Ponce de León's Discovery of Florida

Many centuries ago, people in Europe did not know that the Americas even existed. They did want to explore new lands however, so they sent out teams of explorers by ship. One of these men was called Juan Ponce de León. To date, historians have not been able to find any official records of his life. However, newer evidence shows that he was most likely born around 1474. He came from a noble family from a village called Santervás de Campos in the north of Spain. Spanish explorers like him were called conquistadors. Let’s follow Ponce de León to learn how he discovered Florida!

First Voyages

Christopher Columbus, the famous Italian explorer, had already completed one journey to America in 1492. The following year, Ponce de León joined him on another voyage there. When they arrived at the Caribbean in November, they stopped at a place called Hispaniola (known today as the Dominican Republic). According to historians, he most likely left the area for a while, but then later returned by 1502. After living in Hispaniola for a while, Ponce de León was made a provincial governor. By 1506, he started to explore Borinquen (Puerto Rico) and carried out many exploratory missions there. The locals, known as the Taínos, had spoken about large amounts of gold in Puerto Rico. Sure enough, when Ponce de León continued his search, he found huge amounts of gold deposits in the earth! He forced the natives to work in mines so that they could extract the gold. Although he left for a while, Ponce de León came back to Borinquen in 1508 and created a new colony there. He continued as the governor over the next two years, but was then replaced when the King gave his position to the son of Christopher Columbus.

Finding Florida

Ponce de León was unhappy when he lost his position as governor. He decided to continue exploring towards the north. The natives had incredible tales of a fountain of youth, and Ponce de León was determined to find it! The legend claimed that the water could turn old people young. In early 1513, his ships approached land. It was so beautiful that Ponce de León claimed the area for Spain and called it La Florida, which means “place of flowers” in Spanish. He continued sailing and exploring this entire eastern coast. At one point, he found an island where there wasn’t any fresh water at all, but it did have scores of turtles! He named it “Dry Tortugas” (tortugas means turtles).

Discovery of the Calusa Tribe

Of course, Europeans were not the first people to live in the Americas. Ponce de León realized this when he started exploring Florida’s west coast. When his team headed further into the land from the Charlotte Harbor, they found a tribe of natives. This tribe was called the Calusa Indians. The Calusa were quite fierce and the explorers were afraid. They ran back towards the ships and returned to Puerto Rico.

Another Voyage to Florida

It was in 1521 that Ponce de León decided to go back to Florida. This time, he wanted to colonize the area, as he had done with Puerto Rico. He brought two hundred people with him, along with plenty of horses and the tools and plants or seeds that they would need for crops. He planned to build a colony of farmers and agriculture. After landing at a point between Estero Bay and Charlotte Harbor, Ponce de León and his large group started moving inland. They were completely unprepared for the Calusa tribe, who attacked them without any warning! Ponce de León was wounded due to an arrow that landed in his thigh. He and his group of settlers had to change their plans. They made the decision to quit Florida and return to Cuba. By now Ponce de León was around sixty-one years old, and sadly he died as a result of the serious wound in his leg. We still remember him as a bold, fearless explorer who discovered most of Florida, and his brave quest for the Fountain of Youth.


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