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Five Centuries Later, Florida Remembers Ponce de León's Tumultuous Arrival

Photo via the Granger Collection, N.Y., and Visit Florida

Juan Ponce de León served as governor of Puerto Rico for a tumultuous five years. During that time, the native Taínos tried unsuccessfully to overpower him, but, in the end, it was the son of Christopher Columbus who unseated him during a political struggle for power in the New World. Ponce de León’s new “asiento,” or assignment, from Spain’s King Ferdinand II was to set sail and find – not the fountain of youth, as is widely thought – but the island of “Benimy.” After being at sea for nearly a month, he finally sighted land, but it wasn’t Bimini.

On a warm and humid April day in 1513, Juan Ponce de León saw the vibrant colors of a blooming landscape and dense greenery from his ship. He had found a new land to conquer. A land he supposed had riches and resources to no end. A land that he would claim for Spain, “la madre patria.” And, most importantly, a land that he would give a Spanish name, to commemorate “la Pascua Florida,” in honor of the Easter season.

“La Florida,” as he named the land, was home to nearly 350,000 natives that belonged to more than two dozen tribes, including the Seminoles, the Ais, the Tequesta and the Mayaimi. It is suggested that Ponce de León landed somewhere between Cape Canaveral and Jacksonville and was most likely met by the Timucua, who were a peaceful and agricultural society.

This year, Florida commemorates the 500th anniversary of Juan Ponce de León’s arrival with cultural and artistic events across the state. At Florida International University, award-winning historian and Professor Sherry Johnson has released a book on the subject. The Frost Art Museum will host a yearlong series of exhibitions on the theme of the 500th anniversary. And the Office of Engaged Creativity in the College of Architecture + the Arts is hosting a large-scale participatory art project called FLOR500 (view slideshow).

While Ponce de Leon’s time in Florida was short, his impact was significant. In 1521, on his second attempt to sail through the modern-day Caloosahatchee River to establish a colony, the Calusa denied entrance to the conquistadors. This battle proved deadly for Ponce de León, who was wounded by a poisoned arrow and retreated to Cuba, where he later died.

The Spanish explorer and soldier is credited with establishing the oldest European settlement in Puerto Rico, being the first to arrive in the continental U.S., discovering the Gulf Stream, and, most importantly, introducing the great influence of Spanish culture and language that is still prevalent in the state of Florida. Yet, Ponce de León’s name has become synonymous with the fountain of youth.

Historians note that written history of Ponce de León’s unfulfilled search for a legendary spring that gave people eternal life and health didn’t appear until many years after his death. The origin of the legend is traced back to the docks, where Spanish sailors exchanged tales of battles and riches. Perhaps it was a rumor created by ship captains to encourage would-be sailors to enlist in the sometimes treacherous and deadly journey to the New World. What is known for sure is that the legend has endured almost as long as Ponce de Leon’s arrival. 

This story was reprinted with permission from FIU Magazine.

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