Ponce de León, Juan (pŏns də lēˈŏn, Span. hwän pōnˈthā dā lāōnˈ) [key], c.1460–1521, Spanish explorer, first Westerner to reach Florida. He served against the Moors of Granada, and in 1493 he accompanied Columbus on his second voyage to America. From 1502 to 1504 he assisted in the conquest of Higuey (the eastern part of Hispaniola, now the Dominican Republic) and was made governor of that province. After finding gold on Boriquén (Puerto Rico) in 1508, he conquered the island and, as governor (1509–12), made a fortune in gold, slaves, and land.
Hearing tales from the Carib of a wonderfully rich island called Bimini, said to be N of Cuba, Ponce de León secured a commission (1512) to conquer and colonize that land. The legend that he was seeking a spring whose waters could restore youth (the "Fountain of Youth") appears to have been fabricated after his death by one of his enemies at court to discredit the explorer. From Puerto Rico on Mar. 3, 1513, with three vessels, he sailed NE through the Bahamas, sighting the Florida peninsula (which he took to be an island) late in March and landing near the site of St. Augustine early in April. Probably because his arrival in Florida occurred at the time of the Easter feast ( Pascua Florida ), Ponce de León named the land (which he claimed for Spain) La Florida. He turned south, exploring the coast to Key West, and proceeded up the west coast as far as Cape Romano. Then, retracing his route, he sailed to Miami Bay via Cuba and from there returned to Puerto Rico, arriving Sept. 21, 1513.
After partly pacifying Puerto Rico, which had been in revolt, he sailed to Spain, where the king commissioned him (Sept., 1514) to subdue the Carib of Guadeloupe and to conquer and colonize the "isle of Florida." In 1515 he led an unsuccessful expedition against the Carib and returned to Puerto Rico, where he resided until 1521. With two vessels, 200 men, 50 horses and other domestic animals, and farm implements, he sailed for Florida in 1521. Upon landing on the west coast, probably in the vicinity of Charlotte Harbor or Tampa Bay, his party was fiercely attacked by Native Americans, and he was severely wounded by an arrow. The expedition sailed immediately for Cuba, where Ponce de León soon died.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.