Juan Ponce de Leon: Facts, Timeline & Route

Instructor: Christina Boggs

Chrissy has taught secondary English and history and writes online curriculum. She has an M.S.Ed. in Social Studies Education.

In this lesson, you will learn about the Spanish explorer and conquistador Juan Ponce de Leon and his historic quest for gold and the Fountain of Youth.

Juan Ponce de León Biography

Imagine embarking on a wild adventure to a new world...you've got the wind in your sails, government money in your pocket, and permission to take whatever you find for yourself and your country. While this might sound like an improbable adventure today, during the Age of Exploration this merely part of a hard day's work for the Spanish conquistadors. One of the most famous and successful among them was Juan Ponce de León...explorer, conqueror, and adventurer extraordinaire.

Juan Ponce de León was born in 1460 in Valladolid, Spain. The child of wealthy parents, Ponce de León spent much of his time at the royal court. Juan Ponce de León gained notoriety for his active role in the Spanish Reconquista. After pushing the Moors from Spain in 1492, the Spanish crown was able to focus its attention on exploration, opening the door for Ponce de León's successful career as a conquistador, a special hybrid of Spanish explorer that both discovered new lands and conquered the people who lived there.

Portrait of Juan Ponce de Leon
Ponce de Leon

Historians are uncertain of Juan Ponce de León's first expedition to the New World; he may or may not have sailed with Christopher Columbus in 1493. It's a fact, however, that he was making a name for himself on the island of Hispaniola as early as 1502. After putting down a native rebellion, Ponce de León was named the provincial governor of Hispaniola in 1504. Ponce de León would earn a reputation for his treatment of Native Americans. Several accounts describe his brutal practices; it should be noted, however, that the Spanish explorers were known as a group for their harsh ways and enslavement of natives.

Like most of the conquistadors at the time, Ponce de León had a desperate lust for gold. Blinded by his need for bling, Ponce de León happily listened to rumors of gold on the island of Puerto Rico. In 1508 the conquistador explored and settled the island. Impressed by the gold Ponce de León discovered, the king and queen of Spain made him the governor of Puerto Rico in 1509. Unfortunately for him, this title was quickly taken from him after a heated political contest with one of Christopher Columbus's sons.

Despite the fact he was no longer governor of Puerto Rico, the Spanish crown still believed Ponce de León had a lot to offer. In 1512, the king and queen gave Ponce de León the thumbs up to continue exploring and settling the New World.

Around the same time, legend has it that Ponce de León was captivated by rumors from Natives on the island of Bimini about a mystical Fountain of Youth. Remember, this was a time before botox and anti-aging creams, so a magical spring that could keep the drinker young was a big deal. In reality, historians have found no evidence to prove that Ponce de León was actually looking for a mystical fountain. Instead, this story was circulated by other explorers and contemporaries of Ponce de León to make him appear foolish and to discredit his achievements (the joke's on them, most people at least know Juan Ponce de León's name...not theirs!).

Mythical Fountain of Youth
fountain of youth

In his pursuit of land, gold, and power Ponce de León left Puerto in March 1513. Sailing west along the coasts of Hispaniola, he and the crew made their way through the Bahamas. Just one month later, he stumbled across the peninsula of Florida and made his way north to modern-day St. Augustine. On his trip back down the coast, Ponce de León and his crew explored the Florida Keys before returning to Cuba. Ponce de León and his men assumed that Florida was just another island.

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