50. Ponce de Leon

Historic Marker 50 is located at 1405 Duval Street.

Juan Ponce de Leon discovered Florida and the Florida Keys for the Spanish Empire in 1513. He was an accomplished Spanish explorer and military conquistador. Before finding Florida, he accompanied Christopher Columbus on his second voyage to the New World and led three of his own sailing expeditions in the 1500s. The Spanish crown appointed him frontier governor of the Dominican Republic in 1502, and governor of Puerto Rico in 1509.

His greatest legacy dates back to the events of April 2, 1513. In the midst of political instability in Spain, Ponce de Leon personally financed a small fleet of ships, named the Santiago, the San Cristobal and the Santa Maria de la Consolation, to search for gold and expand the land claims of the Spanish empire.

The expedition sailed from Puerto Rico following the Bahamas island chain when land was sighted. The next day, they landed on the west coast of what they perceived as a very large island. They named it La Florida because of the lush sub-tropical landscape they encountered and because its discovery coincided with the Easter season which the Spaniards called Pascua Florida which translates to festival of flowers.

Historians disagree on the exact location of his landing but believe it was somewhere between St. Augustine and the beaches in Melbourne.

They sailed down the coast of Florida hugging the shore and by May 4 the fleet reached Biscayne Bay and took on water at an island they named Santa Marta (now Key Biscayne). By May 15 they were coasting along the Florida Keys, looking for a passage to head north and explore the west coast of what Ponce de Leon still perceived as a very large island.

From a distance, the chain of the Florida Keys reminded Ponce de León of men who were suffering, so he named them Los Martires (the Martyrs). Eventually they found a gap in the reefs and sailed to the north until they reached the west coast of the Florida mainland on May 23.

Once again the exact site of their landfall is controversial. Charlotte Harbor is the most commonly identified spot while some historians believe the landing could have been as far north as Pensacola. Historians have been divided because most believe that the distances between the Keys and Pensacola were too great to cover in the available time. The more likely location was Cape Sable. No matter what the exact site was, Ponce de León anchored for several days to take on water and repair the ships. They were approached by Native Americans who were initially interested in trading but relations soon turned hostile. Several skirmishes followed with casualties on both sides. The expedition party withdrew but not before they took eight Indians captive.

On June 14, they set sail again looking for a chain of islands in the west that had been described by their captives. They reached the Dry Tortugas on June 21 and claimed the islands for the Spanish empire. There they captured giant sea turtles, Caribbean monk seals, and hundreds of seabirds. The area is appropriately named “Tortugas” meaning turtle and “Dry” being a reference to the lack of fresh water on the islands.

A sea turtle was a rich find for a mariner in the 1500s. The giant sea turtles were relatively easy to catch and docile when turned on their back. If kept wet you could store them live in the ships hold until there was a need for fresh meat or turtle soup.

After provisioning his ships, Ponce de Leon’s fleet continued its journey unaware of the strength of the Gulf Stream currents between Key West and Cuba. Pushed by the powerful currents their next landing was on the northwest shore of Cuba. Once they regained their bearings, the fleet retraced their route east along the Florida Keys eventually reaching Grand Bahama on July 8. He returned to his beloved Puerto Rico on October 19 after having been away for almost eight months.

Ponce de Leon’s next foray into the Florida Keys took place during his third and final exploration in 1521. He was concerned with the status of numerous sanctioned and non-sanctioned explorations of the Caribbean and wanted to protect the authority and rights he held in Florida and the surrounding islands. One of the best ways to lay claim to your rights is to settle the land you have discovered.

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, and farming implements. The expedition landed on the southwest coast of Florida, in the vicinity of Charlotte Harbor. He was fatally injured, there in skirmishes with the native Calusa Indians. It is believed that an arrow poisoned with the sap of the Manchineel tree struck his thigh. After the attack he and the colonists sailed to Havana, Cuba, where he died from his injuries.