Voyages, Settlements and Discovery
story & photography by Raphael Cosme
Ponce: The Young Warrior
Juan Ponce de Leon discovered Florida in 1513, but it was not until the 19th century that historians around the world started going deep into Ponce’s life and his voyages to America. We don’t know how important the discovery of Florida by the Spaniard Ponce de Leon was to the Founding Fathers, but we know for sure that he was a great explorer.
In an ancient village in the northern part of Spain, in the province or kingdom of Leon, Juan Ponce de Leon first saw the light in 1474, on Saint John’s Day. It was a traditional Spanish custom to name the new born with saint day’s name, thus he was given the name Juan. After decades of research, historians point to Santervas de Campos as the great explorer’s birthplace, which is not a town but a section of the country, embracing some thirty or forty villages in what is now the province of Palencia, formerly included in the old kingdom of Leon.
The identity of his parents is still unclear, but it appears the family was a member of a distinguished and influential noble family, Don Rodrigo Ponce de Leon, Marquis of Cadiz. Don Rodrigo Ponce de Leon was the proprietor of land where people lived under a semi-feudal style existence. He was one of the heroes of the wars to expel the Moors in the Battle of Alhama in 1482.
In 1967, Dr. Charles W. Arnade wrote a publication entitled “Who Was Juan Ponce de Leon?” Arnade recorded that Ponce’s birth certificate was never located, but a few documents mention the names of Pedro Ponce de Leon as his legitimate father and Doña Leonor de Figueroa as his mother. Most historians in the late 20th century agreed that the full name of the Adelantado de la Florida is Juan Ponce de Leon y Figueroa.
Ponce became the page of Pedro Nuñez de Guzman, a Spanish knight from the Order of Calatrava, and received education in literature and armory. Some manuscripts rescued from Havana, Cuba showed that Ponce was received into the Castilian court and acted as page to Prince Ferdinand, who later ascended the throne as monarch of Castile and Aragon. Ponce became the consort of Queen Isabella, and this title was responsible for his later advancement as explorer.
At the age of nineteen, Juan Ponce de Leon accompanied Christopher Columbus as one of the two hundred “gentlemen volunteers” in the second voyage to the New World in September, 1493. The fleet of 1400 men reached the Caribbean by November, visiting several islands before arriving at their primary destination, La Española. They anchored on the west coast of a large island that the natives called Boriquen, which eventually became known as Puerto Rico. This was Ponce de Leon’s first glimpse of the tropical place that would play a major role in his future.
After the failure of Christopher Columbus first settlement, La Navidad, he decided to build to the northeast of La Española (today’s Dominican Republic) the city of Isabella, in honor of the Queen of Spain. It became the first city complex in the New World. According to Dr. Kathleen Deagan, from the University of Florida, Juan Ponce de Leon lived at La Isabela for a period of time.
Conquistadores of the Indies
At the beginning of 1502, Juan Ponce de Leon joined the largest fleet of the new governor of La Española, Nicolas de Ovando. Ovando began the inland exploration of La Española with the native Tainos, peacefully at first, but soon, near Saona Island on the eastern side of La Española, groups of Tainos, under the command of Cacique of Yguanama, killed all the Spaniards as they disembarked. Furious, Nicolas de Ovando sent Juan de Esquivel to Higuey, and, in a bloody battle, destroyed and killed most of the Tainos who had revolted and ordered their leader, Cacique Yguanama, hung in justice for the killing of the Spaniards. Esquivel succeed in controlling the Tainos, and replaced the Indian chief with Cacique Cotubanama.
In 1504, Ovando learned of another Indian revolt and sent Juan Ponce de Leon with an Encomienda (commission), including Friar Bartolome de las Casas and 400 men. Ponce succeeded and gained back control over the Indians in a short period of time. The good news reached Ovando, and in gratitude for his victory, Ponce was appointed Lieutenant and Captain of the Villa of Salvaleon de Higuey. Ponce de Leon received two hundred and twenty-five acres to build a stone fortress. After the Spaniards conquered the Tainos, Ponce de Leon was appointed Governor as his reward. As the new governor, he ordered the construction of a port at the mouth of Yuma River, for all goods coming from Spain to the New World. Ponce de Leon also converted the stone fortress into his permanent residence, adding some domestic features. He brought his wife, Leonor, and their four children, Juana, Isabel, Maria and the youngest, Luis, to live with him.
