Who Was Juan Ponce de León?
Juan Ponce de León y Figueroa was a Spaniard conqueror and explorer. If you are wondering where did Juan Ponce de León explored, he discovered Florida and Puerto Rico for the Spanish empire. After this sentence, there are many doubts about many Juan Ponce de León facts.
History cannot tell perfectly who his parents were, nor exactly where or when he was born because no historian has found a paper that certifies this information. There are some hypotheses however.
In this entry, we are going to learn all about Juan Ponce de León, the discoverer of Puerto Rico and Florida, so if you are eager for a little bit of a history capsule, keep scrolling down and join me on discovering Juan Ponce de León.
Juan Ponce de León’s Early Life
Santervás de Campos
There is not an official date to say that Juan Ponce de León was born. Some historians say it was 1460 and some others that it was 1470. Others say that Juan Ponce de León was born in a small town called Santervás de Campos, in the province of Valladolid, in the Autonomic Community of Castilla y León in Spain.
Currently, Santervás de Campos has 113 inhabitants. Santervás de Campos is 179 mi (288 km) away from Spain’s capital, Madrid, a 3-hour-car ride, and the town is so small that it does not have a train station.
The (Possible) Son of a Count
No historian has found documents that contain the official names of Juan Ponce de León’s parents, but some of them have the hypothesis that Juan Ponce de León y Figueroa was son to Juan Ponce de León y Ayala—a Spanish count who was born in Sevilla (Seville) in 1400 and had more than 20 children outside of marriage.
Later on, Ponce de León y Figueroa went to Seville and a relative of his, Ramiro Núñez, educated him in that Spanish town. Growing up he became paje (page) to Fernando el Católico (Ferdinand the Catholic)—King of Aragón, Sicily, Naples, Castilla, Navarra, and Sardinia.
Juan Ponce de León served in the army for 10 years and he fought in a battle to conquer el reino de Granada (the kingdom of Granada)—a battle that the Spaniards had to free Granada (the last muslim city in Europe) from the hands of the moors. On January 2nd, 1492 Ponce de León marched through the gates of Granada, and in the crowd there was Cristóbal Colón (Cristopher Colombus.)
FUN FACT: If you ever walk El camino de Santiago de Madrid (Madrid’s Saint James’ Path) you will walk across Santervás de Campos where you can visit a museum dedicated to the Spanish conquistador.
Juan Ponce de León Overseas
Historians are not sure, but they hypothesise that Juan Ponce de León accompanied Christopher Colombus on his 2nd trip to the Americas in 1493. The other hypothesis is that Juan Ponce de León accompanied Nicolás de Obando—the governor and administrator of La Española (currently the Dominican Republic and Haiti) island—between 1502 and 1509.
The Route With Columbus
If Juan Ponce de León sailed with Cristopher Colombus he took the following route:
On September 2nd 1493 they sailed from Cádiz, Southern Spain and arrived exactly one month later to Gran Canaria (Grand Canary Island.) On October 13 1493, they sailed from the Canary Islands and on November 3rd they arrived at La deseada (La Désidare.)
They sailed across the Caribbean seas and saw Las Antillas Menores (the Lesser Antilles). When they were in the Virgin Islands archipelago, they saw 12 women and 2 men who had been expelled from Borinquen (currently Puerto Rico.) They spoke with Columbus, Ponce de León, and their crew and led them to Borinquen. On November 19th 1493, Christopher Colombus named the island San Juan Bautista (Saint John the Baptist.)
If he sailed with de Ovando, he sailed with 32 ships and 1,500 Spaniards to conquer el nuevo mundo (the new world.) where he arrived at La Isla Gran Turca (Grand Turk Island) in Cockburn Town.
Juan Ponce de León, Governor of Higüey
In 1502, Ponce de León helped de Obando to stop an indigenous rebellion. Thanks to that, de Obando rewarded him and named him the governor of the province of Higüey, in La Española island, in the (current) Altagracia province in Eastern Dominican Republic.
