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16th Century Explorers of La Florida

Juan Ponce de León (ca. 1474-1521)
Juan Ponce de León y Figueroa was born about 1474 In Santervás de Campos in western Spain. As a teenager he was a squire for Don Pedro Núñez de Guzmán during the Reconquista, the war to recapture from the Moors several Spanish kingdoms on the Iberian Peninsula.

After the war had ended, Ponce joined the small armada of Christopher Columbus’s second voyage to the New World, which left Cadiz, Spain, on September 25, 1493, and arrived in the Caribbean in November 1493. Ponce de León was present when Columbus sighted Dominica, Martinique, Maria Galante, Gaudeloupe, Montserrat, Santa Maria de la Antigua, Saint Croix, the Virgin Islands, Jamaica, and when Columbus landed on Puerto Rico.

During the Indian Wars on Española, Ponce de Leon distinguished himself and was rewarded with governorship of eastern part of the island. He was primarily a farmer, a rare occupation for a Castilian at the time, and had success growing yucca, which was ground into a flour for bread that kept well on the voyages to Europe.

Juan Ponce earned great respect and supplied most of the explorers who stopped at Española en route to points west or returning to Europe. He was noted for his fair treatment of both Indians and Europeans, a remarkable feat giving the barbarity of that period, and he earned the confidence and support of Governor Oviedo and King Ferdinand. Ponce was later named governor of San Juan Bautista (in Puerto Rico) and he established first European colony on the island, near present day San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Between 1506 and 1513, Diego Columbus, son of Christopher Columbus, sued the crown to retain all the entitlements bestowed on his father. Having won,  Diego went to the Indies and forced Ponce to give up his governorship of Puerto Rico, though he did retain the office of military captain for the island.

King Ferdinand granted Ponce the governorship of Bimini, Florida, and the Bahamas, thereby limiting the power of the Columbus family in the New World.  Ponce was glad to escape Puerto Rico, which was becoming an island prison under Diego. At his own expense, Ponce outfitted three ships with 65 people, including two free Africans, two Indian slaves, one white slave, and one woman. The group set sail on March 3, 1513, from Puerto Rico. Exactly one month later, on Easter Sunday, the explorers landed on what they thought was an island and named it La Florida for the Pascua Florida, or feast of flowers celebrated at Easter. Sailing south along the east coast, Ponce made another significant discovery, the Gulf Stream current, which would later speed treasure ships to Spain.
Ponce continued south past Miami Beach, west through the Florida Keys, and north to the barrier islands near Fort Myers, where he encountered the Calusa Indians. After a small skirmish, Ponce backtracked and visited the Dry Tortugas, returning through the Keys and the Bahamas to San Juan Bautista and arriving on October 19, 1513. Upon his return to Spain, Juan Ponce was knighted—the first New World conquistador so honored.
There were two types of authorized exploration authorized—approval from the Castilian and Spanish crowns—and unauthorized unapproved. This was the first authorized exploration of this region. Florida had been visited before by unauthorized visits, from Europeans looking for slaves. Since 1494, slavers had visited the Bahamas Islands to capture slaves.
Las Casas stated that in 1511 Castilians had visited the land that became known as La Florida, apparently the first documentation of enslavement of Indians by Europeans from any part of what is now the United States. A portion of Florida had been mapped by Andres de Morales de Sevilla, who labeled it Isla de Beimeni. This map was added to some of Peter Martyr’s Opera, first published in 1511, and is the first map printed in Castilla that shows any discoveries in the New World.
The idea that Ponce’s primary purpose was to search for the Fountain of Youth is incorrect. He was looking for Bimini, and the fabled Fountain of Youth was a secondary mission.
In February 1521, the newly titled Don Juan returned with fewer than 100 people on two ships and settled near Charlotte Harbor. Four months later, Calusa Indians attacked the small colony, killing or wounding many settlers. Don Juan Ponce de León y Figueroa sailed for Cuba, where he died of wounds sustained in battle. Other survivors of the failed colony sailed to Mexico to join Hernán Cortez.
It would be 44 years before Spain successfully established a permanent presence on the peninsula.

Juan Ponce de Leon Signature Activity

Click here or on signature at right for Juan Ponce de León Signature Activity.


Pánfilo de Narváez (1470-1528)

Panfilo de Narváez was born into an upper-class family in Vallenda, Spain. He joined other conquistadores in the New World to earn his fortune. Between 1509 and 1512, Narváez took part in the conquests of Jamaica and Cuba. In 1520, Governor Diego Valázquez of Cuba sent him to Mexico with 1,000 soldiers to capture Hernán Cortez, who was conquering the Aztec Empire and exceeding his authority. Narváez and his men fought the forces of Cortez in May 1520 near Veracruz. Many of Narváez’s soldiers defected and eventually all joined Cortez, while Narváez was captured and imprisoned in Veracruz for two years.

After his release, Narváez returned to Spain, where King Charles V granted him permission to lead an expedition to Florida. In 1527 his armada of five ships set sail. After reaching the Caribbean, some of his men deserted. He landed near Tampa Bay in April 1528 and proceeded to establish a colony. He started with 600 men, but Narvaez and most of his men died. Eight years later, only four survivors made it to Mexico City. One of those survivors was called Esteban, a black explorer slave. During his journey, Esteban had learned much about the land, and later led Spanish explorers through what is now the southwestern United States.

