A Spanish explorer, Juan Ponce de L©on conquered and settled the island of Puerto Rico. He is most famous for his futile and ill-fated search for the
legendary fountain of youth in Florida.
Born into a powerful and noble Spanish family in 1460, Ponce de L©on was appointed a page at the court of Ferdinand of Aragon as a youth. He was also
part of the military expedition that conquered Granada in Southern Spain in 1492, ending the 700-year-long Moorish presence on the Iberian Peninsula.
His career as an explorer may have begun just after that, as he was believed to be a member of Christopher Columbus’s second expedition to the
Western Hemisphere. By 1502, Ponce de L©on found himself living in Hispaniola, the base of the Spanish empire in its earliest years, where he served as
a captain and provincial governor of the eastern half of the island under Governor Nicols de Ovando.
When rumors came back of gold on the nearby island of Puerto Rico, Ponce de L©on organized an expedition that explored and conquered the island
from 1508 to 1509. He also established Puerto Rico’s first settlement at Caparra, just outside modern San Juan. Appointed governor of the island, he was
soon removed by rivals and returned to Hispaniola.
Encouraged by the Spanish government, Ponce de L©on followed up on a new rumor of the existence of a fountain of youth on Bimini Island in the
Bahamas. Once again outfitting an expedition with his own money, he erred in his navigation and landed in Florida around Easter 1513, near the presentday
city of St. Augustine. He named the territory Florida, after the Spanish word for the Easter holiday, Pascua Florida.
Continuing on his search for the fountain of youth, he sailed down the Atlantic coast of the Florida Peninsula, through the Florida Keys, and up the Gulf
Coast. His expedition proving fruitless, he returned to Puerto Rico and eventually Spain. There, he won the court’s approval to serve as military governor
of Bimini and Florida in 1514.
It took Ponce de L©on seven years to raise a second expedition for Florida, and he finally sailed there in 1521. Landing at Charlotte Harbor on the
peninsula’s Gulf Coast, he encountered hostile members of the Seminole tribe and was wounded by an arrow. Retreating to Cuba, he died in Havana
later that year.
See also: Exploration; Florida; Puerto Rico; Spanish Colonies on Mainland North America (Chronology).
Fuson, Robert H. Juan Ponce de Le³n and the Spanish Discovery of Puerto Rico and Florida. Blacksburg, VA: McDonald & Woodward, 2000.