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500 Years of Florida

La Florida was named in 1513 by
Don Juan Ponce de Leon y Figueroa

 (1474-1521)

The great discoverer, soldier, explorer, settler, town planner, judge, governor, council member, administrator, rancher, adventurer, founder, farmer, mayor and the first Conquistador, Don Juan Ponce de Leon y Figueroa, or Juan Ponce de Leon was born around the year 1474 (1460 is referred to in some documents) in Santervas de Campos, Province of Valladolid, Castile and León, Spain. 

Born into an ancient and noble family and being a member of the House of Toral, Ponce de Leon’s surname was acquired through the marriage of one of the Ponce’s to Dona Aldonza de Leon.  His father was Pedro, Fourth Lord of Villagarcia and his mother was Dona Leonor de Figueroa.  Ponce in his younger years was a page in the royal court of Aragon.  He trained under a noble relative Pedro Nunez de Guzman, who as an older soldier trained de Leon for five years in the military arts.  They fought together in the campaigns against the Moors including the final great battle in Granada.   After the completion of the Reconquista in 1492, he traveled to Cadiz, Spain where he joined Columbus preparing for a second voyage to the New World.

Ponce de Leon did begin his career of exploration in 1493 as a part of Columbus' second expedition to the New World.  It has been said that the purpose of the second voyage by Columbus was to colonize the New World but also to convert natives to Catholicism.  This expedition set sail on September 25, 1493 with a fleet of 17 ships.  The ships were suited for 1,000 people, but instead carried about 1,200, and possibly as many as 1,500, making conditions on ship horrid.  On November 27th, 1493, they discovered the island of San Juan Bautista or St. John the Baptist, which is now present day Puerto Rico.

There is a period from around 1493 to 1502 where records did not show any adventurous activities by Ponce de Leon.  However, in 1502 he was in the West Indies as a military captain serving under Nicolás de Ovando, Governor of Hispaniola.   As a reward for suppressing an Indian mutiny, Ponce de León was rewarded with land and named by Ovando to be the provincial governor of the eastern part of Higuey in Hispaniola now known as the Dominican Republic.

Ponce de Leon participated in the encomiendo/repartimiento system which granted him lands and the right to exact labor and tribute from the natives to work the farms.  The repartimiento system best offered the natives wages, housing, protection, rations and instruction in the Catholic faith in turn for their work.  The de Leon farm was approximately 225 acres which raised pigs, yucca, sweet potatoes, vegetables, cattle and horses.  He raised enough yucca to make cassava bread which became a staple that outlasted the hardtack biscuits used aboard ships going to and from Spain.  Ponce de Leon, as a farmer, was innovative and created a system to raise yucca for cassava bread.  Thy system was known as montones or ‘little mountains.  The plants survived very well on the montones resulting in good crops of yucca.

While in Higuey he founded the towns of Salvaleon, La Navidad and later Nuevo Isabela (Santo Domingo). There in Nuevo Isabela he married Leonora, the daughter of an inn keeper.   They had four children: Juana, Isabela, Maria and Luis.

Hearing persistent reports of gold to be found on Borinquen (Puerto Rico), Ponce de León in 1508–09 explored and settled that island, founding the colony's oldest settlement, Caparra, near what is now San Juan.  He was named acting Governor of the island but was later displaced from the governorship through the political maneuvering of a rival, Diego Columbus, son of Christopher Columbus.   On March 10, 1510, Ponce officially became the first governor of Puerto Rico, Judge and Captain by the order of Queen Juana and King Ferdinand for his major accomplishments in San Juan Bautista and in Higuey. 

By 1511, Ponce’s tenure as Governor was nearing its conclusion.  He was a good administrator, fair, honest and loyal.  He never repeated the mistakes the Castilians had made on Hispaniola.  He was respected by all including the native Indians.  Despite the Indians being parceled out by the repartimiendo system, the Indians were perfectly happy to have the protection from the cannibalistic Caribbe who had a few small villages on the east side of the island and nearby in the Virgin Islands from which they raided other islands in the Caribbean Sea.

