Ponce de Leon’s quest for the fountain of youth led to the discovery of Florida and many other unexpected yet significant discoveries. His discoveries helped him to become a rich man and a brave conquistador. On March 3, 1513, Juan Ponce de Leon sailed from the island of Puerto Rico with three ships. After asking King Ferdinand of Spain permission to conquer and settle the island of Bimini, Ponce de Leon set sail on a quest for a mythical fountain of youth.
The thought of a mythical fountain that was said to give eternal youth to whomever drank from it, allured the king. Perhaps this was one of the ways Ponce de Leon persuaded the king into letting him sail on this voyage. Maybe by alluring the king into thinking the fountain existed, Ponce was able to explore North America. It is very hard to believe for many people that such an incredible fountain existed. King Ferdinand and Ponce believed in such a fountain. There are many versions of the legend that refer to this mystical spring, pool, stream, or river. If one bathed in this water, one’s youth was restored. If a whole new world could be revealed, why not a fountain of youth? After Christopher Columbus had sailed to many undiscovered places, it is very easy to see why many Europeans believed that there were places that held unknown phenomenons like the fountain out there somewhere. This was a European tale that neither Ponce de Leon nor King Ferdinand could resist.
The first specific indication that Ponce aimed on exploring the Bahamas was a letter about the fountain of youth. It was a 1514 letter from Pictro Martire d’Anghiera to Pope Leo X. D’Angheria was a diplomat who represented the Pope in the Spanish royal court. The letter that d’Angheria wrote provided Pope Leo with a brief account of Ponce’s amazing explorations in the Bahamas, which had taken place in the previous year. d’ Anghiera wrote: Ponce explored and investigated among the farthest countries an island called /by us [Bimini] ; there is a fountain continuing throughout the year that is so remarkable, that the water of this fountain being drunk makes old men young,” Still, it is not certain whether this fountain was originally one of the objects of Ponce’s search and thus a reason for his expedition, or whether he heard of the phenomenon in the course of his voyage and reported its purposed existence afterward to his king. Juan Ponce de Leon was born in San Campos, Leon, in the year of 1460. His mother was a daughter of Don Rodrigo Ponce de Leon, one of the heroes of the wars to expel the Moors. Ponce de Leon is said to have resembled his grandfather in both appearance and courage. Ponce de Leon was the first explorer to claim a part of North America’s mainland for Spain.
On his first voyage to the New World, he was accompanied by Christopher Columbus. Ponce de Leon soon became a soldier in the Spanish settlement of Hispaniola in the West Indies. From approximately 1502-1504, he led Spanish forces against the brutal Indians in Higuey, the eastern province of Hispaniola. After they conquered them, Juan Ponce de Leon was appointed governor as his reward. He left the island of Hispaniola in 1508 to explore Puerto Rico and found gold on the island; furthermore, he conquered the island within a year. Ponce de Leon became governor in 1509 and then rose to be a very wealthy and powerful man. He governed Puerto Rico for about three years. Political rivals removed him from office in 1512. This is when he received permission from King Ferdinand to colonize the island of Bimini. In 1513, he led an expedition to the various different areas of the Bahamas and other several unknown islands. In April of 1513, Ponce de Leon found Florida. He claimed Florida part of Spain and continued to explore the coast and the tip of Florida. This is where he searched for the fountain of youth. On the west coast of Florida, he looked for the fountain only to come to the disappointment that it didn’t exist. Along the southeast coast of Florida near the Indian River, Ponce de Leon and his crew encountered a group of Indians. This group of Indians were the Ais Indians. They called out to Ponce de Leon, so he went ashore. They tried to steal a boat from the Spanish, but Ponce was not going to retreat so easily. They then fought the Indians in a ferocious battle; an Indian clubbed a Spaniard in the head. They then captured an Indian and took him aboard their ship. From a captured Indian, the crew learned that the land was called Cautio by the Ais. Of course, the Indian told stories of an elusive fountain, and Ponce believed the man and spared his life. The ships set a course through the Bahamas. One day, less than a month after visiting the island of Cautio, the fleet of three ships anchored in eight fathoms of water off a previously uncharted coast. The next day, Ponce rowed ashore to take possession of this land for Spain. When Ponce went on this land, he discovered the true beauty of this country. Lush groves of gray cypress, tulip, ash and magnolia trees, backed by tall palms and broom pines, exuded a delightful surprise. It was an unexpected surprise by Ponce and his crew, and they were struck in awe by this new land. Many plants such as azaleas, oranges, and jasmines were in bloom, and the woods were alive with insects and the calls of hummingbirds, loons, and wild turkeys.