Ponce de León governed Higüey for 7 years where he rented indigenous people to search for gold and to harvest yucca, with which he made bread, which he sold to the Spanish ships passing by going back to Europe.
Ponce de León became rich and built a Villa which he called Salva León where he lived with his wife, Leonor, and four children, Luis, Juana, María and Isabel.
Juan Ponce de León, From Higüey to Puerto Rico
While he was living in Higüey, Ponce de León heard rumors that Borinquen was full of gold and so he asked permission to explore the island. On August 12th, 1508, Ponce de León sailed to Borinquen. In Borinquen he established the first settlement, San Juan—the current capital of Puerto Rico. Ponce de León acquired rapid control of the Island and he received the title of governor in 1509.
In 1511 El Tribunal Supremo de Madrid (Madrid’s Supreme Court) recognised his rights to Diego Colón—Christopher Colombus’ son—and the King and Queen had to take off the title of governor from Ponce de León. However, Fernando el Católico (Ferdinand the Catholic), King of Spain then, sent men, cattle and horses to Ponce de León, and gave the place its own coat of arms, and thanks to this, Ponce de León called a villa he had in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Afterwards, he asked King Ferdinand to let him explore the areas of northern Cuba.
Juan Ponce de León Discovering Florida and the Fountain of Youth
In 1511, Ponce de León had written to the King expressing interest in Las islas Lucayas (the Lucayan archipelago). Ponce de León had heard from indigenous tribes that the fountain of youth was hiding somewhere in Bimini (current Bahamas), and whoever drank from the fountain could remain young forever.
In February 1512, the King granted permission to the Spanish conquistador to sail there and search for the famous fountain of youth, but clearly, Ponce de León did not find such a thing.
One of the biggest accomplishments by Juan Ponce de León was discovering Florida,a little bit north of Bimini. In 1513, Juan Ponce de León sailed northbound with three ships and arrived at San Salvador (Watling Island).
On April 2nd 1513 he finally disembarked in Florida, although he did not know it yet, between Cabo Cañaveral (Cape Canaveral) and Jacksonville. Six days later he claimed all of that land for the Spanish Empire and he called it La isla de Florida (The island of Florida) because it was the Catholic festivity of La Pascua Florida (Easter.) On June 4th he reached Tampa and sailed back to the Bahamas.
A few days later, while sailing, Ponce de León also discovered La Corriente del Golfo (The Gulf Stream).
After all his adventures he went back to Spain to let King Ferdinand know that he had discovered Florida. Thanks to this, the Catholic King named him adelantado (literally advanced), justicia mayor (mayor justice), deslindador de terrenos (land delimiter) and captain of the army against the Caribbeans in Puerto Rico in 1514.
FUN FACT: In Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides they mention a map that Ponce de León wrote that contains the exact position of the fountain of youth.
The Death of Juan Ponce de León
In 1521 Ponce de León organized a trip to colonize Florida, after suffering several attacks by the Indians. Alongside 200 people and 50 horses he sailed there. He built a settlement near Charlotte Harbor and lived there for around 5 months, until the Calusa tribe attacked him and his men and wounded Ponce de León with a poisoned arrow in the shoulder. Ponce de León and the settlers ran off to La Havana where Ponce de León died of his wounds in July 1521.
Spanish in the U.S.!
No doubt Juan Ponce de León was an interesting man who helped the Spanish Empire expand upon what are now United States territories. Spain and the U.S. have a long and complicated history, since States such as Texas, California, New Mexico, Arizona and many more, (including Alaska!), were once part of El virreinato de la Nueva España (New Spain’s viceroyalty).
While the most spoken language in the U.S. is English, there are currently 53 million Spanish speakers in the U.S. There are more Spanish speakers than in Spain! If you want to be able to talk to them and understand all about the Hispanic culture, sign up for a free Spanish class today!
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