In This Article Ponce de León

  • Introduction
  • Colonial Era Chronicles
  • Biographies of Juan Ponce de León
  • Reconstructions of Ponce de León’s Journeys to Florida
  • Ponce de León in Florida and the Spanish Borderlands
  • The Myth of the Fountain of Youth
  • Juan Ponce de León in the History of Puerto Rico and the Caribbean

Latin American Studies Ponce de León
by
Diana Reigelsperger
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 October 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766581-0227

Introduction

Juan Ponce de León was an important figure in the early years of the Spanish exploration and conquest of the Caribbean. He participated in the conquest of Hispaniola, earning the title of deputy governor of the province of Higüey. He then moved on to the exploration and conquest of Puerto Rico in 1508. He established yucca farms and gold mines on the island and extended Spanish authority over the Taíno there, although there were armed uprisings in 1511 and 1513. In 1511, he lost his title as governor of the island to Admiral Diego Colón, the oldest son of Cristopher Columbus. Through the patronage of King Ferdinand, Ponce de León received a license to explore and settle the island of Bimini and any unclaimed islands north of Hispaniola. In 1513, he sailed north along the east coast of Florida, eventually claiming the land for Spain and naming it La Florida. He then sailed to Spain and received a second more expansive license to settle La Florida. In 1514, he led a campaign to subdue Carib resistance on the island of Guadeloupe. Ponce de León returned to Florida in 1521. This time he attempted to build a settlement on the southwest coast of Florida, but was shot by members of the Calusa chiefdom. The colonization attempt failed and he died from his wounds in Cuba shortly thereafter. These expeditions were recorded in a number of the early Spanish chronicles. Those chroniclers mixed history, gossip, and mythology and through their works, the 1513 expedition to Florida became associated with the pursuit of a mythical fountain of youth. Ponce de León’s original logs and report of the journey have been lost and no known archival documents mention the fountain. More historically significant was his discovery of the Gulf Stream, which became a major avenue of transatlantic shipping for centuries to follow. As the founder of Spanish society in Puerto Rico, Ponce de León’s legacy has been studied as part of the island’s history. He was also the first of many Spanish explorers to attempt to conquer and settle Florida, giving him a founding place in Florida history and in the history of the Spanish borderlands in the southeastern United States.

Colonial Era Chronicles

The chronicles of the 16th and 17th centuries are valuable sources for studying Ponce de León’s exploration of Florida since his original reports have been lost. The surviving records of the expeditions come from royal chroniclers of the 16th and 17th centuries. These chroniclers served as historians for the Spanish royal court, although their works sometimes included rumors as well as fact. Antonio de Herrera y Tordesillas, royal chronicler from 1596 to 1625, is the only author to give the day to day details of Juan Ponce de León’s navigation as he sailed around Florida in 1513. He likely had access to the reports submitted by Ponce de León and his pilot Anton de Alaminos. Those reports have since been lost, so Herrera’s account is all that remains. The surviving record of Ponce de León’s 1521 voyage to Florida comes from Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés, commonly referred to as “Oviedo.” Herrera’s account contains inaccurate dates and latitudes. He also includes the fountain of youth myth, although here he likely borrowed from other accounts published by Spanish chroniclers contemporary with Ponce de León. Scholarly assessments of Herrera’s account of Ponce de León by Sauer 1971 (cited under Juan Ponce de León in the History of Puerto Rico and the Caribbean), Kelley 1992, Moore 2007, and Turner 2013 (cited under Reconstructions of Ponce de León’s Journeys to Florida) offer useful analyses of the source’s reliability. The earliest account to mention a fountain of youth is Martyr d’Anghiera 1970 (originally 1514). Peter Martyr d’Anghiera composed De Orbe Novo Decades, written as a series of letters reporting news on the exploration and conquest of the Americas. Martyr does not mention Ponce de León by name, but he does include two accounts of the search for a fountain of youth on an island north of Hispaniola. The first reference to the fountain is in a letter dated 1514, corresponding with Ponce de León’s arrival at court to report on his discoveries. The first chronicler to directly associate Ponce de León with the search for a fountain of youth was Oviedo, though it is also problematic. He describes the story of the fountain and then dismisses the myth, implying the search was foolish. This may well be the origin of the modern image of Ponce de León as old, weak, and quixotic. See Harris 2012 (cited under The Myth of the Fountain of Youth). However, Oviedo provides an essential, if brief, description of the second expedition to Florida in 1521. Other 16th-century chronicles such as those by Francisco López de Gómara and Juan de Torquemada mention the fountain of youth or the career of Ponce de León only briefly. Although Bartolomé de las Casas does not discuss Ponce de León by name, he served under his command in the conquest of Higüey and therefore provides a relevant eye-witness account, though it is shaped by his intent to emphasize Spanish brutality in the conquest.

