PONCE DE LEON, Juan
(pon'-thay-day-lay'-one), Spanish officer, born in San Servas, province of
Campos, in 1460; died in Cuba in July, 1521. He was descended from an ancient
family of Aragon, was in his youth page of the infante, afterward Ferdinand VII,
and served with credit against the Moors of Granada. According to some
authorities, he accompanied Columbus in his second voyage to Hispaniola in 1493,
but Washington Irving and other modern historians say that he only sailed in
1502 with Nicolas de Ovando (q. v.), who was appointed governor of that island.
He took an active part in the pacification of the country,
and became governor of the eastern part, or province of Higuey, where the
natives had frequent intercourse with those of the island of Borinquen (Puerto
Rico). From them he acquired information about that island, and hearing that it
contained abundance of gold, he obtained permission to conquer it. In 1508 he
sailed with eighty Spanish adventurers and some auxiliary Indians, and in a few
days he landed in Borinquen, where he was well received by the natives. The
principal cacique, Aguainaba (q. v.), accompanied him to all parts of the
island, and Ponce collected many samples of gold, and was astonished at the
fertility of the soil.
In 1509 he returned to Hispaniola to report, and in quest
of re-enforcements, but the new governor, Diego Columbus, gave the command of
the expedition to Diego Ceron, and sent Ponce as his lieutenant. The latter,
through his protector, Ovando, in the court of Spain, claimed the appointment of
governor of Borinquen, and in 1510 he obtained it. He sent Ceron to Hispaniola,
began the construction of the first city, calling it Caparra, and sent his
lieutenant, Cristoval de Sotomayor, to found another city in the southwest near
the Bay of Guanica.
Soon he began to distribute the Indians among his officers,
as had been done in Hispaniola, and Aguainabo's brother and successor, of the
same name, began a war of extermination against the invaders. He was defeated in
successive encounters, and the natives called the Caribs of the Lesser Antilles
to their help, but Ponce conquered the whole island.
In the beginning of 1512 Ponce was deprived of his
government, and, broken in health by wounds, resolved to go in search of the
fountain of eternal youth, which, according to the reports of the natives,
existed in an island called Bimini. He gathered many of his former followers and
other adventurers, sailed on 3 March, 1512, with three caravels from the port of
San German, and visited several of the Bahama islands, but was told that the
land in question lay farther west.
On 27 March he landed in latitude 30 N, a little to the
north of the present city of St. Augustine, on a coast which, on account of the
abundant vegetation, he called Florida Island. He sailed along the coast to a
cape, which he called Corrientes, but, disappointed in his search for the
fountain of youth, returned to Puerto Rico on 5 October and sailed for Spain,
where he obtained for himself and his successors the title of Adelantado of
Bimini and Florida.
In 1515 he returned with three caravels from Seville and
touched at Puerto Rico, where, finding that the Caribs had nearly overpowered
the Spanish garrison, he remained to expel them, and founded in the south of the
island the city of Ponce.
In March, 1521, he made a second attempt to conquer
Florida, and, sailing with two ships from San German, reached a point about
fifty miles to the south of his former landing-place. He began to explore the
interior, but found a warlike people, and, after many encounters with the
natives, was obliged to re-embark, with the loss of nearly all his followers.
Not desiring to return after his defeat to Porto Rico, he retired to the island
of Cuba, where he died shortly afterward, in consequence of a wound from a
His remains were subsequently transported to the city of
San Juan de Puerto Rico, and rest in the church of San José. A monument has been
erected to his memory recently in that city. His autograph, which it is believed
has never before appeared in America, was obtained from Spain through the
courtesy of General Meredith Read.
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