Around August 1511, through the King’s royal commissioner Miguel de Pasamonte of Santo Domingo, King Ferdinand encouraged Ponce de León to consider new voyages of discovery.   Pasamonte quietly encouraged Juan Ponce that this voyage could discover vast unexplored-unknown lands occupied by natives… could possibly find the rumored Fountain of Bimini spoken to by the Taino Indians of which the King had great interest.  Ferdinand and Ponce de Leon were already rich men but the lure of gold was also a strong influence for the new expedition. Pasamonte offered Ponce governorship of the any new discoveries as long as they had not been discovered by other Iberians.  In March of 1512 a formal contract was established between Ponce and Castile. The contract or the Patent from the King granted rights and privileges to Ponce and his expedition crew.  (For details see Casa de la Contratacion and Padron Real.)

His first fleet consisted of three ships and a crew of 65.  The 3 ships were the:


 

Santiago

Flagship of the La Flota, the Santiago was owned by Juan Ponce and captained/mastered by Diego Bermudez and piloted by the “best in the West Indies at the time”, Anton de Alaminos.  As the flagship, the Spanish colors were carried up at the bow of the ship.  The caravel is a wide ship with high sides built for sailing in large bodies of water such as the Atlantic.  Being light, the caravel is fast and could carry up to 130 tons of cargo.  The Santiago was about 65 feet (20 meters) long and had three triangular, or lateen, masts.  The ship’s crew consisted of 17-21 persons including one woman, Juana Ruiz.  There were 6 or 7 mariners, 6-8 cabin boys and 3 soldiers.  Aboard was also the mare of Juan Ponce de Leon

Santa Maria de la Consolacion

This ship was owned by de Leon.  Juan Buono de Quexo, an old friend of Ponce de León, was the captain/master of the Santa Maria de la Consolación.  A caravel, it was a huge ship built for cargo and was large enough to carry about thirty-eight passengers.  Among the cabin boys was one named Jorge, who was identified as an African and Juan Gurraido, a free man, who was the first African identified in Puerto Rico and Juan Gonzalez Ponce de Leon, who had served with Juan Ponce in the conquest of Puerto Rico; these are the first Africans in Florida.  Gurraido would later travel with Cortes in the conquest of Mexico.  Among the civilians, there is listed a "Fernando, an Indian."

San Cristobal

A two masted bergantina (brigantine), the San Cristobal, was captained by Juan Perez de Ortubia.  This ship was the smallest in the fleet but due to its size was ideal for exploring close to shore, into shallow inlets, rivers and harbors and carried a crew of about 15.  Ponce de Leon paid for the use of this ship in the exploration.

From the Santiago, on March 3, 1513, Juan Ponce led this privately outfitted expedition from Puerto Rico.  There was one stop at Salvaleon for ships stores and then they sailed northwest toward Benimy (Bimini).   Having set sail on the next adventure, life was hard on these voyages.  Watches were for 4 hours shifts day and night.  Cabin boys often were in charge of the ampolleta or half-hour glass.  Food on these voyages consisted of wine, salted meats, vinegar, cheese, chickpeas, lentils, salt fish and fresh fish, honey, rice, almonds and raisins.  Juan Ponce’s crew was divided between seamen and soldiers and he carried his mare aboard, probably for parade purposes, only to impress the king of the wealthy new land which he expected to find.

The expedition sailed:

