The Hispanic-American History Timeline
1513 Ponce de Leon Discovers North America,
Names Her 'Florida'
April 2, 1513 -- Spanish explorer, conquistador and former Governor Puerto Rico Juan Ponce De Leon leads three ships and 200 explorers who become the first Europeans to set foot on what is now the American mainland.
He thinks he has discovered another island, like those he knows in the Caribbean. He arrives on Easter season, or “Pascua Florida,” he sees that this new land is rich with lush vegetation, and so he names this new flowery island, “Florida.”
Obviously, that name stuck, even after it was discovered that Florida is not an island, but a peninsula attached to a much bigger mainland.
In fact, unlike Christopher Columbus, who never set foot on North America, it is Ponce de Leon who discovers the mainland that becomes the United States – although he doesn’t get proper credit for it. We often think of him as the explorer who only discovered today’s State of Florida, which is a grave mistake.
Another mistake is assuming that he is looking for the so-called “Fountain of Youth,” a spring of water that is supposed to give eternal youth. Of course, there are rumors about miraculous, rejuvenating waters, but they are only tales and certainly not the motivation for his journey.
While there is much documentation about his search for new islands for Spain (especially in his correspondence with King Ferdinand), there is no mention of a search for magical water.
However, a very significant water current is indeed discovered by this expedition! While Ponce de Leon explores the eastern shore of La Florida, landing on April 3 in the present-day St. Augustine area, his pilot, Antón de Alaminos, stays on a ships and discovers an eastbound, warm water current in the Atlantic Ocean. That current later becomes known as the Gulf Stream, and for centuries serves as an accelerator – the fastest route – for European ships sailing back home from North America.
Before returning to Puerto Rico, the Ponce de Leon expedition also explores the Florida Keys and some of the west coast of the peninsula, occasionally getting in skirmishes with the natives.
It is eight years later that Ponce de Leon returns to Florida – in Spain’s first attempt to establish a colony there -- and loses is life in another skirmish with west coast Indians.
Nevertheless, shortly after his death, without any proof whatsoever, some historians begin liking Ponce de Leon to the mythical east coast Fountain of Youth.
But is it meant to embellish his great accomplishment with a little fiction, or to divert attention from it?
Instead of the fictitious Fountain of Youth, why not give him proper credit for discovering North America? Wouldn’t that be enough? Why isn’t April 2nd a national holiday, recognizing the day this country was discovered?
Nowadays, some historians acknowledge that the Fountain of Youth story was “really more for entertainment than attempts to write a true history,” but it made fiction inextricably and regrettably mixed with significant Hispanic-American history. It made history lose credibility. Was this a Black Legend Anglo Saxon effort to minimize this Spanish accomplishment?
Unfortunately, today, although most Americans know very little about our Hispanic history, many will tell you the “historical facts” they remember from their American history books: That Ponce de Leon came looking for the Fountain of Youth and discovered the State of Florida! It’s absurd!
Even today, in St. Augustine, there is a tourist attraction that pretends to be the actual Fountain of Youth. Every year, thousands of visitors take sips from is sulfur-smelling well water -- just in case the myth is true!
But what most people don’t realize is that the miraculous water source was as much a myth during Ponce de Leon’s time as it is today. It was only a myth; certainly not the motivation for this historic, game-changing expedition.
Ponce de Leon is rightfully remembered and honored in Puerto Rico and Florida. His gravesite is inside the San Juan Bautista Cathedral in Old San San. There are numerous parks, streets and other landmarks named after him. His statues are numerous too. In Florida, in 2013, there were various significant reenactments commemorating the 500th anniversary of his landing.
But now that we know that Ponce de Leon discovered the mainland we now call the United States of America, now that we know see the significance of his findings, why isn’t he a national figure and why isn’t April 2nd a huge national holiday?
By David Peña, Lehman College
San Juan Bautista Cathedral and Ponce de Leon Gravesite: