PONCE DE LEON DID NOT DISCOVER FLORIDA: THE MAN AND THE MYTHS

One of the first things people learn about Florida is that it was discover in 1513 by Ponce de Leon in his search for the Fountain of Youth.  As a historian, I can tell you these are both myths.

Ponce de Leon’s story is often incorrectly present by textbooks despite the reality that there are more records about his career than Christopher Columbus.  Way back in October of 2013, I elaborated on this material in anticipation of the 500th anniversary of the 1513 Ponce landing in Florida. This is an added visual look at the most off-base generalizations that people have formed about the great Spanish explorer.

Let’s look at where myths have replaced reality in the story of Ponce de Leon:

Ponce de Leon was not an old man when he went to Florida.

Ponce de Leon discovered Florida. As Governor of Puerto Rico, Ponce was aware of most activities in the Spanish New World, including Cuban slavers going to the Bahamas (Bimini) and “big” island to the North.  He knew about the currents north of Cuba.

Most importantly he knew of the existence of maps even if he never saw them. A 1502 map smuggled out of Portugal by an Italian Duke Alberto Cantino included the Caribbean and Cuba and South America while alluding to places further north.

1507 and in the NW corner is Cuba and Florida.

In 1507 the incredible map of German cartographer Martin Waldserrmuller included not just the Caribbean and South America, but clearly shows Florida and the North American coast. It was Waldseemuller and his staff which named the “two” continents America, after explorer Amerigo Vespucci. (The $10 million dollar map is housed at the Library of Congress.)

In 1507 northwest of Cuba is clearly mainland on this map.

In 1511 Spanish Andres Morales made a simple map of Bimini and clearly showed the Florida coastline as a huge unit.

Cuba, Hispaniola, Jamaica, Bahamas island, and a big block of land.

Ponce de Leon was looking for the Fountain of Youth.   Ponce was aware of the legends for his boss (King Ferdinand) requested all colonists to search for it.  My old geography professor Robert Fuson studied the ship logs and notes of Ponce de Leon and discovered that it was not until the 208th day of his first voyage he mentioned the legend.  He sent a handful of sailors to Bimini to check all the rumors. Ponce de Leon was just thirty-eight years old and there is no record he ever had poor health issues. Ponce never indicated he believed in the Fountain story.

Ponce de Leon was a rich nobleman who sought Glory for his family by going to the New World. Although he came from a noble family and had some prominent relatives in the long war against the Moors, he was a penniless teenager when he decided to join the military, a logical choice considering his background.  Unfortunately for him the war with the Moors was on the verge of ending.

Ponce de Leon was a key crew member on Christopher Columbus’ second voyage.  There is no evidence that Columbus found the nineteen-year old landlubber a skillful sailor.  In fact, Columbus might have had great apprehension over Ponce, for he was probably added to the ship roll by the Bishop of Burgos Juan Rodriguez de Fonseca, who intentionally tried to undermine the Columbus mission by filling the ship with unqualified ex-soldiers.

Many in Spain believed that the King’s financed missions westward across the Atlantic was a violation of Spain’s 1479 Treaty of Alcacovas with Portugal.   It should be noted that Ponce returned to Spain prior to Columbus’ visit to Jamaica.

Ponce de Leon gained great wealth in his conquests.  Ponce de Leon did not die broke, but he never got rich from gold or silver or government contracts.  He did become prosperous when serving as Governor of Eastern Hispaniola (in the Dominican Republic).  His 225-acre plantation grew cassava, made into long-lasting bread for long voyages by Royal and private ships.  This success helped Ponce de Leon land future political appointments.

The remains of Ponce de Leon’s Dominican farm are still standing.

Ponce de Leon and Christopher Columbus were good friends (bitter enemies). Neither view is correct. Despite bad management by Columbus and his family in Hispaniola, Columbus did not view Ponce as a person conspiring to oust his family from power. The two met again on Columbus’ fourth voyage.  Columbus would return to Spain due to illness and get into a legal battle over all the powers given his family in the 1492 Capitations of Santa Fe.  In his old age (he died in Valladolid, Spain, in 1506), Columbus ran a rare book shop, raised money for the Crusades to retake Jerusalem, and always believed he had reached islands off Asia.

Ponce de Leon sought to develop Florida for financial reasons. King Ferdinand gave Ponce the funds to conquer Puerto Rico and he did just that, utilizing the Indian fear of trained greyhounds, cannons, and firearms, to control the island.  But when the High Court of Spain ruled that the Columbus family controlled places like Puerto Rico, Ponce was removed as Governor by Diego Columbus.  This was an insult to his pride and service, but Ponce was hardly a street beggar with his position as Chief Justice, military captain and successful landholder in Hispaniola and Puerto Rico. He started the house shown in photo.

Pomce called his Puerto Rican place “the White House.”

Columbus had never reached the mainland of North America, and if “Florida” was part of that continent than Ponce could develop a colony there and return to the prestige of being the first Governor as he was in Puerto Rico.

Ponce de Leon’s voyage to Florida was a popularized eventThe exploration was more like a silent conspiracy.  His secret backer in Spain was Treasurer Miguel de Pasamonte, who influenced Ferdinand to finance the mission.  Pasamonte pledged Ponce to secrecy, for Columbus’ brother Bartholomew had already obtained financing to head a settlement to the island of Bimini.

Ponce de Leon was a vicious Indian hater. Despite the brute force used to defeat the Indians of Puerto Rico, Ponce was an open supporter of King Ferdinand’s policy of ending the Indian slave trade and establishing peace treaties related to land ownership.   He delayed his second trip to start a colony in Florida to go to Spain for Ferdinand had died and the new King backed the Indian slave trade and was not a person Ponce knew.

Calusa Territory was a poor choice for a town.

Ponce de Leon established Florida’s first town.   He not only never got the development of a town started, his ill-planned visit to Calusa territory in 1521 resulted in his death when he was hit in the heel with a poison-tipped arrow. Since he brought within over 200 people and 50 horses, it was clear he planned to start a town or fortification.  Ponce has nothing to do with the story of Saint Augustine – in fact many historians believed he landed in Florida further south perhaps near Daytona Beach or Cape Caneveral.

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 www.floridahistory.org
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