Ponce de León’s Voyages

Ponce de León claimed Florida for Spain, founded the Bahama Channel that would serve as a seaway for the Spanish fleet to travel from the Caribbean to the Atlantic, and made the first official contact with indigenous peoples of the North American continent. The Calusa people resisted the incursion and killed Ponce de León before he could settle the land.

Summary of Event

In 1492, when Christopher Columbus claimed the New World for Spain, the indigenous peoples of Florida numbered at least 100,000, perhaps as many as 925,000, and belonged to seven major tribal groups with numerous subgroups. The major tribal groups were the Apalachee in the panhandle of Florida, the Tocobago near Tampa Bay, the Timucuan on the Atlantic coast, the Ais and the Jeaga in the coastal and Indian River region from Cape Canaveral to the St. Lucie River, the Tequesta from the area of Pompano Beach to Cape Sable, and the Calusa south of Tampa Bay to Cape Sable and inland to the area south of what is now Lake Okeechobee. By 1800, all these tribes were virtually extinct, having fallen to European diseases, conquest, and incursions from the northern Creeks. Exploration and colonization;Spain of Florida
Ponce de León, Juan
Carlos, Chief
Menéndez de Avilés, Pedro
Ponce de León, Juan
Columbus, Christopher
Ferdinand II (king of Spain)
Narváez, Pánfilo de
De Soto, Hernando
Luna y Arellano, Tristán de
Philip II (king of Spain)
Menéndez de Avilés, Pedro
Carlos, Chief
Antonia, Doña
Ponce de León, Juan

Juan Ponce de Leóon started his voyages in 1493 when he accompanied Christopher Columbus on his second voyage to Hispaniola to plant a permanent settlement in the Caribbean. In 1521, Ponce de Leóon founded a colony on the Gulf coast of Florida.

(Library of Congress)

Although sometime around 1000, the Norse had made contact with indigenous peoples in what is now southeastern Canada, the Calusas Calusas were the first tribe officially to encounter the Europeans on the mainland of North America. It is probable, however, that other Europeans had made landfall in Florida before Juan Ponce de León arrived at the peninsula in 1513. Scholars have asserted that it is nearly certain that Spanish slave hunters came to Florida from Cuba or Mexico prior to Ponce de León’s voyages, thus accounting for his hostile reception and reports that he met at least one person who spoke some Spanish.

In 1493, Ponce de León had accompanied Columbus on his second voyage to Hispaniola Hispaniola , sent to plant a permanent settlement in the Caribbean. He found a place in the colonial establishment by commanding a force that put down an indigenous insurrection. After conquering the indigenous population of Borinquén (later Puerto Rico), he was named governor in 1508. Although he built a town, established Spanish authority, and enslaved rebellious indigenous peoples there, he had to cede the governorship of that island to the prior claim of Diego Columbus, Christopher’s son.

King Ferdinand II granted Ponce de León a patent on February 2, 1512, to discover and govern the island of Bimini, about which the indigenous had told many tales, including that of the legendary fountain of youth. However, scholars generally agree that the explorer was more interested in claiming land and mineral wealth than in the elusive fountain as he set sail from Puerto Rico on March 3, 1513. On March 27, the expedition sighted land, and on April 2, 1513, the ships reached the Florida coast somewhere between St. Augustine and the St. Johns River. Ponce de León went ashore, claimed possession of all the contiguous land (in effect, all of North America) in the name of the Spanish crown, and called the land Florida after pascua florida, the Easter feast of flowers. He continued his voyage northward to the mouth of the St. Johns River and then turned south; he rounded the Florida Keys (which he named Los Martires, “the Martyrs”) and the Dry Tortugas; he then sailed north up the Gulf coast at least to Charlotte Harbor, perhaps to Pensacola Bay.

When Ponce de León sailed into Charlotte Harbor on June 4, 1513, he entered waters controlled by the Calusa, a highly organized tribe of skilled fishermen and warriors headed by a strong, centralized chiefdom. On the pretense of trading with the Spaniards, the Calusa attacked the Spanish ships with twenty canoes filled with warriors. The Spaniards managed to thwart this attack and sent a messenger with two battle prisoners to the Calusa chief to make peace. The cacique promised to come to Ponce de León’s ship on the following day; he did—with eighty war canoes whose warriors fought the Spanish from morning until night. The Spaniards retreated and continued on their voyage.

On Ponce de León’s return to Puerto Rico in September, 1513, the king made him governor of all he had discovered, commissioning him to colonize the land and to convert the indigenous peoples. However, he was unable to return to Florida until 1521 because he was first sent on a mission to subdue rebellious Caribbean Indians Caribbean Indians in the Lower Antilles. With two ships, two hundred colonists, fifty horses, livestock, and tools, Ponce de León set off from Puerto Rico to plant a colony on the Gulf coast of Florida, in February, 1521. The party landed on the coast of Charlotte Harbor and began to build shelter. Once again, the Spaniards had to retreat in the face of a fierce attack from the Calusa. Several Spanish were killed in the battle, and Ponce de León received an arrow wound in his leg. The expedition sailed back to Cuba, where Ponce de León died. His body lies buried in Puerto Rico.