  • to El Viego" (Grand Turk) on March 8th  after 3 1/2 days' sail
  • anchored at "Caycos" (E. Caicos) after an easy days' sail on March 9th.
  • anchored at Yaguna" (N. Caicos) on the 10th of March after another easy days' sail
  • hove to off "Amaguayo" (Mayaguana) after an overnight sail around 11-12 March 1513 
  • then passed "Manegua" (Samana Cay) during an overnight sail the next day.  
  • anchored at "Guanahani" (San Salvador) on 14-25 March where the ships were provisioned and re-rigged for an anticipated long ocean passage to Beimeni (Bimini).
  • On 27 March 1513, the fleet passed an "unidentified island" (Eleuthera) on a heading of Northwest.
  • Landed on the 3rd. of April 1513 on the coast of Florida near the site of modern St. Augustine at 30 degrees North Latitude, 8 minutes west (30 8). (Note:  More recent research questions this location and raises the question that the actual landing site is nearer to Cape Canaveral.)  Here on this date a memorable religious ceremony was conducted under Juan Ponce de Leon’s direction naming this land La Floridathe new land was discovered during Easter time (Spanish: Pascua Florida).  The name La Florida depicts the new land as being abounding in lush, colorful and florid vegetation.
  • Set sail on April 8 northward along the coast toward present day Jacksonville only to turn back south the following day.  If the fleet had just sailed further north, the St. Johns River would have been discovered.  That discovery would have readily revealed the river was not of an island but of a vast mainland. 
  • From April 8th the fleet sailed southward until April 20th when they came upon some Indian houses on the shoreline. 
  • The next day, April 21st, they set sail again and encountered a current that was most difficult to sail against even with full sail and strong winds being with them.  Two ships of the fleet anchored close to shore and it was noted that the strong current made the anchor chains quiver.  The San Cristobal being farther out to sea could not find bottom or did not recognize the current, thus were pulled away from the fleet causing the San Cristobal a day of sailing just to join back up with the other ships.  At this point Juan Ponce went ashore and encountered Indians who later attempted to steal their boat.  After a brief skirmish with the natives, they set sail on to the south
  • Continuing south to the Rio de la Cruz (River of the Cross) or the St. Lucie Inlet, here they went ashore to fill their water casks and gather firewood and to await the San Cristobal.  While ashore a stone marker was erected.  The shore party also encountered 60 Indians they took one Indian to teach the language for translation purposes
  • On Sunday May 8th they passed the Cape of Florida encountering even stronger currents causing them to put ashore next to a village named Abaioa (Jupiter). 
  • From Punta de Arrecifes (Reef Point) they sailed south to Key Biscayne, Elliott Key and arrived in the Los Martires (the Martyrs) or the Florida Keys on May 15, 1513.  Ironically this name has survived due to the tremendous loss of lives there.

Charlotte Harbor – 1513:  From the somewhere in the Keys,  on May 23rd the fleet sailed north and northeast looking for good land. They found islands in the open sea with entrances between them.  The islands most likely faced Charlotte and Lee Counties.  The following day they sailed back south seeking a passage permitting them to get nearer to shore to gather water for their casks, and firewood.  They remained in the area and left sometime between June 3rd. and 14th, 1513. 

Most landings by Ponce de Leon’s fleet, except the Charlotte Harbor landing, were for purposes other than exploration, such as seeking expendable supplies, but on Charlotte Harbor there appeared a greater interest…a possible interest to return to settle. 

Charlotte Harbor – 1513:  Many different events occurred.  To follow are some of the events chronicled by various authors and by a few persons who read the ships logs…

  • The crew careened (laid on its side) the San Cristobal for repairs to the hull somewhere in the harbor possibly near Pine Island
  • The Spaniards associated gold with mountains and here there were no mountains and so Ponce did not expect to find gold.  But, the Calusa, native Indians of the area, did possess a lesser refined type of gold called guanine and the chief or cacique Carlos (Carlos, Calus, or Caalus) and did have gold in his possession. 
  • De Leon had every reason to believe the Calusa were going to be hostile to him upon his return, and yet the place where he met the most resistance is where he brought back two ships.  The only theory, other than pure insanity, is he went to the place that had the greatest potential for human labor to start an agricultural based colony.
  • There were 4 battles with the natives in Florida and of the four battles Ponce de Leon fought, two of the battles were fought on Charlotte Harbor.  
  • It is suppositional that the Calusa knew of the Spanish well before the 1513 landing, as the Calusas had taken in refugees from the Spanish subjugation of Cuba. 
  • The Calusas offered to trade with the new guests but relations soon turned hostile.
  • After ten days a man who spoke Spanish approached Ponce de Leon's ships with a request to wait for the arrival of the Calusa chief.  Shortly thereafter twenty natives attacked the Spanish, who did drive off the Calusa, killing some and capturing eight while the Indians wounded or killed several soldiers. 
  • The following day 80 "shielded and catamaran canoes attacked the Spanish ships, but that battle was inconclusive.

On or before June 11 or June 14, 1513, Ponce sailed southwest toward the Tortugas Islands which he named for the turtles his crew captured there and then on to a landfall in Cuba.  After making repairs and taking on water in Cuba, the fleet sailed eastward on the Gulf Stream to the Bahamas.  Detaching the Santa Maria to search the islands, he sailed on to Puerto Rico arriving on October 19, 1513, an eight month exploration.  The Santa Maria landed back home in February 20, 1514.

From 1513 until the return to La Florida in 1521, Ponce de Leon accomplished quite a few things besides bringing great recognition to himself and to the Spanish crown for his discoveries.  When he returned to San Juan Batista hostilities had broken out between the Castilians and the native Indians.  Understanding that nothing would be resolved here because the Castilians were now set in their ways, Ponce went to see King Ferdinand in Valladolid, Spain. 

