Setting Sail: the 500th Anniversary of Juan Ponce de León’s Discovery of Florida

The story of Florida isn’t as simple as you may remember

Map of Florida, circa 1823. Photo: Library of Congress

Nearly 20 years before the Spanish conquistador Juan Ponce de León set foot on the eastern coast of Florida, he embarked on a legendary journey to the New World with an experienced and decorated explorer by the name of Christopher Columbus.

Born the “illegitimate son of a Spanish nobleman,” says Sam Turner, Director of Archaeology at the St. Augustine Lighthouse & Museum, Juan Ponce de León grew up during a time of war. As a child, “possibly between the ages of 8 and 10,” says Turner, “Ponce de Leon became the page of a Spanish knight.” At 18, Juan Ponce went to war, helping in “the historic capture of the Moorish Kingdom.”

At 19, Juan Ponce de León, future discoverer of Florida, set sail with Christopher Columbus on a 1493 journey to the New World. “This was Christopher Columbus’s second voyage to the New World and it resulted in the founding of La Isabella on the Island of Española discovered the previous year. Consequently, Ponce witnessed and participated in the founding of Spanish civilization in the New World.”

Over time, Juan Ponce’s role in the Spanish fleet grew. Based out of Española, he went on to command a company of soldiers, founded cities and went on a quest for gold in nearby Peurto Rico, then known as San Juan Bautista.

“All was going well until the arrival of Diego Columbus, the new governor of the Indies in August 1509. Diego Columbus was the eldest son and heir of Christopher Columbus. Diego was incensed that King Ferdinand had essentially violated the contract that was drawn up between Christopher Columbus and the Catholic Monarchs at Santa Fe previous to his father’s voyage in 1492,” says Turner, with Columbus displeased at Juan Ponce’s growing political clout within the region.

Forced out by Christopher Columbus’ heirs, Juan Ponce de León was granted by the Spanish king “a license to explore and discover the lands reputed to lie to the north and in particular the Island of Bimini.” Turner:

Always competitive and jealous of the King’s efforts on Juan Ponce’s behalf, the Columbus faction made a counter proposal for the same voyage of exploration and discovery. They proposed that Bartolomé Columbus, Diego’s uncle and one of Christopher Columbus’ younger brothers, undertake the voyage on terms more financially favorable to the King. However, preferring to support Juan Ponce rather than facilitate the agenda of his problematic governor of the New World, the King declined the offer.

And so, on March 27, 1513, the first sighting of Florida by Juan Ponce and his fleet. A continued northward voyage and a bout of bad weather later, Juan Ponce and his crew went ashore on April 3 somewhere north of present-day St. Augustine.

Though Juan Ponce was the first to “officially” discover Florida—the first with approval by the Spanish king for such a quest—says Turner, he was not, of course, the first to actually do so. Slave runners had been traveling around the Bahamas for years.

During the course of one of these slaving voyages by a mariner named Diego de Miruelo, a large land to the north had been accidentally discovered when his vessel was driven north in a storm. There he traded with those he encounters but took no captives. Shortly thereafter, slavers went directly to this new land in search of slaves. Thus the initial discovery in the north became common knowledge that ultimately led to Juan Ponce’s licensed voyage of discovery in 1513.

H/T to Slate‘s Matthew J. X. Malady for the story suggestion

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