Ponce de Leon had made his discovery during the season of Easter, which the Spanish called Pascua Florida, or Feast of Flowers. He called this new land Florida. In the event of his landing, Ponce became the first European to set foot on the continent of North America. Ponce de Leon believed that this peninsula, Florida, was an island. On April 8, the three ships set sail once again. They originally ventured north but altered their direction and traveled south along the coast. The men maintained an adequate supply of food and water. They had killed many animals on this newly discovered land called Florida. Two weeks later, the Spaniards spotted some huts which was the first sign they had seen of Indians. An important discovery, unrecognized by Ponce de Leon, was the existence of a river called the Gulf Stream. Although Ponce’s men had wind on their side, the powerful Gulf Stream pushed them back. The two ships anchored, but one was carried away. When the two ships closest to shore dropped anchor, the sailors noticed that they were defenseless against the current. They drifted off and were lost to their sister vessel for two days. The pilot, Anton de Alaminos, proved his theory by bringing treasure from Mexico to the King of Spain using the Gulf Stream. This became an important route that allowed many future treasure ships to carry back gold from the nearby islands. Although Ponce had no way of knowing at the time this current was the Gulf Stream, it was an extremely significant discovery. The stream passed through the Straits of Florida and shot up the southeastern coast of the United States until it meets a cold current by North Carolina. The stream then flowed northeastward into the Atlantic Ocean. The Calusa Indians that Ponce met on this island were even more interesting than the land they had discovered. The Spaniards were very interested in the Indians who had appeared and were motioning them ashore. When Ponce complied with the Indians, they wounded two of his men with bone-tipped arrows and tried to seize his longboat. The Spaniards retreated and sailed south to a river that was probably somewhere near Jupiter Inlet. While the Spaniards gathered wood and water and waited for another party, the Indians attacked. This time, the explorers fared a little better in the fight, and Ponce captured one of the attackers to train as an interpreter and guide. Then, the expedition sailed south around the Florida keys and traveled up the west coast of Florida to an area near the present-day Sanibel Island. The crew navigated carefully to avoid scraping the coast with their huge ships. Ponce de Leon posted a lookout for changes in water color and heaved the anchor over to check for depth. At night, careful navigation was impossible, and the ships were forced to anchor. While they were there, Calusa Indians wearing palm-leaf loincloths canoed across the inlet to trade with the men on the ship. The Indians had many items to trade, such as animal pelts and guanin, a low-grade gold. There they encountered yet another battle with the Calusa Indians, led by their chief, Cacigue Carlos. Again, there was an all day fight which led to the Spaniards retreat. Turning southward across the Gulf of Mexico, the ship was losing many supplies.
There was a shortage of food and water. When the explorers came across a group of islands, they replenished their food supply with nearly two-hundred sea turtles that inhabited the islands. They also killed numerous seals and manatees along with thousands of gannets and pelicans. They named them the islands Tortugas, after the turtles. Although the explorers drank sweet water from the different islands of the north, Ponce had not succeeded in locating the fountain of youth. He continued south, and Ponce de Leon’s ships reached Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. From there, Ponce de Leon was carried through the Florida Straits and out to the Bahamas. One of his lieutenants took a ship and located an island that may have been Bimini. The lieutenant encountered a spring, but neither bathing in it nor drinking from it revealed any physical effect on the men of the expedition. From there, they returned to the Island of Cuba, then again back to the Bahamas and Puerto Rico seven months later. Ponce de Leon arrived back in Puerto Rico on September 21, 1573. Despite the first unsuccessful search for the fountain, Ponce de Leon did make a second voyage. He felt that his efforts were not appreciated by the colonial authorities; therefore, he reported to King Ferdinand. He brought five thousand gold pesos which made King Ferdinand more agreeable with his proposals. The king treated Ponce very courteously. The king gave Ponce the rights to colonize his discoveries if he did it at his own cost. Ponce de Leon then secured his claims to the lands he had discovered, and now he had the authority to colonize them and add to his fortune. He could be the governor of Puerto Rico but only under a certain conditions. Under King Ferdinand’s terms, Ponce was to attempt to convert the natives to Catholicism, but if they resisted, “he may make war on them, capture them, and take them for slaves.” Ponce would then have sole rights to profit from the slave trade and other money made from the island. In order to achieve these goals, Ponce de Leon would have to defeat the brutal Caribs of Guadeloupe, south of Puerto Rico. The expedition against the Caribs was a failure; many of Ponce’s men were ambushed and slaughtered. Ponce de Leon’s second voyage was a very hasty voyage. It almost immediately followed his first Florida expedition.
He was very eager to explore even deeper into the land he had discovered. Events popped up, though, that prevented him from acting on his settlement plan. There were many Carib raids on Ponce’s men which had been trying to colonize the land. Ponce was asked to put an end to these raids, so he served as commander. He had some success, but he was hardly making progress. He was even further delayed when King Ferdinand died in early 1516. As a result of this, Ponce felt expected to return to Spain and make sure his plans weren’t ruined. Ponce de Leon spent at least 18 months in Spain between 1516 and 1518. According to some sources, he then married a woman named Juana Pineda. Supposedly Ponce’s first wife, Leonor, died sometime before the second trip to Spain. Ponce de Leon’s two ships, which left Puerto Rico on February 1521, carried somewhere around eighty and two hundred people. They were stocked well with seeds, horses, livestock, and other equipment and supplies to establish a colony. His route was unknown, but Ponce made land somewhere on Florida’s west coast on Sanibel Island. Here he constructed a settlement, but disease and Indian attacks quickly made the group smaller. Although later European settlers in the region reported the Indians to be friendly, they were not anywhere near as peaceful as Ponce, now a veteran conquistador. The Indians usually responded in battles against these men over their land. Ponce was seriously wounded by an arrow in the thigh. Infection quickly set in his entire body. Ponce de Leon’s men shipped him off for treatment to the nearby island of Cuba, where the nearest Spanish settlement was located. The wound was so bad by this point, and only so little could be done. Juan Ponce de Leon, a great and brave conquistador, died in July of 1521. The poet, Juan de Castellanos, wrote his opinion of Ponce de Leon on the explorers tombstone: “Here rest the bones of a Lion/ mightier in deeds than in name.” Ponce’s quest for the elusive fountain of youth had come to an end, but the objects of his discoveries continue to inspire travelers. Many questions are still asked today about whether the fountain of youth exists or not. His quest he made long ago led to the discovery of Florida and many unpredicted, yet significant discoveries.
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