While there he met and spoke at length with the King.  Besides the honors and titles and the new contract to explore La Florida, Ponce was given a fleet to return to San Juan Batista around May of 1515.  Ponce did return to find and pacify the natives at the Kings request.  It is believed while in San Juan Batista, Juan Ponce, with Captain Zuniga, sailed westward and discovered the Yucatan Peninsula. 

Back in Borinquen, Ponce tried to protect the Tainos Indians from enslavement under Governor Velazquez.  Governor Velazquez was later imprisoned by a new Governor Antonio de la Gama (Isabela), son in law of Juan Ponce because of the way the Indians were being handled.  He permitted actions against the natives which violated the new laws of 1513 called the Spanish Requirement of 1513 ("El Requerimiento").  Later in November 1516 after Ponce returned to San Juan Batista, King Ferdinand died leaving his grandson King Carlos I being crowned as the new king.  Spain was then unified as a nation.

  Juan Ponce upon learning of Ferdinand’s death and of the new King immediately traveled back to Spain to protect his interest in his discoveries.  He remained there from November 1516 until the April of 1518.  He returned back to San Juan Batista the next month to a number of changes in the island.  This was the year the title of Puerto Rico was given the island and the city became known as San Juan three years later in 1521.

Charlotte Harbor – 1521:  In the 1521 expedition to La Florida, many events occurred and each is noted.

  • On November 20, 1521, Ponce de Leon sailed his second expedition to La Florida after organizing a colonizing expedition consisting of two vessels with 200 men including priests, farmers and artisans, 50 horses, other domestic animals, seeds, rootstocks, and farm implements, and then set sail for the southwest coast of Florida, in the vicinity of the Caloosahatchee River or Charlotte Harbor.  He arrived at Charlotte Harbor about the middle of March 1521.  
  • Ponce found from his 1513 voyage that the Calusa knew nothing about farming.  Their world was mostly fishing. With that understanding, Ponce knew the Calusa villages could not support the expedition, so he came prepared to support themselves and to instruct the Calusa in farming.
  • The second trip was funded with 6,000 pesos from Ponce along with assistance from Pedro de la Mata, a close friend.
  • Notable sailors and settlers accompanying Juan Ponce were his nephew, Hernan Ponce de Leon, Alonso Martin de Jerez and Pedro Jimenez.
  • Having been run off one time before, this time his main goal was to claim the "island" of Florida for Spain, by building a fort and maybe a town. 
  • His landing place is in dispute but it was an island in the territory of the Calusa. In establishing his new colony, it was important to find potable water sources and Ponce did not prefer insular locations for settlements so he most likely attempted a settlement on the mainland.
  • This would be the first documented attempt of a European settlement in the Americas
  • The Calusas had no fear of the white man by this time.  They were tremendous warriors. But, they were frightened easily by the booming noise of the Conquistadors cannons.  
  • It has been found that other Spanish explorers were in the area after 1513.  Alonso Alvarez de Pineda and Diego Miruelo were possibly two Conquistadors who are now known to have intruded upon Ponce de Leons crown gifted rights to Florida.  In July of 1516,  Diego de Velazquez, Governor of Cuba, had authorized a slave hunting voyage to Florida capturing 300 Matecumbes from the Keys.  Velazquez was castigated later for this venture.  It is recorded that Francisco Hernandez de Cordobas fleet along with Bernal Diaz and Anton de Alaminos (Ponces former Captain) sought fortune in the Yucatan only to be dispatched there by natives off Cape Catoche.  Immediately sailing off for safety, within four days they reached Florida and landed at a spot near a creek that was recognizable by Alaminos from his 1513 voyage with Ponce de Leon.  Gathering fresh water there, they too battled the Calusas only to be run off after a fierce battle only to return to Cuba.
  • On or about July 1, 1521 during the lengthy stay of about 4 months, they were met by natives who had gathered near the beach with bows and arrows and long javelins to defend their land from the intrusion of the Spaniards.  The Calusa had learned from experience and by the bitter experience of their neighbors in Cuba to look upon the Spanish as children of the Evil Spirit.  A sharp battle ensued.  Several of the Spaniards were killed by native warriors. 
  • Juan Ponces nephew, Hernan Ponce de Leon, was killed in the battle and was buried at sea as the voyagers headed toward Havana.
  • Survivors of the 2nd trip to Florida with Ponce de Leon went on with Hernando Cortez to Mexico. 
  • Ponce de Leon was badly wounded when a poisoned arrow of the manchineel tree gashed his thigh.  This tree is the known as the bearer of the "death apple.
  • His men carried Ponce aboard ship and set sail taking him back to Cuba where Ponce de Leon died of an infection in July 1521 at the age of 47. 

