The Story of Florida Starts With Two Myths

The first thing any Florida school child learns about their home state is probably:

 While searching for the Fountain of Youth, Ponce de Leon discovered Florida.

That’s not just a myth.  It is a Double Myth!  Here is the real story about the guy who starts the Florida chapter (the longest chapter) in the history of the United States.

floridatraveler PONCE DE LEON

In 1513 Ponce de Leon and most of the educated navigators of the Caribbean knew of the existence of a huge chunk of real estate above Cuba.  Whether it was an island or connected to the North American mainland was not known for certain and that was the key fact.

The 1502 Portuguese map known as the Cantino map shows not just Florida but a slice of the Southeastern Atlantic coastline.

FLORIDATRAVELER 1502 Cantino_Map_-_North_America

The Western Part of the 1502 Cantino map clearly shows Florida

  The 1511 map made by Italian born historian for Spain Peter Martyr map clearly shows Florida and its relationship to other Spanish colonies.  Did Ponce de Leon known about these maps?  While I am sure he never saw them, as a key administrator for the Spanish Government and a man thirsting for information about unoccupied lands, Ponce de Leon certainly heard stories about Florida from Cuban fishermen and slave hunters, the probably first visitors to Florida.


Peter Martyr’s 1511 map was made for Spain

So why did Ponce de Leon journey to Florida?  Surprisingly not for the reasons you might expect – gold, health, religion.

Ponce de Leon came from a well-known but modest Spanish family and sought his fame as a soldier like his heroic grandfather.  The defeat of the Moors ended this opportunity but the Columbus discovery of the New World in 1492, offered a new challenge.  His friends in high places got him a position on Columbus’ second voyage.

King Ferdinand, thinking Columbus had just reached islands off the coast of Asia, gave the Italian explorer and his heir’s ownership of all lands Columbus discovered.  Spain ignored this contract when placed their people into positions of exploration.

floridatraveler PONCE DE LEON HOUSE

This Dominican Republic plantation house was owned by Ponce de Leon

In 1508 Sir Ponce de Leon was sent by the Spanish Crown to conquer the Taino Indians of Puerto Rico and establish a colony of which Ponce would be first Governor.  He was rich in lands, powerful in influence in Madrid, happily married,  and in fine health, when Ponce de Leon’s world would change.

The Spanish High Court ruled that Puerto Rico and other islands discovered by Christopher Columbus were the domain of the Columbus family and Ponce de Leon was unceremoniously removed from office by Diego Columbus.

floridatraveler Diego_Colombus

Diego Columbus and Ponce de Leon were not friends

Ponce de Leon sought redemption and Florida was the solution.  The strange peninsular had not been explored by Columbus and if it were not an island, which most sailors thought was the case due to the Florida Straits and ocean flows, then Ponce de Leon could be made Governor by the Spanish King.

On April 3, 1513, Ponce de Leon arrived off the Atlantic Coast of Florida and started the history of my state.   He would sail along both coasts to verify its status as a peninsular attached to North America.

floridatraveler PONCE DE LEON route

We can not verify exactly where he touched Florida and Florida towns have fought over the locations ever since.  One thing is certain.  Thanks to Ponce’s ship logs and writings as a politician and as an explorer – he did not even mention the story of the Fountain of Youth.  It was not even a public issue to him.

floridatraveler PONCE ON SPANISH STAMP

In all fairness to myth writers, I must note that Ponce de Leon’s boss – King Ferdinand of Spain – was aging and believed in the Fountain of Youth.  So if Ponce ever found it, he would certain ship a few barrels back to Spain.


About floridatraveler

Historian and travel writer M. C. Bob Leonard makes the Sunshine State his home base. Besides serving as content editor for several textbook publishers and as an Emeritus college professor, he moderates the FHIC at
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