  • Barcía Carballido y Zúñiga, Andrés González de. Chronological History of the Continent of Florida from the Year 1512, in Which Juan Ponce de León Discovered Florida, Until the Year 1722. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1951.

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    Barcía used chronicles and records obtained in Florida and Cuba to write a history of Florida. The years 1513–1521 cover the movements and accomplishments of Ponce de León, probably based on Herrera. The account also records the explorations of his pilot, Anton de Alaminos. As one of the most knowledgeable pilots of the era, he participated in the exploration of Florida, the Caribbean, and the Yucatan Peninsula.

  • Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés, Gonzalo. Historia general y natural de las Indias. Vol. 1. Madrid: Imprenta de la Real Academia de Historia, 1851.

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    Oviedo’s account raises the possibility that Ponce de León was searching for a fountain of youth, but dismisses the fountain as a foolish pursuit. The rest of his description treats his unsuccessful attempt to settle Florida in 1521. Part of this account was first published in 1535, followed by an expanded version in 1547 with revisions to the earlier account. It was not published in full until 1851–1855. Accounts are located in Libro XVI, Cap. XI and Cap. XIII.

  • Herrera y Tordesillas, Antonio. Historia general de los hechos de los castellanos en las Islas i Tierra Firme del Mar Oceano. Madrid: En la Imprenta Real, 1726.

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    First published in 1601, Herrera’s chronicle is the only source to provide a day by day record of events during Ponce de León’s 1513 exploration of Florida. The account is in Decada I, Libro IX, Cap. X. Herrera’s account is the most detailed and closest to a primary source on the journey itself. It also includes a few references to the search for a fountain of youth on the island of Bimini or in Florida. Sauer 1971 (cited under Juan Ponce de León in the History of Puerto Rico and the Caribbean) offers a critical reading of this account.

  • Kelley, James E., Jr. “Juan Ponce de León’s Discovery of Florida: Herrera’s Narrative Revisited.” Revista de Historia de America 3 (1992): 31–65.

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    This is a critical re-evaluation of the account of Ponce de León’s exploration of Florida according to Antonio Herrera. Kelley’s work provides a new translation of Herrera based on the original 1601 publication. Detailed footnotes explain interpretations and word choice.

  • Las Casas, Bartolomé. A Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies. London, 1689.

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    Las Casas served under Ponce de León’s command in the second campaign to conquer the Taíno in the Higüey province in Hispaniola. Although he does not name Ponce de León, he does provide an account of some of the battles that took place, describing atrocities committed by the Spanish. However, he confuses Ponce de León’s first and second expeditions to Florida, combining the two into one. Illustrations by Theodore de Bry.

  • Martyr d’Anghiera, Peter. De Orbe Novo Decades. Translated by Francis A. MacNutt. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1970.

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    Martyr’s work was written as a series of letters that give accounts of Spanish exploration and conquest. He doesn’t name Ponce de León directly, but does repeat an account of a fountain of youth in a letter dated 5 December 1514 in the Second Decade, Book 10. Later in the Seventh Decade, Book 7, dated February 1525, Martyr gives the fountain of youth story an indigenous origin.

  • Moore, Charles B. “El Discurso del silencio en las crónicas sobre Juan Ponce de León.” Cuadernos Americanos 21.1 (2007): 91–115.

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    Moore gives an excellent overview of the early legal documents and letters from Ponce de León that deal with his 1513 expedition. He contrasts these with the work of the chroniclers. Moore argues for a critical reading of the early chronicles with attention to their omissions or silences, especially since they viewed their mission as one of education and moral clarification. This article provides good critical scholarship of the chronicles and analysis of their strengths and weaknesses as sources on the 16th century.

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