“Ponce De Leon in Florida,” The Spanish Conqueror: A Chronicle of the Dawn of Empire Overseas, 1921, From The Library at The Mariners’ Museum, E123.R53.1921.

Juan Ponce de Leon

1474 CE - 1521 CE

Primary Goal:

To find gold and colonize land for Spain.


First European known to have visited present day United States in 1513. Discovered Florida and the Bahama Channel, and colonized Puerto Rico.

Born in the village of San Tervás de Campos in the province of León, Spain in 1474, Juan Ponce de León became a page to the prince of Castile who later became King Ferdinand of Castile. In 1493, de León went with Christopher Columbus on a second voyage to the West Indies and he was one of 200 volunteers on 17 ships. It was on this trip when de León first saw the Antilles. Columbus anchored the ships at Añasco Bay on the western shore of Puerto Rico and it is believed that when de León saw how beautiful the area was it inspired him to later choose the place as the capital.

“Juan Ponce De Leon,” The Story of the Sea, 1895, From The Library at The Mariners’ Museum, GC21.Q11.

On February 13, 1502, de León took another voyage with Frey Nicolás de Ovando. At the Canary Islands, the crew split up into two groups, with the first group arriving at Santo Domingo on April 15, 1502. From 1502 to1504, de León lived on the island and was named its captain by Ovando in 1504. De León then moved to Salvaleón and lived there from 1505 to1508. While there, in 1506, de León made a request to travel and conquer Borinquen. After receiving permission from Ovando, he started a settlement and renamed the area San Juan de Puerto Rico. Word got back to Spain that de León had settled the area and was named Adelantado or governor of Puerto Rico, but due to political reasons, he was relieved of his governorship in 1511. He immediately applied for a royal grant to settle the islands of Bimini, an island just north of Cuba. It was believed there was a fountain of youth on the island.

On March 3, 1513, de León, after receiving permission, left Puerto Rico with three ships. By March 27 he’d seen the mainland of Florida and later landed there on April 2nd, just north of modern-day St. Augustine. He stayed there until April 8th and renamed the area Tierra La Florida (land of flowers) in honor of finding the area on Easter Sunday, called Pascua Florida in Spanish.

De León continued to explore, sailing along the Florida’s east coast and discovered the Bahama Channel. This proved to be a great success because this channel provided a new route from the West Indies to Spain. Continuing on his voyage, he sailed through the Florida Keys and named them Martyrs. De León then went north along the west coast and sailed as far as Pensacola Bay. He then sailed along the south west coast, coming to an island he named Tortugas; today it’s the Dry Tortugas because of all the nesting turtles found there. De León returned to Puerto Rico on September 21, 1513, then to Spain in 1514 where he was knighted, given a personal coat of arms, and granted a royal patent to colonize the islands of Bimini and Florida. He was officially named the Adelantado Don Juan Ponce de León, Governor of the Islands of Bimini and Florida.

slideshow:394,534,535,right,half On February 20, 1521, de León’s made his second attempt at colonization. He sailed from Puerto Rico with a crew of two hundred men. The crew landed on the west coast of Florida near the Caloosahatchee River or Sanibel Island, where they tried to start a settlement. The Calusa Indians attacked them and de León was wounded with an arrow. The settlement was abandoned and the crew went as far as Havana, Cuba where Ponce de León died July 1521 from an infection.