On June 15, 1508, Governor Ovando signed a contract with Ponce de Leon to colonize the island of San Juan Bautista, as Columbus named it in 1493. Ponce organized an expedition with his ship “Carabela,” and invited Juan Gonzales, as a translator for the Tainos, to be part of the conquest campaign.
On August 10, 1508, Ponce reached the coast of present–day Puerto Rico and encountered a Taino valley in Guayanilla and the Cacique Taino Agueybana. After a warm welcome and a short stay, he sailed northeast around Guaorabo River. He encountered a few colonists from the ship “Yañes Pinzon,” which failed to settle the first city of San German, due to many attacks from the Caribe Indians. On August 12, Ponce de Leon landed at the mouth of the Toa River on the northern coast, about 10 miles from the present capital of San Juan. Ponce found a fertile land, and he began to build the city of “La Granja del Rey” and a port. The frequent flooding and humidity from the river, the dense forest, and the lack of food forced the Spaniards to move from the valley to an area across a large bay (today, Bahia de San Juan) at the Taino Cacique Mabo valley in Guaynabo, which means “the place with fresh waters,” and founded La Villa de Caparra, the first European settlement in Puerto Rico. Ponce de Leon resided there as first Spanish Governor of Puerto Rico. Other Spaniards built houses in La Isleta (Old San Juan), and two new port sites were built at the harbor for all goods coming from Spain, which escalated the conquest of the entire island of Puerto Rico.
Ponce de Leon and Colon’s Legal Battle
In 1509, Ponce de Leon, the recently appointed governor of the island of San Juan Bautista (Puerto Rico), was replaced by Diego Colon, the result of a legal battle in the Castile court. Later, King Ferdinand the Catholic gave Ponce de Leon the San Juan Coat of Arms with the Monarch’s emblem. Meanwhile, Diego sent two of his close officials, Juan and Martin Ceron, to rule the island of Puerto Rico. They temporarily took over the Ponce residence in Salvaleon de Higuey in La Española.
On July 10, 1510, Ponce de Leon finalized the construction of the settlement named La Villa de Caparra in San Juan Bautista. The new Ponce house was built with wood and stone; it looked directly at the plaza and was the highest home in the village. La Villa de Caparra was a wood fortress government complex, used to store documents from the colonization and to protect colonists from the Caribe Indians. It had a public plaza, bohio houses, a church, animal stable, and a marketplace for visitors. The new colony was formed by Indians and Spaniards, some of whom came from noble families, as well as priests with the interest of bringing the Dominic Order to the island.
In 1511, the name Villa de Caparra was changed to the City of Puerto Rico, the same year Taino Indians started a rebellion that resulted in the burning of some Spanish missions. Ponce de Leon led a large battle against the Indians, succeeding over them. Months later, Diego Colon won the court battle over Puerto Rico, resulting in Ponce de Leon’s political weakness in the Caribbean. King Ferdinand wrote a letter to Ponce, inviting him to explore the mysterious islands to the north (the Bimini islands) and Ponce agreed.
By February, 1512, King Ferdinand signed “The Capitulaciones,” a license for Ponce de Leon to explore and colonize the island of Bimini. It contained more than ten stipulations, but the main one stated all expenses for the voyage and crew salaries must come from Ponce de Leon’s own assets in Salvaleon, and that he must depart by February 29, 1513. In October, 1512 Ponce de Leon was financially ready to explore Bimini.
By December, 1512, Juan Ceron ended his term as governor of Puerto Rico and Diego Colon appointed Rodrigo Moscoso, who arrived at the port of San German with the ship “Santa Maria de la Consolacion,” the ship that months later Ponce would use to discover La Florida.
Voyage to Bimini and the Magic Fountain
Ponce de Leon’s knowledge of cartography and navigation systems helped him to synchronize the expedition to Bimini and the magical fountain mentioned by the Tainos.
According to Doctor Ricardo Alegria, former director of the Puerto Rico Institute of Culture, the planning of the expedition to the island of Bimini took place in Caparra and the Salvaleon de Higuey (Dominican Republic). Much of the cargo was livestock, gold mining equipment and comestibles such as corn, salt pork, and cassava bread. Alegria said, “After all legal fights with Diego Colon, details of the Bimini expedition most likely were kept in secret to avoid new candidates for the same expedition. Some of the documents of this account are held in the Puerto Rico dioceses.”
