In the mid-morning of Thursday, March 3, 1513, Don Juan was rowed out to his ship in the port of San Germán. The ships of his small fleet, the Santiago, the San Cristóbal and the Santa Maria de la Consolación, were being loaded with men, provisions and cargo for the voyage. As they drew near his ship, Don Juan caught a whiff of the crew’s midday dinner of oily rice and beans cooking in pig fat on deck—the distinctive and familiar smell of a sea voyage.
They would set sail in the late afternoon for El Aguada farther up the coast of San Juan (today’s Puerto Rico), where they would anchor until the following night. From El Aguada, they would head north, northwest in search of the illusive ysla de Binini (Bimini Island). As Don Juan had explained with a satirical grimace to his wife, Leonora, having been dispossessed of the governorship of San Juan, he was now offered Binini, rumored to be somewhere west of San Salvador (Bahama). It was his for the taking, if he could find it.
Don Juan Ponce, of the noble León family of Castile and León in northwestern Spain, was 18 years old when Cristóbal Colón made his first voyage to the East Indies in August of 1492. A year and a half later, Colón returned in triumph. Despite all predictions to the contrary, he had sailed to the East Indies and returned, with navigational charts and descriptions of islands and natives he had encountered there. Though he had not located the mainland of China, he had proved that the distance across the Ocean Sea to the East Indies was not, as argued, too far for ships to traverse. The certainty now of opening a faster, westerly trade route to the fabulous riches of Asia was sensational news, and put an end to claims by Portuguese and Spanish astronomers that he had grossly underestimated the distance to China.
The Catholic Majesties of Spain named Cristóbal Colón “Admiral of the Ocean Sea,” promised to appoint him viceroy and governor of any lands he claimed for Spain, and sent him back in September of 1493 with a fleet of 17 ships carrying 1200 soldiers, priests, and farmers to conquer, Christianize, and reap the harvests of Spain’s future East Indian colonies.
Juan Ponce de León sailed with them. Like so many youth of his era, he was excited by the new world of opportunity offered by these nascent explorations of the great Ocean Sea. The Crown promised, to the people who accompanied the Admiral to discover and settle these lands, rights to the “gold and other metals and things of value” found in them. Accordingly, among the passengers on Colón’s second voyage were 200 “gentlemen volunteers.”
On this second visit to the East Indies, Admiral Colón established Spain’s first colony on a large island he named “Hispaniola” (today’s Dominican Republic and Haiti). Eleven years later, when the native Taíno in the eastern province of Higüey revolted against the Spanish who had enslaved them and cursed them with horrific diseases, the new governor of Hispaniola, Nicolás de Ovando, sent Ponce de León to crush the uprising. He did so, and the governor rewarded Don Juan by making him governor of the province he had conquered.
With native slave labor, Don Juan mined gold, bred livestock and grew yuca. The yuca, or cassava root was a major food staple in the islands; the natives ground it into flour from which they made a kind of bread. This cassava bread kept much longer than the biscuits the Spanish made of wheat flour and it gave more energy. Don Juan’s plantation produced cassava biscuits for the crews of Spanish ships returning to Spain from the Indies. Don Juan prospered.
Hearing that rivers of gold flowed through the nearby island of San Juan Bautista (Puerto Rico). Don Juan wasted no time in following up on the rumor. With Ovando’s permission (and enthusiastic support), he initiated settlement of the island and began the search for gold. He found it. In gratitude, Ovando made him governor of the island. Don Juan moved his wife and kids to San Juan and began to mine gold. Any flare ups of temper on the part of the natives at being forced into the labor of building, cultivating and mining his new estate were easily subdued with cross bows and hand cannons. Don Juan prospered.
However, in 1509, Diego Colón, son of the deceased Cristóbal Colón, replaced Ovando as governor of Hispaniola. The political maneuvering of Diego for control of his father’s former dominions ended in the ousting also of Don Juan from his island. Thus, Don Juan lost his title and estates. Sic transit Gloria mundi.
Don Juan caught the next ship back to Spain. He and King Ferdinand had a productive meeting, from which Don Juan must have emerged with the feeling, “that went well.”
