By the time he became the first European credited with setting foot in “La Florida” in 1513, Juan Ponce de León had been a successful conquistador roaming the New World for 20 years. He was a companion to Christopher Columbus on the second voyage in 1493, the first governor of Puerto Rico, and an avid explorer of the Caribbean. But for all that is known and written about his numerous exploits, historians still argue over where exactly he first landed in Florida.
De León’s expeditionary narrative seems all too familiar. Having discovered gold in Puerto Rico, he outfitted three ships to find even more riches that the Indigenous people said could be found on distant islands. His goal was the fabled island of Bimini, but he drifted onto the shores of Florida instead (believing the peninsula to be an island), naming it for the Easter festival of flowers (Pascua Florida). De León never found the riches he sought, but he did map out the Florida Keys all the way to Dry Tortuga.
His exploits became the protoplasm of legend, and he was eventually inextricably linked to the tale of the search for the Fountain of Youth. There is no mention of the fountain in any of his written records, although its folklore had long put a spring in the step of many a European explorer. There is also no evidence that Ponce de León initially landed at St. Augustine, the fabled site of the fountain. An enterprising raconteur named Luella Day McConnell (aka “Diamond Lil”), who profited handsomely from the tourist trade in St. Augustine in the early 20th century, seems to be the source of the unsubstantiated claims about Ponce de León.
Today, while archaeologists and historians continue to debate the crucial detail of where Ponce de León first walked the sands of Florida, visitors can enjoy the swashbuckling tales of early exploration appealingly presented at the Juan Ponce de León Landing Park, 150 miles south of St. Augustine. A few steps east will allow them to enjoy the quiet sandy beaches themselves.