The Spanish explorer and conquistador Juan Ponce de Leon is best known for being the first governor of Puerto Rico, having discovered Florida.
He was an interesting character and an intrepid explorer whose passion for travelling the world led to a lot of discoveries. Moreover, his involvement with Florida has forever linked his adventures in the 16th century with the history of the United States of America.
Let’s take a look at some interesting facts about Juan Ponce de Leon!
Juan Ponce de Leon Facts
1. We don’t know who his parents were
The surname of Ponce de Leon dates from the 13th century in Spain, with a line of counts known as Ponce de Cabrera. One of the descendants of this family married an illegitimate daughter of King Alfonso IX of Leon, and henceforward their descendants called themselves Ponce de Leon.
However, the identity of Juan Ponce de Leon’s parents isn’t known. He is considered to have been a member of a distinguished noble family and had a number of notable relatives. He was born in a village in the northern part of present-day Spanish province of Valladolid, Santervás de Campos.
2. He and his wife were the first European family to live in Puerto Rico
Ponce de Leon gained his experience by being in the military and, once Spain’s war with the Emirate of Granada ended, he looked to find a new opportunity abroad. It was during Christopher’s Columbus second trip to the New World that he would get this chance, as he joined the expedition, an interesting fact about Juan Ponce de Leon. They anchored off the coast of the island of Puerto Rico, then known as Borinquen.
He would then go on to settle there a few years later, with his wife Leonor Ponce de Leon.
3. He created a slave industry in Puerto Rico
Under Ponce de Leon’s governorship of Puerto Rico, the Spanish settlers prospered at the expense of the local population. The Tainos (the local natives of the island) were made to work for them in farming and mining for gold. The Spanish also brought with them new diseases such as smallpox, which caused lots of the Tainos to die.
4. He was looking for another island when he discovered Florida
The King gave Ponce de Leon authorisation to gather men and ships to explore further, in search of another island which was believed to have the Fountain of Youth. However, there is no mention of this fountain on any paperwork related to the expedition, which means it might just have been an unfounded rumour.
Instead, they found land on 2nd April 1513 and, due to its beauty, Juan Ponce de Leon called it “La Florida” – the island of flowers. It was also around Easter time, known as Pascua Florida, i.e. the Festival of Flowers, which influenced the naming decision.
5. He wasn’t the first European to get to Florida
Of course, Juan Ponce de Leon has the credit for discovering Florida. Ani interesting fact about Juan Ponce de Leon is that it is certain that he wasn’t the first European to set foot there. In fact, Spanish ships looking for slaves had been raiding the Bahamas since years before, and there are various pieces of evidence showing some of them to have gone as far as the present-day Florida shores. There is also a map from 1502, the Cantino Map, showing a peninsula near Cuba including some characteristic place names. All evidence points to the fact that it was a map of Florida.
6. Ponce de Leon was the first explorer to receive a knighthood
Among the conquistadors, Juan Ponce de Leon was the first to be knighted and given a personal coat of arms. This took place upon his return to Spain from Puerto Rico, where he had left an island in turmoil. Caribs from a neighbouring had attacked one of the settlements and even destroyed Ponce de Leon’s house, his family making a narrow escape from it all.
The navigator Diego Columbus, known as Colón, was Christopher Columbus’ eldest son and Ponce de Leon’s nemesis, trying to undermine his authority in Puerto Rico. So Ponce de Leon suspected that Colón was actually behind these attacks, and therefore wanted to return to Spain to report on his Florida expedition before Colón would have a chance to claim it as his own.
This is when his knighthood was offered to him.
7. He had contracts to govern
Back then, the King would award governing contracts for managing the colonies which had been discovered by the Spanish conquistadors. Ponce de Leon received a contract in which he was given the right to settle and govern Bimini (in the Bahamas) and Florida (which they still thought to be an island at the time), an interesting Juan Ponce de Leon fact.
This was one of the first contracts which included a clause stated that the Spanish crown’s intention to conquer the land would be read out to the local peoples. This was called the Requirimiento (“requirement” in Spanish).
8. He is known as “The First Conquistador”
Juan Ponce de Leon is a respected historical figure for his advancement of Spanish expansion and building a small empire in the territories he discovered and occupied. His work brought the Spanish crown considerable wealth, especially through gold mining. He is also known to have been a “benevolent” slave user, but this is overshadowed by the fact that the diseases brought by the Spaniards killed off a large part of the local population in their colonies, regardless how they might have treated the slaves.
The World War II Liberty Ship SS Ponce de Leon was named in his honour, and he is held in high regard for his achievements.
Juan Ponce de Leon advanced to a position of prominence in his time through hard work and dedication, and became the foremost conquistador of his era. With the support of King Ferdinand in the early 16th century, he explored the seas and became the first governor of Puerto Rico, as well as leading the first European expedition to Florida, which he named.
I hope that this article on Juan Ponce de Leon facts was helpful. If you are interested, visit the Historical Facts Page!