Numerous ill-fated attempts, including the expeditions of Pánfilo de Narváez in 1528, Hernando de Soto in 1539, and Tristán de Luna y Arellano in 1559, all proved unable to plant a permanent settlement in Florida. It was not until French Huguenots Huguenots;in Florida[Florida] challenged the Spanish dominion of Florida by founding Fort Caroline on the eastern coast that the Spanish finally managed to create a settlement that would set their imprint permanently on Florida soil.

Countering the French challenge, King Philip II appointed Pedro Menéndez de Avilés to drive out the French and to colonize and hold the coast. Subsequent to conquering the French at Fort Caroline and establishing a settlement at St. Augustine in 1565, Menéndez turned his attention to securing the Florida coastlines from pirates and establishing further settlements on the peninsula. When it came to his attention that the Calusa held Spanish captives from shipwrecked vessels and occasionally sacrificed them in religious rituals, he was determined to gain control over the indigenous.

He personally met with Chief Carlos twice in 1566 and 1567, and he established a fort and mission at Calos, the principal village of the Calusa on what is now Key Marcos. Carlos nodded to Menéndez’s superior power by an attempt to cement his alliance with the Spanish governor by giving him his sister, later baptized as Antonia, as a wife. Carlos’s disappointment in the refusal of the Spanish to help him to defeat his Tocobago enemy and the Calusa’s disinterest in Christianity quickly led to renewed strife and tension in their relations with the Spanish.

In his frustration with the Calusa, Menéndez sanctioned the execution of Carlos and later his successor, Felipe. After Felipe’s death, the Calusa burnt the village, and the Spanish left in defeat. This and later missions to the Calusa in the seventeenth century resulted in a number of documents about Calusa culture that have been significantly augmented only by archaeological research undertaken since the 1890’.

Further Reading

  • Bolton, Herbert E. The Spanish Borderlands: A Chronicle of Old Florida and the Southwest. Reprint. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1996. Surveys the history of the discovery, exploration, and development of Florida and the Southwest by the Spanish.
  • Devereux, Anthony Q. Juan Ponce de León, King Ferdinand, and the Fountain of Youth. Spartanburg, S.C.: Waccamaw Press, 1993. A biography of the Spanish explorer, with discussion of the quest for the fountain of youth.
  • Dobyns, Henry F. “The Invasion of Florida: Disease and the Indians of Florida.” In Spanish Pathways in Florida, edited by Ann L. Henderson and Gary R. Mormino. Sarasota, Fla.: Pineapple Press, 1991. Traces the devastation wrought by European diseases on the indigenous populations of Florida, who were virtually extinct by the first decades of the eighteenth century.
  • Dolan, Sean. Juan Ponce de León. New York: Chelsea House, 1995. A highly readable biography with vivid illustrations of life in the New World.
  • Fuson, Robert H. Juan Ponce de León and the Spanish Discovery of Puerto Rico and Florida. Blacksburg, Va.: McDonald & Woodward, 2000. Counters the traditional accounts of Ponce de Léon as a naive and ineffective explorer searching for the fountain of youth. Emphasizes his honesty, trustworthiness, basic competence, and relatively humane treatment of indigenous peoples.
  • Hann, John H., ed. and trans. Missions to the Calusa. Gainesville: University of Florida Press and Florida Museum of Natural History, 1991. Historical documents from the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries, concerning political relations with and missions to the Calusa.
  • Jones, Jane Anderson, and Maurice O’Sullivan, eds. Florida in Poetry: A History of the Imagination. Sarasota, Fla.: Pineapple Press, 1995. Contains bilingual excerpts of poems written by Spanish poets extolling the conquistadores and chronicling their encounters with Florida’s inhabitants.
  • Pérez de Ribas, Andrés. History of the Triumphs of Our Holy Faith Amongst the Most Barbarous and Fierce Peoples of the New World. Translated by Daniel T. Reff, Maureen Ahern, and Richard K. Danford. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1999. First published in 1645, this history of the Spanish missions in Northern New Spain from 1591 to 1643 begins with an “Approval of Fray Juan Ponce de Léon.”
  • Tebeau, Charlton W. A History of Florida. Rev. ed. Coral Gables, Fla.: University of Miami Press, 1980. The first four chapters of this classic Florida history cover the indigenous inhabitants and their initial encounters with the Europeans.
  • Widmer, Randolph J. The Evolution of the Calusa: A Nonagricultural Chiefdom of the Southwest Florida Coast. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1988. An archaeological study of the development of the Calusa, positing that this highly developed hierarchical chiefdom evolved as a result of demographic elements.

Oct. 12, 1492: Columbus Lands in the Americas

1528-1536: Narváez’s and Cabeza de Vaca’s Expeditions

May 28, 1539-Sept. 10, 1543: De Soto’s North American Expedition

Feb. 23, 1540-Oct., 1542: Coronado’s Southwest Expedition

1542-1543: The New Laws of Spain

Sept., 1565: St. Augustine Is Founded

July 4, 1584-1590: Lost Colony of Roanoke

Jan., 1598-Feb., 1599: Oñate’s New Mexico Expedition