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Sunday Favorites: Viva La Florida Celebration Marks 500th Anniversary

Juan Ponce de León

This week, Governor Rick Scott declared a statewide celebration, Viva Florida 500, marking the 500th anniversary of Juan Ponce de León's arrival on Florida's east coast. While León's convoy of explorers was the first group of Europeans to document such a landing and give a name to Florida — La Florida, the natives of the West Coast had been calling the land home for centuries. León was the first of several explorers who ultimately decimated the native peoples; however, he left behind what would one day serve as livelihood for the first white setters in the state.

It was Early April of 1513 when León landed on the East Coast near what many believe is present-day Saint Augustine. He claimed the land as a Spanish territory and named it La Florida, or place of flowers. Unfortunately, León's legacy of colonizing Florida and Puerto Rico would not be as peaceful as the namesake. 

The introduction of Europeans to Florida was swift and cruel. Spanish explorers searched every village looking for gold. The natives were armed with bows could shoot through several thicknesses of chainmail, and Spaniards reported trouble even bending the weapons, though the natives were no match for the soldiers and their powerful commanders. However, it was a single arrow from a native bow that ultimately ended León's important legacy.

León had a desire for fame and fortune when he accompanied Christopher Columbus on his second expedition in 1493. Columbus was provided an armada of seventeen ships and 1,500 men in his quest for an alternative route to India. León was so excited to be part of that expedition after Columbus’s discovery, that he served as one of 200 "gentleman volunteers."

Instead of India, Columbus discovered the islands of Jamaica and Puerto Rico. He also founded a colony in Haiti, which he named Hispaniola or Little Spain. 

In 1502 the newly appointed governor, Nicolás de Ovando, arrived in Hispaniola. León's brutal character toward the native peoples impressed Ovando early on. León crushed the rebellion of the Tainos natives in the island of Higuey and was actively involved in the Higuey massacre

In 1508, he was chosen by the Spanish Crown to lead the conquest and exploitation of the Tainos Indians for gold mining operations in Puerto Rico, and was named governor of the island in 1509. He enslaved the Tainos – forcing them to farm crops and work in gold mines. While his new colony was a success, he overheard natives speak of the Island of Bimini where great riches and a fountain of youth could supposed be found. The natives believed that anyone who drank from the spring would be healed of their illnesses and live forever. 

On February 23, 1512 the King of Spain granted León a patent permitting him to search for the island of Bimini. Because his prior practices had been a success, native peoples were made slaves and put to work in the gold mines. Leon sailed with three ships, Santiago, the San Cristobal and the Santa Maria de la Consolacion, from San Juan to what we now know as the Bahamas. Bimini was supposed to be on one of the group. However, the riches he sought were not found, so he sailed northwest.

On April 2, 1513 he landed near just sound of the Saint John’s River. (The precise location of their landing on the Florida coast has been disputed for many years.) León named the land La Florida because it happened to be Easter season, which is called Pascua Florida by the Spanish.


Only a few days were spent at the primary landing site, as he was eager to discover the fountain or gold. After exploring several sparse woodlands, the men returned to their ships and headed south. On April 8 they encountered a current so strong that it pushed them backwards and forced them to seek anchorage. Their smallest ship, the San Cristobal, was carried out of sight and lost for two days. This was the first encounter with the Gulf Stream where it reaches maximum force between the Florida coast and the Bahamas. Because of the powerful boost provided by the current, it would soon become the primary route for eastbound ships leaving the Spanish Indies for Europe.


After having a difficult time navigating through the Florida Keys, León was now sure he had discovered a very large island, but still could not find the riches he sought. Disappointed, he returned to Hispaniola where he was given permission to found the Spanish colony on the newly discovered land. 

León spent a fortune outfitting his ships for the second voyage to Florida. However, while anchored in Charlotte Harbor they were approached by Native Americans who were initially interested in trading, but soon turned hostile. Several skirmishes ensued with casualties on both sides and the Spaniards took eight Indians captive, including one to become a translator. On June 4, there was another encounter with natives near Sanibel Island with natives approaching the ships with war canoes; the Spanish sank a fourth of them.

León left Florida and returned to Puerto Rico to find his home had been burned to the ground by a Carib tribe from a neighboring island. León packed his things and returned to Spain. It was several years before his final trip to La Florida. 

In 1521 Ponce de León organized a colonizing expedition on two ships. It consisted of some 200 men, including priests, farmers and artisans, 50 horses and other domestic animals. The expedition landed on the southwest coast of Florida, in the vicinity of Caloosahatchee River or Charlotte Harbor. The colonists were soon attacked by Calusa braves and León was injured when an arrow poisoned with the sap of the Manchineel tree struck his thigh. After this attack, he and the colonists sailed to Havana, Cuba, where he soon died of the wound. He was buried in Puerto Rico, in the crypt of San José Church from 1559 to 1836, when his remains were exhumed and later transferred to the Cathedral of San Juan Bautista. 

Besides a legacy of disease and death, the explorer left behind in Florida free-range cattle, horses and hogs originally brought from Europe. After centuries of breeding in the wild, the Seminole Indians in Alachua County became the first cow hunters, domesticating herds of cattle and riding Spanish ponies.

Early pioneers soon followed suit. Families kept their own plot of vegetables, fenced in to ward off foraging free-range cattle and hogs. But the hogs and cattle also fed the settlers, who often took turns hunting and sharing the meat with neighbors. When the settlers began trading cattle with Cuba in return for gold, families were finally able to make their fortune.

And so León's greed for gold eventually led white settlers to their wealth, by taming the very materials that León hoped would tame the Florida landscape. While León never found gold, his legacy eventually became the primary source of profit for early settlers.


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