Finding Florida

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Florida or Bust: Juan Ponce de leon


by Jennifer Jordan


Many of us discover Florida upon retirement, as we set out in our Lincolns and head towards the Atlantic Ocean. The first discovery of Florida, however, was not as simple. It involved more work, more tribulation, and less convenience: the first road to Florida had no IHOPs. Instead, it contained a man, a mission, and a ship.


The Spanish conquistador Juan Ponce de leon is generally credited with being the man who discovered Florida. After taking part in the war to conquer Granada, he joined Christopher Columbus on his second trip to the New World. Once on this voyage, he got wind of the wealth saturating present-day Puerto Rico and sought permission to go there.
Christopher Columbus, who had retained military governorship of all his discoveries, died in 1506, paving the way for Ponce de leon’s campaign. By 1508 Ponce de leon founded the first settlement in Puerto Rico; by 1509 he was named governor.


Diego Columbus, the son of Christopher Columbus, did not go quietly into the night; he wanted governorship of his father’s discoveries and Puerto Rico soon found its way into a custody battle. After taking his claim all the way to Madrid’s top court, Diego was granted rights and Ponce de leon was removed. Refusing to serve under Diego, he received permission to explore other areas.


Using his own money, Ponce de leon supplied three ships with necessary equipment and set sail in 1513. On March 27, 1513 he saw an island in the Atlantic Ocean, but opted not to stop there. Continuing on his journey, Ponce de leon met the East Coast of the New World on April 2, 1513. The very point of his landing is under controversy: it was somewhere on the Northeast coast of present-day Florida. The land underfoot was deemed “La Florida.” The reason the name “La Florida” was chosen is also under dispute, but it’s believed to be for one of the following two reasons: upon landing, Ponce de leon was welcomed by shrubbery and vegetation so he deemed it “Florida,” a term that means “flowery,” or he named it Florida because he landed during Pascua Florida, a Spanish term for the “Flowery Passover” known as Easter. April 2 is the official date of this holiday.


After his initial discovery, Ponce de Leon sailed up the Florida coast, and around the Florida Keys. After a stop in Havana, and a return to Florida, he journeyed back to Puerto Rico and ultimately returned to Spain.


In 1515, Ponce de leon received permission to conquer the Caribs of Guadalupe and to take over Florida. His attempt was not successful and he returned to Puerto Rico, remaining there until 1521.


His last exhibition was marked by reattempting his conquest of 1515. Taking two ships, 200 men, horses, domestic animals, and farming equipment, Ponce de leon set sail for Florida. He and his men landed on the southwest corner, somewhere near Charlotte Harbor. Soon after they arrived, the fleet was attacked by Calusus, a Native American group living in the area. During this attack, Ponce de leon was shot in the shoulder with a poisoned arrow. He and his men then fled to Cuba, where he succumbed to his injuries.


There is some speculation that Ponce de leon may not have officially discovered Florida, as there was evidence of European influence when he first landed: he met at least one Native American who spoke Spanish, a language learned from a foreigner. Nonetheless, Juan Ponce de leon is credited as Florida’s discoverer, leaving all those who visit somewhat indebted to his audaciousness.