The first conquistador to discover Florida

Juan_Ponce_de_LeónBorn in 1460 in San Tervas de Campos, Spain, Juan Ponce de Leon was the first conquistador to discover Florida.

Leon sailed with renowned explorer Christopher Columbus on his second journey to the Americas. He settled with his family on the Caribbean island then known as Hispaniola, now known as Dominican Republic. He became a military commander and later rose to the rank of deputy governor.

In the early 1500’s, Leon discovered a nearby island called Borinquen. On that island, he found deposits of gold and later returned to colonize the island under orders from the king of Spain. This island became known as Puerto Rico, and Leon was named governor, a post which he kept until he was replaced by the son of Christopher Columbus at the orders of the king.

Disgusted by the king’s decision, Leon decided to discover new lands in the new world. He sailed through the Bahamas and from locals heard of a mythical fountain of youth. In his desperation to find this unique treasure, he completely explored the Bahamas and Bimini looking for the fountain of youth—and gold—but found neither.

He decided to continue his exploration, and in late March 1514, his ships landed on Florida’s east coast near present day St. Augustine. He claimed this land in the name of Spain and discovered the lavish landscape, dramatic beaches and called it La Florida, which means “place of flowers” in Spanish.

shutterstock_82937911Next, he continued down the coast and along the Keys. He arrived at an island filled with turtles and named it Dry Tortugas because there were no sources of fresh water on the island.

As he continued to explore the west coast of Florida, Ponce de Leon entered the Charlotte Harbor area and along with his men, explored inland for water and wood. They discovered a Calusa tribal village at Mound Key. This unfriendly tribe of Indians drove the explorers back to their ships. From there, they headed back to Puerto Rico.

It wasn’t until 1521 that Ponce de Leon returned to Florida to build a colony. He landed on the beaches with over 250 settlers, tools, seeds and horses. As the settlers went inland for water, the Calusa ambushed them. Leon was shot in the thigh and wounded. The remaining settlers elected to return to Cuba and abandoned the settlement. Leon soon died from his wounds—and the fountain of youth was never discovered.

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