The only known publication of the voyage of Ponce de Leon is the one by Antonio Herrera de Tordecillas, first published in Madrid, Spain, in 1601, which gives a day by day account of the expedition, until Ponce de Leon reached the coast of Florida at the latitude 30.08 North.
According to Herrera notes, Ponce departed March 3, 1513 from San German (Aguada, Puerto Rico) with three caravels: “Santa Maria de la Consolacion,” “Santiago,” and “San Cristobal.” He sailed to the Turks & Caicos Islands chain, and from there he reached the island of Guanahani (San Salvador), the same island where Columbus landed at the time of the discovery of the New World. Ponce sailed northwest until he reached the coast of Florida, on Easter Sunday, March 27, 1513, and continued north for two days, encountering bad weather which kept the fleet far from shore in order to avoid crashing with the reef. When the sky cleared on April 2, they approached the coast, and at noon, latitude was read on the chart 30 grades and 8 minutes (that location is close to Ponte Vedra shores), then sailed a few miles north for the rest of the day (probably close to the Saint Johns River). On April 3, Ponce sailed south and anchored.
Recent historian’s analysis of the Herrera notes shows that Ponce may have landed in the latitudes between 30.08 and 30.00, which takes in all the coast of Saint Augustine from Ponte Vedra and the mouth of Matanzas River.
For more than a century, most historians think Ponce de Leon and his crew landed near what is today The Fountain of Youth site on April 3, 1513. Historians also believe that later in that morning, Ponce ships were “seeking harbor” and anchored “closed to land,” remaining there for five days. Ponce named the land La Florida and claimed it for the Spanish crown.
Good News for King Ferdinand
On September 30, 1514, Ponce de Leon went to the court in Valladolid, Spain to announce the success of his explorations. Due to his success, the King appointed Ponce governor of Bimini and La Florida. In addition, Ponce’s former titles on San Juan Bautista were ratified: Captain-General of San Juan Bautista for life, perpetual member of the City Council, and Chief Justice of San Juan Bautista. Ponce was also reimbursed for his earlier expenses, made captain of an armada to fight Caribe Indians, and was given civil and criminal jurisdiction over the Islas Barlovento.
Ponce de Leon initiated a campaign to build a Spanish settlement in La Florida. But for the colonists on the island of Puerto Rico, Ponce de Leon’s ambitions to colonize overseas posed a threat to an effective government in La Villa de Caparra. Ponce de Leon appointed his son-in-law, Juan Garcia Troche (Juana’s husband), treasurer of Ponce’s affairs, who recommended the transfer of the main city of Puerto Rico to the Isleta (today, old San Juan), across the bay. This was after receiving dozens of reports from colonists of the poor trade of goods caused by insect infestation, damaged roads and long distances from ports.
In 1519, Garcia Troche was ordered to build a wooden house for Ponce de Leon’s family, that soon was burned down by the Caribe Indians (author exhibit: “Treasures of Juan Ponce de Leon” at the Fountain of Youth). King Carlos V decided to reinforce the Spanish empire in the Caribbean and ordered the construction of a fort house, Casa Blanca, for the Ponce de Leon family and a war fortress for the defense of the new city in the Isleta.
In 1521, Ponce de Leon made landfall in the vicinity of Charlotte Harbor on Florida’s west coast. An encounter with the Calusa Indians soon turned hostile, and Ponce de Leon was wounded with an arrow. He sailed to Cuba to receive medical attention, but died from his wound in Havana. Many centuries later, the Ponce de Leon family returned his remains to the Cathedral of San Juan Bautista in Puerto Rico. Today, visitors from around the world visit the Adelantado memorial mausoleum.
The family of Ponce de Leon lived at the Casa Blanca site in Puerto Rico for over 250 years, until the Spanish crown decided to take over the property in 1772 for housing the military engineers that built the fortified wall to protect the city from pirates and enemies of the Spanish crown.
Author of this article: Raphael Cosme
Archaeologist and Historian Raphael Cosme has been researching and investigating Spanish colonial artifacts for the last 25 years in Puerto Rico. In 1978, Cosme made a great discovery of artifacts associated to Ponce de Leon. In 2008, Dr. Ricardo Alegria agreed that these artifacts are to be considered associated with Juan Ponce de Leon and his descendants until proven the contrary. The site has been identified as the best archaeological find of all time in the Caribbean. Now the “Treasures of Juan Ponce de Leon” are on display at the Ponce De Leon’s Fountain of Youth and the Old Jail and Florida Heritage Museum.