The King had granted to his loyal servant a contract not unlike that he had awarded in 1493 to Cristóbal Colón. Juan Ponce de León was to have the exclusive right of discovery of the island of Binini and over it, for the rest of his life, “full power, and civil and criminal jurisdiction.” King Ferdinand inserted into the contract also that Ponce de León should have the same rights to all the islands that he might discover nearby the island of Binini.
Possibly, the king’s intent was to curtail that disputatious and overreaching son of Cristóbal Colón from gaining greater control in the region of what some were now calling “America.”
Now, just over a year later, having procured, equipped and provisioned his ships and hired on the crews, including the capable Anton de Alaminos as chief pilot, 39-year-old Juan Ponce de León stood on the quarterdeck of his caravel in the late afternoon of March 3, 1513, squinting up at the mainsail as his crew hauled it up the mast. His face, a bit sun-leathered, narrowed to the point of his chin, the point accentuated by the beard that the ship’s barber cut close and trimmed narrowly to his jawline. Don Juan dropped his dark eyes from the rising mainsail to the men winching up the anchor. Giving a quiet command to the helmsman, he turned to grip the railing portside. It occurred to him, as he looked toward the harbor and the rise of the forested hills beyond, that he was not unlike Cristóbal Colón, setting sail with his fleet of 3 small ships to conquer new worlds. The taut skin around his mouth made small parentheses on either side of a tight smile. A smaller voyage than Colón’s certainly, only from island to island in the Sea of the Antilles, but a voyage of discovery, nevertheless.
Headed for their first stopover at El Aguado, Ponce de Leon’s ships, burnished to old gold by the setting sun, glided out of the port of San Germán on a deeply shadowed and golden sea.
Island Hopping in the Lucayos
The following night they departed El Aguada and for the next 24 days continued in a north, northwesterly direction with stops among the Lucayos (Bahamian islands) for fresh water and firewood for the cooking fires, and once to make repairs. On the island of Guanahani, which Cristóbal Colón had named “San Salvador” as it was the first island in “America” to receive his footfall in 1492, they careened one of the ships to seal leaks in the hull.
After spending a week or more on San Salvador, Don Juan gave the order to hoist anchor. They were ready to enter the uncharted sea westward of San Salvador. The ships heeled to starboard as their sails bellied in the wind. Spinning the ships’ wheels, the helmsmen brought the ships about close hauled to the wind and they headed out to sea, sailing northwest and by north for the hoped-for island of Binini.
They Saw an Island
The ships were under sail running to the northwest on March 27, when the historian, Antonio Herrera, tells us, “they saw an island that they did not recognize.”
It was Easter Sunday, which the Spanish call “the Feast of Flowers (La Pascua Florída).”
For several days, they continued to sail in the same direction along the coastline of this island until, on April 2, approaching the shore, they dropped anchor in 8 fathoms of water. Gripping the portside gunnel on the quarterdeck, Don Juan and his chief pilot, Alaminas, gazed shoreward. They knew that the island was not Binini. It was too large. And unlike so many of the islands of the West Indies, it was flat. Juan Ponce glanced at Alaminas with lifted brows and shrugged.
A barca was lowered. They went ashore, the rowboat scraping crushed white shell as crewmen propelled it onto the beach just over the waterline. The Captain and ship’s officers got up and stepped out, their boots thunking in the bottom of the rowboat. They trudged through dunes of deep, flour-like sand, some of the men running the golden, swaying sea oats through their hands as they passed.
Trailing vines of wildflowers carpeted their approach to the trees, and as they walked into the grove, they found the canopied shade of the old oaks and towering pines refreshingly cool.
Juan Ponce turned to Alaminas. “I don’t know what this island is, but I think,” he said, looking from the vines of wildflowers on the beach to the bromeliads in the oaks, “I’ll name it, ‘La Florída’—for La Pascua Florída. Yes?” he asked, his eyes shining with pleasure.
Alaminas nodded, smiling. “Yes,” he said. “Very pretty.”
Don Juan slapped his friend on the back. “Let us kneel then, and claim this island for our most gracious and powerful emperor, the King of Spain.”
Historians believe that this first landing of Europeans upon the continent of North America occurred somewhere between present-day New Smyrna and Vero Beach, in Volusa County, Florida.