Hernando de Soto (ca. 1500-1542)

Hernando de Soto was born about 1500 in Spain to a poor family who were nonetheless members of the Spanish nobility. After obtaining some education at a university, he was invited in 1514 to join an expedition to the Indies, where he and his compatriots explored territories that now comprise Panama, Nicaragua, and Honduras. Later, as second in command of Francisco Pizarro’s conquests of Peru and the Incan capital of Cuzco, de Soto further consolidated his wealth before returning to Spain and a life of leisure.

In 1536 King Carols V granted de Soto the title of Governor of Cuba, including La Florida. In April 1538, de Soto departed Spain with about nine ships and 700 to 1,000 men. Arriving at Cuba, they helped defend Havana after a French attack on the city. In May 1539, De Soto and his fleet departed for Florida, landing about ten days later at Tampa Bay. They explored the present-day states of Florida, Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana. They also discovered the mouth of the Mississippi River. After crossing the river, de Soto fell ill and died; his men buried his body in the Mississippi River.

Tristán de Luan y Arellano (1519-1573)

Tristán de Luan y Arellano was born in Spain in 1519. He is best known for a short-lived colony at the site of Pensacola, Florida, in 1559. De Luna sailed to the New World in 1530-1531. In 1540 he joined the Coronado expedition that explored what is now the southeastern United States and northern Mexico. Eight years later he helped put down an Indian revolt in Oaxaca. About 1557 Luis de Velasco, the viceroy of Mexico, selected de Luna to lead an expedition to establish a colony on the Gulf coast and gave him the title of governor of Florida. With about 1,000 colonists, 500 soldiers, and 240 horses, de Luna departed Mexico on June 11, 1559, and landed at Pensacola Bay on August 14. Five days later, a hurricane destroyed most of his ships and supplies. The colony held on until he was relieved of his duties and ordered to Spain in January 1561. De Luna did return to Mexico in 1567, but his expedition had left him broke; he died in Mexico City in 1573.

Jean Ribault (1520-1565)

In 1562 Frenchman Jean Ribault came to Florida to claim territory for France. Ribault landed at the mouth of the St. John’s River, built a stone monument to mark his claim, and continued north, building a fort on the Carolina coast. Ribault left 30 men to run the fort while he returned to France for supplies. A number of accidents at the fort made life difficult for the men, but they were rescued by a passing British ship.

Two years later another Frenchman named Rene Goulaine de Laudonniere led 300 men and four women to Florida and built Fort Caroline near present-day Jacksonville. The colonists ran low on food and became unhappy with Laudonniere’s leadership. As they decided to leave Fort Caroline, Ribault arrived with 500 men, 70 women, and supplies. He saved the French colony in Florida.

On August 28, 1565, the king of Spain sent Pedro Menéndez de Avilés (below) to Florida to drive out the French. Menéndez de Avilés arrived at present-day St. Augustine and immediately marched north to destroy Fort Caroline. Ribault had been warned by friendly Native Americans that the Spanish were going to attack and sailed south with the majority of his men. The Spanish killed those who remained at Fort Caroline, then caught up with Ribault. After a short battle, the Spanish killed most of the French. However, Laudonniere escaped the battle and made it back to France. The location where Menéndez killed Ribault and his men became known as Matanzas, which means massacre.

Pedro Menéndez de Avilés (1519-1574)

Pedro Menéndez de Avilés was born in Spain in 1519. Though he was the son of a nobleman, he ran away to sea at 14 years of age. After 15 years of service in European waters, he made several voyages to the New World beginning in 1560. In 1565, King Philip II of Spain named Menéndez governor of Florida. His mission was to establish a colony in Florida and remove the French colony established in Spanish territory. This also provided Menéndez an opportunity to search for his son Juan, who had shipwrecked in the Bahamas the year before, but he never found him.

 Menéndez departed Spain with a small armada of 11 ships and about 2,000 men in July 1565 and arrived in Florida the following month, where he founded St. Augustine. Menéndez quickly destroyed and killed most of the French at Fort Caroline and renamed it San Mateo. He then took on the French relief headed by Jean Ribault and forced their surrender. Menéndez executed them all except for those who professed to be Catholic (the French in Florida were Huguenot Protestants). He remained in Florida until returning to Spain in 1567. He returned one more time before dying in 1574.


To learn more about the 16th Century Explorers of Florida, click on the links below:

Juan Ponce de León

Juan Ponce de León by John E. Worth

Juan Ponce de León, Spain-Florida Organization

Pánfilo de Narváez

Pánfilo de Narváez by John E. Worth

Biography of Pánfilo de Narváez by Christopher Minster

Pánfilo de Narváez; Explorer

Pánfilo de Narváez, Texas State Historical Association

 Hernando de Soto

Hernando de Soto by John E. Worth

Hernando de Soto Arrives and Explores Florida

Hernando de Soto

Hernando de Soto: Explorer

Tristán de Luan y Arellano

Tristán de Luan y Arellano

Tristán de Luan y Arellano, Spain-Florida Organization

The Tristán de Luan Expedition by Steve Pinson

Shipwrecked History: Spanish Ships Found in Pensacola Harbor by John E. Worth

Jean Ribault

Jean Ribault Claims Florida for Spain

Florida of the French

Pedro Menéndez de Avilés

Pedro Menéndez de Avilés by Michael Gannon

Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, Spain-Florida Organization

Pedro Menéndez



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