1. Life & Culture

Explorer or exploiter? Ponce de León story changes over the centuries

Books about Ponce de León at the University of Florida’s P.K. Yonge Library of Florida History range from the 1700s to now and cast the same story in different lights. “I think we understand him better today than we ever did,” says curator James Cusick.
Books about Ponce de León at the University of Florida’s P.K. Yonge Library of Florida History range from the 1700s to now and cast the same story in different lights. “I think we understand him better today than we ever did,” says curator James Cusick.
Published Mar. 4, 2013

He sailed from Puerto Rico, searching for new land. He wore striped pants. He named Florida. On that all of the accounts seem to agree.

But other aspects of Ponce de León's story shift with time.

Was he searching for gold? Hunting slaves? Longing for youth?

Was he brave? Was he cruel? Was he duped?

In the last century, especially, as we have come to better understand and appreciate native cultures, the tale's telling has changed. Now the hero seems merely a man.

As the state celebrates the 500th anniversary of Ponce's arrival, we asked James Cusick, curator of the P.K. Yonge Library of Florida History collection at the University of Florida, to help us understand the evolution of the explorer's story.

From the 40,000 volumes in his care, Cusick pulled 15 — starting with the first recording of the voyage, written in 1601 — including children's books and textbooks. He spread them across a table in the library's Grand Reading Room, propped them on pillows and walked us through their pages.

"I think we understand him better today than we ever did," Cusick said, opening the oldest volume, published in 1726. "He lived in a world that was military … with cutthroat competition. He had no compunction about putting down Native American uprisings. Now, when we look at him, he's not necessarily admirable."

1601: Historia de los Hechos de los Castellanos, by Antonio de Herrera y Tordesillas As published in 1726, translated by Dr. L.D. Scisco in 1913:

Juan Ponce de León finding himself without office … and seeing himself rich, determined to do something with which to gain honor and increase estate; and as he had news that lands were found to the northward he resolved to go to explore toward that part …

They ran along the length of coast seeking harbor and at night they anchored near the land in eight fathoms of water. And thinking that this land was an island they named it La Florida, because it had a very pretty view of many and cool woodlands, and it was level and uniform: and because, moreover, they discovered it in the time of the Flowery Festival ...

Here Juan Ponce went on land, called by the Indians, who presently tried to take the boat, the oars, and the arms. And in order not to break with them it was permitted them, in order not to cause irritation in the region. But, because they struck a seaman in the head with a staff, from which he remained unconscious, it was necessary to fight with them.

In the next example, written three centuries later, the author is a military officer, so of course he wrote that the explorer was working to honor his king. Later, the writer reveals that Ponce de León's real motivation wasn't land or gold or glory — it was to become immortal.

1892: Ponce de León Land, by G.M. Brown, U.S. Army sergeant

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Ponce de León took possession of the country for his king. He extended his exploration to a great distance, examining every spring and stream for the fountain of youth which was the great object of his search. Disheartened by the perils which had beset him, he gave up the quest to Captain Juan Perez de Ortrubia and sailed back to Puerto Rico. If he had not found the fountain of youth he had discovered a new country, which would always be an honor to his name.

By the turn of the century, "There's a clear pattern emerging that authors always mention the fountain of youth," said Cusick, the librarian. "There is almost more myth than history."

1931: Stories of Florida, by R.J. Longstreet and R.L. Goulding

Perhaps the Indians were afraid of Ponce de León and wanted him to go away. It may be that they thought they were telling him the truth. But when he asked them if they knew where there was gold, they told him of a beautiful land not far away. There was gold there. Better than gold there was a wonderful spring. If a man bathed in this spring he would be young again. The Indians called it the Fountain of Youth.

Now Ponce de León was growing old. He did not wish to have white hair and wrinkled skin. He wanted always to be young and strong. So he set out with three ships to find this beautiful land …

"The storyline changes after World War II. The viewpoint seems to shift away from just the explorers," Cusick said. Books begin to include descriptions of American Indians, both good and bad.

1957: La Florida: Its Land and People, by Leeila S. Copeland and J.E. Dovell The Timucuans were one of six main tribes of Indians living on the peninsula of Florida at the time of its discovery … these Indians were among the most highly civilized of any in Florida. They lived in round wooden huts in villages of as many as two hundred houses. … The Timucuans were tall and tawny-colored. They wore their hair tied up on top of their heads with bands of reeds. The women were modest and very strong. They wore skirts made of moss …

After a victorious battle the Timucuans scalped the enemies they had killed. Then, with reeds sharper than steel knives, they cut off the victims' arms and legs.

Colored pictures adorned school books by the 1960s, along with more maps and broader perspectives. Texts started to begin with geography and what Cusick calls "prehistory." Ponce de León was pushed to Chapter 2, then 3. And, in the shadow of the Vietnam conflict, authors started to include American Indians' perspectives.

"You see a lot more conflict in the later accounts," Cusick said, "an acknowledgment that Native Americans were defending their territory."

1973: Florida: Its Heritage and Horizons, by Edward Fernald and Helen E. Deans

What would you think if some strange people landed near you? Would you be worried? Would you welcome them? These are questions the Indians had to answer. For in the 1500s, strangers arrived in Florida.

Indians watched the first white men land. They became angry when Ponce de León and his men began exploring … These Indians tried to stop them.

The last book Cusick showed us was his own, a collection of documents and essays published for the 500th anniversary.

2012: The Voyages of Ponce de León, Scholarly Perspectives, compiled and edited by James G. Cusick and Sherry Johnson

In the cutthroat world of the 16th century, Ponce de León was one of many rival explorers fighting for a share of the riches of the New World. … In legend, however, he became known as the explorer who was searching for the Fountain of Youth and who first characterized Florida as a flowery paradise. The reality was somewhat different. …

In undertaking his 1513 voyage, Ponce de León sought to stake a claim to land he could call his own. In addition, he was probably trying to capture and enslave native people to work in the Spanish settlements of the Caribbean. The native populations of the Caribbean islands were the labor force that fueled Spanish imperial expansion. …

Given the significance of Ponce de León's voyages, and the changes they brought to Florida, it goes without saying that his legacy stirs emotions ranging from pride, to outrage, to sadness for the loss of life on all sides that came about as a consequence. Looking back over 500 years, some believe that Florida has fared well; others will say that it has long been on a disastrous course. But there can be no question that Florida, as we know it, began in 1513.