First buried in Havana, Cuba, a country he was most unfamiliar, his body was exhumed and taken to San Juan in 1559 and buried at the San Jose Church until 1836.  His body was exhumed once more and moved up the hill to the Cathedral of San Juan Bautista in Old San Juan. 

Upon his tomb is written the following inscription, in Latin:

IN THIS SEPULCHRE REST THE BONES OF A MAN

WHO WAS LION BY NAME AND STILL MORE BY NATURE.

 

In tribute to Juan Ponce de Leon, Puerto Rico's third largest city, Ponce, is named in his honor.   A statue of Juan Ponce de Leon is located in the Plaza of San Jose next to the Cathedral of San Juan Bautista. The statue was made in New York in 1882 using the bronze of the English guns collected after the British attack on the city in 1792.  Juan Ponce de Leon left a son, Don Luis, who was made an adelantado by Charles V, in recognition of his father's services; and a daughter Isabel, who was afterwards married to one Antonio de Gama, a licentiate of Puerto Rico.  In the year 1553 the wife of a Ponce de Leon, Leonor Ponce de Leon, perished at sea off the coast of Mexico, and so late as 1566 Puerto Rico boasted of an alcalde (Mayor) named Juan Ponce de Leon.

"It was a noble name," says the historian Oviedo, "that of the adelantado Juan Ponce de Leon, who in truth was an honorable cavalier, a noble person, who labored hard in the conquest and pacification of Isla Espanola, Higuey, the Isle of St. John and La Florida."

PONCE DE LEON MONUMENT

Gilchrist Park, Punta Gorda, Florida on Charlotte Harbor - The Royal Order of Ponce De Leon Conquistadors is an organization dedicated to the preservation of the Spanish heritage of Charlotte County and Florida.


In a novel by Robert Fuson titled Juan Ponce de Leon and the Discovery of Puerto Rico and Florida, the author states, “Juan Ponce is not commemorated at any of the actual places he visited.” The Royal Order of Ponce de Leon Conquistadors since 1979 have each year re-enacted the historic discovery and the first attempt of a documented European settlement in America on the shores of Charlotte Harbor each spring of the year.   It is the intention of this organization to perpetuate this unique historic national and international occasion with God’s blessings, following winds and community support.

Firsts or Accomplishments by Juan Ponce de Leon

  • Governor of Higuey Province of Hispaniola.
  • Governor of Borinquen (Puerto Rico).
  • Governor of Expedition Discoveries and of La Florida.
  • Alcalde or Judge/Magistrate/Administrator of Borinquen.
  • First documented settlement by Europeans in the New World (Florida) in 1521.
  • First documented agricultural settlement in the New World in 1521.
  • First Andalusia horses, cattle and hogs in New World in 1521.
  • First documented free Black  in New World  -  Juan Guarido in 1513.
  • First documented European woman in New World - Juana Ruiz in 1513.
  • Discoverer of the Gulf Stream in 1513.
  • First documented European man to die in the New World in 1513.
  • Founded the towns of Salvaleon, La Navidad and later Nuevo Isabela (Santo Domingo) in Higuey

 

Bibliography:

This writing was created as a result of extensive internet research and reading and is a best effort to attribute credit to authors and researchers.

  • Fuson, Robert H.; Juan Ponce de Leon and the Spanish Discovery of Puerto Rico and Florida
  • Greenberger, Robert; Juan Ponce de Leon, The Exploration of Florida and the Search for the Fountain of Youth.
  • Davis, T. Frederick;  History of Juan Ponce de Leons Voyages to Florida
  • Ober, Frederick J.; Juan Ponce de Leon
  • Mayglothling, Rebecca; What Are Some Duties of a Spanish Conquistador?
  • Author Unknown; English Articles:  Juan Ponce de Leon

Join The Royal Order of the Ponce de Leon Conquistadors
in Laisley Park at P
unta Gorda
March 23rd and 24th, 2013!
Commemorating the 500th anniversary since the famous explorer founded Florida
and making landfall in Charlotte Harbor!
PoncedeLeonFestival.com

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