Juan Ponce de León biography
Born in Spain in 1460, Juan Ponce de León led a European expedition to discover the mythical fountain of youth, instead finding the southeast coast of what would become the United States. He gave Florida its name and went on to become the first governor of Puerto Rico.
Born into a noble family, Juan Ponce de León became a soldier, fighting in a notable campaign against the Moors in Granada. By various accounts, he began his exploration career as part of Christopher Columbus' second expedition to the New World (1493), after the war with the Moors ended.
Hispaniola and Puerto Rico
Years later, after suppressing an Indian uprising in Hispaniola (comprising modern-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic), Ponce de León was named the provincial governor of the eastern part of the country.
Hearing persistent reports of gold to be found on nearby Puerto Rico, in 1508 Ponce de León was officially sent by the Spanish crown to explore the island (there are account of him unofficially exploring it up to two years earlier on his own). He took 50 soldiers with him on a single ship and explored the island, settling near what is now San Juan. A year later, he returned to Hispaniola, having found much gold but running short on supplies, and was named governor of Puerto Rico.
The expedition was seen as a great success, and Ponce de León was instructed to continue the settlement of the island and step up his gold-mining efforts. So he returned to Puerto Rico, this time bringing his wife and children along.
The Fountain of Youth and the Discovery of Florida
The Spanish crown soon encouraged Ponce de León to continue searching for new lands, in hopes of finding yet more gold and expanding the Spanish empire. Also around this time, he learned of a Caribbean island called Bimini, on which there were rumored to be miraculous waters that could rejuvenate those who drank from them (the fountain of youth).
His interest piqued, in 1513 Ponce de León led a private expedition to Bimini from Puerto Rico. In a month's time, he and his men landed on the coast of Florida instead. He did not initially realize that he was on the mainland of North America and instead thought he had landed on another island. He named the region Florida because he discovered it at Easter time (Spanish: Pascua Florida) and because its vegetation was lush and floral.
After exploring the coast, he returned to Puerto Rico, which he found roiling with a native uprising.
Ponce de León soon left for Spain, where he was named military governor of Bimini and Florida and secured permission to colonize those regions. He was also ordered to organize an army to subdue the native uprising on Puerto Rico, which had continued in his absence. He left for Puerto Rico in May 1515 with his small fleet.
Return to Florida and Death
Accounts of the battle that ensued after his arrival are spotty, but in 1521, Ponce de León sailed again for Florida with two ships and 200 men, intent on settling the land. This time, though, he was wounded by an arrow during an Indian attack, after which he and his colonists sailed to Cuba, where he soon died of the wound.