In Search of Florida’s Conquistadors

The story of European Florida begins with the two voyages of Ponce de Leon to the peninsula of Florida, but despite good records by the explorer, the location of his first landing on the East Coast of Florida can not be verified.

My geography professor at the University of South Florida – Dr. Robert H. Fuson – used the logs of Ponce de Leon’s and placed the explorer’s landing closer to Cape Canaveral than Saint Augustine.  Early records and detailed history books reveal that most Americans have a totally mythical image of Ponce de Leon.

  • Ponce de Leon did not discover Florida – there are two detailed maps showing Florida as a large peninsula (or possibly an island). As former Governor of Puerto Rico, Ponce knew of the maps and the fact Cuban slavers went there to capture natives for Cuban plantations.

FLORIDATRAVELER portrait-of-juan-ponce-de-leon

  • Ponce was not looking for a Fountain of Youth – he was in fine health and only on his way back did he send a few men to the island of Bimini, where some thought there was a magical spring. His boss King Fernandina did believe in the legendary waters.
  • Ponce wasn’t interested in gold – he had a successful plantation and a lovely family, but had been ousted as Governor when the Spanish High Court ruled that Diego Columbus owned all islands his father had explored. Ponce wanted to regain the family honor and status.

FLORIDATRAVELER Ponce de Leon park punta gorda

Ponce de Leon’s unsuccessful attempt to set up a colony on the Gulf Coast is honored at Ponce de Leon Park in Punta Gorda Isles.  In truth, no one knows the exact location of his landing.

A more interesting excursion would be to visit the Calusa Heritage Trail (Randell Research Center) on Pine Island to see the miles of canals and mounds that Ponce described in his trip.  If you have a boat or kayak, going to Mound Key Archaelogical State Park in Estero Bay is another sight noted by Ponce de Leon.

FLORIDATRAVELER Calusa trail pine island

Up the coast on the Manatee River five miles west of Bradenton is the DeSoto National Memorial, a museum and constructed village describing the 1539 arrival of the ruthless conquistador who deserted his colony to search for gold.

FLORIDATRAVELER desoto-reinactments

No one is certain exactly where DeSoto landed in the Tampa Bay area, but this 26-acre complex offers a worthy look at early Spanish colonies.  In Saint Petersburg is privately owned Jungle Prada Park, the site of a Tocobaga mound and possible location of the 1528 arrival of Panfilo de Narvaez.

FLORIDATRAVELER narvaez _Jungle_Prada

Most visitors want to see more than a few artifacts so I would like to point out two places history buffs should put on their visit list.   The Crystal River Archaeological State Park, just two miles northwest of Crystal River off US19/98, is Florida’s best early Indian site.

FLORIDATRAVELER Crystal_River_Arch_Park_TM01

There is a museum, six large burial mounds, and a temple platform which leads to a great river view.  This was the type of village that the conquistadors saw.

FLORIDATRAVELER crystal river site by leonard

While this site represents the early colonization of Spanish Florida, Mission San Luis in Tallahassee  is a wonderful reproduction of a 1633 Franciscan mission and the Anhaica capital of Apalacha Provence.  The Indian meeting place is massive.

FLORIDATRAVELER mission_san_luis_01-16_02b

We know de Soto came here for nearby is the DeSoto Historic State Park, just off US27, where actually artifacts used in his long and futile excursion into Southeast United States took place.





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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