa Maria de la Consolacion).
On April 2, 1513, Juan spotted land. He thought it was another island, but it was really big. Because the land was beautiful and he discovered the land around Easter (which was called Pascua Florida, meaning the Festival of Flowers), he called the land "La Florida."
The expedition continued to explore and map out the coast of Florida. They discovered that it must be a huge island. They also found that the natives were quite fierce. Several times when they landed on shore, they had to fight for their lives.
The Fountain of Youth
Legend has it that Ponce de Leon was searching Florida for the "Fountain of Youth." This magical fountain was supposed to make anyone who drank from it young again. However, there is little evidence that this was an actual goal of the expedition. The fountain was not mentioned in any of Ponce de Leon's writings and only became associated with the expedition after his death.
After the expedition, Ponce de Leon returned to Spain to tell the king about his discovery. He then returned to Florida in 1521 with the hopes of establishing a colony. However, not long after landing in Florida, the colonists were attacked by local natives. Ponce de Leon was struck on the thigh with a poisoned arrow. He died a few days later, after retreating to Havana, Cuba.
Interesting Facts about Juan Ponce de Leon
Juan married an innkeeper's daughter on Hispaniola named Leonora. They had three daughters and one son.
Ponce de Leon was the first European to discover the Gulf Stream (a powerful current in the Atlantic Ocean) during his 1512 expedition.
The arrow that killed Ponce de Leon was poisoned with the sap of the manchineel tree.
His tomb is at the San Juan Cathedral in Puerto Rico.
He named a small group of islands near the Florida Keys the "Dry Tortugas" because they had lots of sea turtles (tortugas), but little fresh water.