Juan Ponce de León

Circa 1513, Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon (1460 - 1521) in his search for the fabulous island of Bimini where the legendary Fountain of Youth was said to be located. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

If you’ve ever been to Florida, Puerto Rico, or the Dominican Republic, you’ve probably seen some street name, city name, or statue honoring Juan Ponce de León, the Spanish conquistador. That is because he was very influential in all three of those places.

First, it is believed that in 1493, he accompanied Christopher Columbus on one of his voyages to the New World. For several years, Ponce de León served as a captain for Nicolás de Ovando, who at the time was the Spanish governor of Hispaniola, or the island where Haiti and the Dominican Republic are located. After proving his loyalty and bravery against the Native Americans, Ponce de León was appointed governor of the eastern province of the island. Soon, Ponce de León ventured off to explore a nearby island, which we know today as Puerto Rico.

Later, Ponce de León voyaged to find gold, more land, and a “fountain of youth” on an island named Bimini, rumored to rejuvenate people and make them young forever. In April 1513, Ponce de León instead landed on the coast of land that he named Florida due to the lush, floral surroundings. On his way, he also discovered the Gulf Stream, an avenue that future Spanish explorers used to go back and forth between Spain and the New World. Because of his discovery, Spain authorized colonization of the land and crowned Ponce de León governor of Bimini and Florida, where the oldest settlement in the United States, St. Augustine, would be established.

In 1521, Ponce de León was heading from Puerto Rico to Florida when he landed on the southwest coast of Florida. A few months later, Native Americans in the region apparently attacked Ponce de León and his men, leaving Ponce de León fatally wounded with an arrow to the thigh. He was taken to Havana, Cuba, but died from his wound. Ponce de León’s remains were later brought to Puerto Rico to be laid to rest.

As with most conquistadors, Ponce de León is no stranger to controversy due to his clashes with and enslavement of Native Americans. However, he did have a big influence on the development of Florida and the Caribbean. If you visit St. Augustine today, you can visit the infamous Fountain of Youth and learn all about Ponce de León’s travels to the state. In Puerto Rico, the city of Ponce is named after him, and people can visit the cathedral where his remains are buried.