Juan Ponce de Leon (1460?-1521) was a Spanish explorer and soldier who was the first European to set foot in Florida. He also established the oldest European settlement in Puerto Rico and discovered the Gulf Stream (a current in the Atlantic Ocean). Ponce de Leon was searching for the legendary fountain of youth and other riches.
Born in Santervas, Spain, in 1460 (the date is uncertain), Ponce de Leon was a soldier fighting Muslims in southern Spain in the early 1490’s. Ponce de Leon sailed on Christopher Columbus’ second expedition to the Americas in 1493. Ponce de Leon did not return to Spain with Columbus; he stayed in Santo Domingo (now called the Dominican Republic).
He was appointed governor of the Dominican province of Higuey. He later heard of gold in the neighboring island of Borinquen (now called Puerto Rico) and brutally conquered the island, claiming it for Spain. He was then appointed governor of this island, and was removed from office in 1511.
Ponce de Leon was then given the right to find and take the island of Bimini (in the Bahamas); he was searching for riches and the fountain of youth (a legendary spring that gave people eternal life and health). He sailed from Puerto Rico on March 3, 1513, with three ships, the Santa Maria, the Santiago, and the San Cristobal, and about 200 men. After stops at Grand Turk Island and San Salvador, they reached the east coast of Florida (Palm Coast) in 1513. Ponce de Leon named the land “Pascua de Florida” (feast of flowers), because they first spotted land on April 2 (the date is uncertain), 1513, Palm Sunday. He then claimed the land for the King of Spain.
They left on April 8, heading south in the warm current now known as the Gulf Stream. This oceanic current would become very important for Spanish trips from Europe to America. On the return trip, a fight broke out between Ponce de Leon’s men and Native Americans in southern Florida. They sailed to Cuba, then headed north, again trying to find Bimini (but instead, finding Andros Island).
After returning to Puerto Rico, Ponce de Leon resumed fighting the Native Americans (putting down their rebellions against Spanish rule). He returned to Spain and was named a Captain General by the Kind of Spain on September 27, 1514, and again sailed to Puerto Rico to search for the elusive Bimini.
His last expedition was another search for Bimini in 1521. His force of 200 men landed on the west coast of Florida, but, were met by Native American warriors, who wounded many of the men with arrows, including Ponce de Leon. Ponce de Leon returned to Havana, Cuba, and died from his wound (in July, 1521). He is buried in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
The Royal Order of Ponce de Leon Conquistadors was formed as a social club in 1979 by a group of professional and business men with a goal to perpetuate the Spanish Heritage of Charlotte Harbor. Don Juan Ponce de Leon, a Spanish explorer landed in Punta Gorda in 1513 and1521; started a small colony. The ROPC have evolved into a community minded club promoting the well being of Charlotte County, as well as Spanish Heritage. They have visited local schools in authentic full Battle Regalia.
Along with other organizations, they sponsor the Conquistador Cup Regatta, a sailing race in Charlotte Harbor and are a major participant in local parades, in the Palencia, a replica of a Spanish galleon, named for the town Ponce de Leon was born in. The ROPC have a tradition of reenacting Ponce de Leon’s landing with cannon fire and music ; a great entertainment.