The new-found continent at once became an object of great interest and attraction to adventurers of every kind, and a thirst for gold occasioned the fitting out of expeditions for further discoveries on the coasts of the main north and west of Hispaniola. That island, where the first Spanish settlements were made, became the centre of operations in the seas around, and on the coasts of the adjacent main after its complete subjection to Castilian rule. Don Diego Columbus, the son and successor of the admiral, was appointed governor, and there, with pomp and ceremony, he and his "vice-queen" held a sort of court which spread a halo of romance around that West Indian empire. Diego had married a daughter of the renowned Duke of Alva, and in June, 1509, had sailed from San Lucar with his wife, his brother Don Fernando who had grown to manhood and was well educated, and his two uncles. They were accompanied by a numerous retinue of cavaliers with their wives, and young ladies of rank and family who were more distinguished for high blood than riches. The latter were adventurers also-sent out to find rich husbands among the settlers in Hispaniola. They were successful, for all of them were soon married to the wealthiest colonists, and refined the rude manners which prevailed among them.
Not long after Diego's arrival Juan Ponce, commonly known as Ponce de Leon, who had borne a conspicuous part in the subjugation of Hispaniola, as a military commander, was appointed by the king governor of Puerto Rico, a large island east of Haiti. Distinguished in the wars with the Moors, and a companion of Columbus in his second voyage, Juan Ponce was regarded with reverence by many, for his locks were white with age, and he had a noble Castilian lineage. He was then an old man animated with the ambitions of youth; and he was still seeking renown and wealth. The enjoyment of life had ever been an exquisite pleasure to him, and his desire to prolong his earthly existence in vigor was intense. That desire made him readily believe the marvelous tales told by some of the natives, of crystal waters flowing from living springs among the Bahama Islands, or on the coast of a beautiful country near them, in which he who bathed would be instantly endowed with immortal youth and great beauty. They told him that these fountains of youth were among magnificent trees which bore golden fruit, where the air was perpetually laden with the most exquisite perfume of flowers, and that these fruits were gathered and given to strangers by beautiful maidens. Here was the old story of the Gardens of the Hesperides in another form, which Hesiod said lay "beyond the bright ocean." Ponce dreamed of these gardens, their fountains, their golden fruit and the beautiful maidens, until he could no longer repress his desire to go in search of them. So, at the beginning of spring in 1512-a month after Vespuccius expired at Seville-he sailed from Puerto Rico for the Bahamas, with ships fitted out at his own expense. On reaching the group, he went from island to island tasting of and bathing in every stream and lake that met his vision. Finally, disappointed but not disheartened, he extended his researches in a northwesterly direction. A few days afterwards, west winds brought the delicious perfumes of flowers. The heart of the old cavalier leaped with joy and hope. Soon a long line of wooded shores were in view, and as he drew near, Ponce saw lofty trees (magnolias) whose marvelous blossoms were tinting the forest, and burdening the air with their delicate fragrance. He believed he was on the borders of the fabled paradise.
It was Easter morning when Ponce and his companions landed near the site of St. Augustine, on the southeastern borders of our Republic. After he and his followers had chanted a joyous hymn commemorative of the resurrection of Jesus, he took possession of the great island, as he supposed it to be, in the name of the sovereign of Castile. Because of its wealth of flowers, some say, or because he first saw the land on Palm Sunday (Pascua Florida), as others tell us, he gave to the country the name of Florida, now one of the States of our Union. Among its forests and savannahs he sought in vain for the miraculous Fountain of Youth and Beauty, exciting the suspicions of the natives. Then he cruised along its shores, doubled Cape Canaveral, and struggling with the Gulf Stream, sailed southward until he became entangled in a group of small islands abounding with huge turtles. This group he called the Tortugas-the Turtles-their present name. On another group he discovered only a single inhabitant-an old Indian woman-who was not a realization of his dream of beautiful maidens in the gardens of the Hesperides. He took the wrinkled hermitess with him, hoping that she might tell him where among the Bahamas he should find the Bimini, the beautiful island with the miraculous fountain. After buffeting the elements for several days, Ponce transferred the old woman to the ship of Ortubia, one of his trusted captains, who was instructed to pursue the search. Then he returned to Puerto Rico, an older if not a wiser man. He had not secured for himself immortal youth, but he had won the immortal honor of being the discoverer of Florida, a part of the North American continent before unknown.
Ortubia soon arrived at Puerto Rico. The old woman had guided him to Bimini, where he found beautiful groves and sparkling springs and limpid streams, but not one of the waters could restore to an old man the vernal greenness of his youth. So Ponce turned his thoughts to more practical subjects. Returning to Spain a few months later, he told the sovereigns of the beautiful land he had discovered, and received the appointment of Governor of Florida on condition that he should plant a colony there. This was not attempted until several years afterward. He had been moping in disappointment at Puerto Rico, after an unsuccessful expedition against the Caribs, until he was assured that Florida was not an island, but a part of the continent. Then ambitious desires moved his sluggish heart, and the brilliant achievements of Cortez in the west, aroused the slumbering energies of the old cavalier. With nearly all of his wealth in two ships, he sailed from Puerto Rico in 1521, and landed on the shores of Florida, not far from where he had first discovered that land, to prepare for founding a colony there. He was met by a crowd of natives who had gathered near the beach with bows and arrows and long javelins, to defend their land from the intrusion of the pale faces, for they had lately been taught, by the bitter experience of their neighbors, to look upon them as children of the Evil Spirit. A sharp battle ensued. Several of the Spaniards were killed, and Ponce de Leon, badly wounded in his thigh, was carried on board his ship and conveyed to Cuba, where he died. Upon his tomb was written the following inscription, in Latin:
IN THIS SEPULCHRE REST THE BONES OF A MAN WHO WAS LION BY NAME AND STILL MORE BY NATURE.
Return to Our Country, Vol. I