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Puerto Rico Profile: Ponce de León

December 15, 2000
Copyright © 2000 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

Puerto Rico will soon have a new governor. On November 7, the people of Puerto Rico cast votes for the chief executive of the island’s affairs for the fourteenth time since gaining that right in 1948. Sila Calderón, the winner in this year’s contest, will in a few weeks become the seventh elected governor in Puerto Rico’s history, and the first woman ever to hold the position.

As the island prepares for a change in administration, now is perhaps as good a time as any to look back almost 500 years to the beginning of Puerto Rico’s colonial era, when the position of governor was introduced to the island by conquerors from across the ocean. It is also an opportunity to examine the life of Ponce de León, famous seeker of the Fountain of Youth, discoverer of Florida, and the first Governor of Puerto Rico.

In 1493, a year after his accidental discovery of the "New World," Christopher Columbus made a second voyage across the Atlantic with 17 ships and over 1,200 men. As the expedition sailed through the Caribbean, Columbus caught wind of an island called Boriquén. He decided to visit the island, and in November of 1493, he landed near present-day Aguada, on the west coast of Puerto Rico. He promptly claimed the island for Spain and renamed it San Juan Bautista (St. John the Baptist) in honor of Don Juan, the son of the King and Queen.

Accompanying Columbus in the landing party was a Spanish soldier named Juan Ponce de León. He had distinguished himself in the wars against the Moors in Spain, which had finally concluded with the Spanish victory at Grenada in 1492, just months before Columbus’ famous first voyage. As one of the first Europeans to explore Boriquén, Ponce de León obtained a first-hand glimpse of the civilization of the Taíno Indians. Unfortunately, he would also be instrumental in extinguishing that culture. Out of an estimated population of 30,000 Taínos at the time of Columbus’ arrival, barely more than 1,000 would remain by 1530.

The Columbus expedition soon continued to Hispaniola, the island shared today by Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Christopher Columbus would never again see "San Juan Bautista," but Ponce de León was destined to return to the island and become a central figure in its colonial history.

First, though, he settled on Hispaniola. Still a warrior, in 1504 he suppressed an Indian uprising there, and he was awarded with enough wealth and land to retire. However, intrigued by the possibility of returning to San Juan Bautista, he petitioned the Spanish crown for permission to colonize the island. In 1508, he received that permission and launched from Hispaniola with a group of 50 men.

On August 12, 1508, Ponce de León anchored his ship in Guánica Bay, on the southern coast of San Juan Bautista. (Incidentally, this was the same location where the United States Expeditionary Force landed on Puerto Rico in 1898.) He proceeded to the east and up around the coast to the north side of the island, along the way meeting and befriending the Taíno Indians, who initially believed the Spaniards to be immortals. When Ponce de León reached what is now San Juan Bay, he reportedly exclaimed, "Ay, que puerto rico!" ("Ah, what a rich port!")

Sailing into San Juan Bay, he founded a town which he called "Caparra" on the bay’s isolated and forested inland side. He planted yucca there, then he returned to Hispaniola, bringing a local Taíno chieftain with him as his guest. The following year, he returned to Caparra, this time as the first governor of the island, by order of King Ferdinand of Spain.

Ponce de León’s stint as governor was not dissimilar to those of his fellow conquistadors throughout the Americas. After securing the friendship of the Taínos, he assigned them to individual Spanish settlers to act as forced labor in the island’s gold mines. The Indians did not at first resist, but in 1511 one of their chieftains decided to test whether the Spaniards really were immortal, holding one of them under water for several hours. Upon realizing that the Spanish could indeed be killed, many of the Taínos began to fight back. They could not match the technological superiority of European weaponry, however, and they were defeated. Many fled the island, and the rest surrendered.

Ponce de León’s influence on Puerto Rican history was not limited to slavery and bloodshed. For instance, he established the first experimental farm in the New World, testing the ability of European plants to grow in a new habitat. He also kept journals and wrote letters which have provided historians with an invaluable glimpse of life in the new colony. In 1509, he sent a request for priests and funds to build the island’s first church. Two years later, he renamed the town of Caparra, calling it Puerto Rico.

As the years passed, Ponce de León began hearing tales from the Taínos about a fantastic island to the northwest called Bimini, on which could be found a fountain whose waters restored youth. In 1512, Ponce de León received a royal grant to seek out this island and attempt to discover its "Fountain of Youth." Thus began the quest for which Ponce de León is most famous, and which cost him his life.

He left the settlement of Puerto Rico in search of the mythical fountain and the treasures that apparently surrounded it. He landed in the Bahamas, on an island that still bears the name Bimini. Then he continued to the northwest, and on Easter Sunday, 1513, he spotted what he thought was a large island, and which he called "Florida." He therefore became the first of the European explorers to discover what would become the mainland United States.

On this first voyage, Ponce de León sailed up the east coast of Florida, perhaps as far as where Jacksonville is today. When he returned to the colony that was still called San Juan (the Spanish names of the island and the capital city would be switched in 1521), he applied for permission to settle the newly discovered land. He received the grant to do so in 1514, but internal warfare and a smallpox epidemic delayed his second trip for seven years.

The year he left to settle Florida, in 1521, Ponce de León’s capital was moved across San Juan Bay to its present location, and construction began on a residence for the governor, called the casa blanca. Today, that building remains in Old San Juan.

For the second Florida expedition, Ponce de León opted to travel up the west coast of what he still believed to be a large island. He was accompanied by a force of 500 men, including priests, farmers, and artisans. Near Sanibel Island, in the area of present-day Ft. Myers, the expedition landed to replenish its fresh water. In the dense forests near the coast, they were ambushed and driven away by Calusa Indian warriors, and Ponce de León was mortally wounded by a poisoned arrow. He was rushed back to Cuba, the nearest safe haven, where he died a few days after his arrival.

The body of Ponce de León remained in Cuba until it was brought to Puerto Rico many years later by his grandson, Juan Ponce de León II, the first native-born governor of Puerto Rico. He was interred at San José Church in San Juan, but his remains were moved once again in 1913, when they were placed in San Juan Cathedral.

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