The following is a deleted chapter from “EPIC FAILS – The Age of Exploration: Totally Getting Lost”
1513 – Ponce de Leon ‘discovers’ Florida
On April 2, 1513, Juan Ponce de León spotted land in the distance. It was a beach full of lush green foliage, palm trees, sandy beaches, and colorful birds and flowers. To his 200 man crew, it was paradise, the Garden of Eden on Earth. Today its known as Florida.
The next day, Juan ordered his three ships to drop anchor and they all loaded up into longboats and rowed towards the shore. As they explored the sandy white coastline, Juan took note of “the island’s many flowers” and called it “La Pascua Florida” – meaning ‘A Feast of Flowers’. What he didn’t realize was that this was no island – he’d just set foot on a whole new continent!
Ponce de Leon was a tough, no nonsense farmer-turned-conquistador from Spain. Ponce never went looking for trouble, but that didn’t stop trouble from tracking him down, no matter how far he went. He also had a pretty sweet goatee.
As a squire, Ponce crossed swords with the Moors during the Great Siege of Granada. After the war ended, he found himself unemployed with nothing to do. In the quest against boredom, Ponce de Leon ventured across the Atlantic on Columbus’s second voyage and settled in Puerto Rico in 1502 where he started a farm, fought some natives and became Governor. Ponce earned the respect and recognition of King Ferdinand back home, so when he sent a request to chart an expedition in search for more land and gold, the King was more than happy to fund it. Because Kings like that sort of thing.
In Ponce de Leon’s time as Governor of Puerto Rico, he heard gossip from the native Taino Tribe of a land further North: a fabled Caribbean island called ‘Bimini’ or something. According to some sources there were even rumors of a mythical Fountain of Youth —a fresh-water spring that was said to reverse aging and grant eternal life to anyone who drank from it. Official records indicated gold and land being the primary goals, but who wouldn’t at least be a little curious about the prospect of immortality?
Juan and his loyal crew sailed up and down the Floridian coast. They traveled from modern day Saint Augustine to Miami, eventually discovering the Gulf Stream. It was all super chill, everyone was happy, and life was good. The only thing missing was surfboards, volley balls, and bikinis, which all hadn’t been invented yet, unfortunately.
On his way down the coast however, one of Ponce’s ships, the San Cristobal, was pushed off course by the Gulf Stream, so he and his crew decided to take another stroll on the beach, looking for firewood while they waited for the other ship. This time though they ran into a group of not-so-friendly Native Americans: the Calusa. This small gang of rabble rousers were looking for a fight, but Ponce de Leon kept his cool… at first.
The Calusa Indians taunted Ponce and his motley crew, but Ponce wouldn’t give them the satisfaction. Then they tried to steal his boat. When one of Ponce’s men got up in their faces, one of the natives hit him over the head with a stick, instantly knocking him out. That was the last straw. Ponce de Leon went in swinging, but his men pulled him away when it soon became apparent that they were outnumbered by hardcore screaming warriors armed with spears and arrows. They escaped to fight another day.
Ponce and his posse had a couple more run-ins with the Calusa, but this time they were waiting for them off shore with crossbows. After a couple of useless shouting matches, one of the natives tried to convince him to come ashore and settle things face to face, but when Ponce started sailing away, the natives jumped into a canoe and frantically rowed after them and even tried to grab their anchor!
In response, Ponce sent some of his men ashore late that night and set their canoes on fire. Later, the Calusa sent a messenger to the crew offering peace, but Ponce de Leon was (understandably) more than a bit skeptical. The Calusa tribesman told the Spaniards that their King, Carlos, was close by and that he had much gold. As dubious as this all sounded, the mention of gold got Ponce de Leon’s spider-senses tingling. Ponce refused to follow the messenger, but the messenger said that if they waited there, King Carlos (no joke) would bring them the gold as a peace offering.
Instead, King Carlos showed up with a ton more warriors.
You would of thought Ponce and co would’ve given up after that, but before they sailed away, another Calusa Indian showed up and tried to convince them that King Carlos had changed his mind, he was sorry for attacking and was really bringing gold this time. And once again Ponce de Leon fell for their trap! This back and forth went on a few more times, until Ponce de Leon realized that there really was no gold and that they were just pulling his leg. It was time to get the heck out of there.
Ponce de Leon could hardly wait to report his findings, but upon returning home to Puerto Rico he found the entire island in chaos. A native tribe of Caribs had torched the settlement, killed dozens of people and burned down his house. Bummer man.
Ponce de Leon was the kinda dude that got along with just about everyone, both Spaniard and Indian alike… that is until you torch his farm and burn his sweet potato crops. You just don’t burn a man’s sweet potato crops. Especially if they belong to Juan Ponce de Leon! So when the native islanders did just that, Ponce brought the pain.
In 1515, Ponce de Leon returned to Spain and got permission from Ferdinand to colonize Florida and bring an army with him to take on the native uprisings. After dealing with all the crazy shenanigans of being a 16th Century Governor in the Caribbean and getting his finances in order, Juan Ponce De Leon was ready to take another stab at his Floridian travel plans. However, this trip was no vacation. Ponce de Leon’s second voyage to Florida can be summed up in one word: disastrous.
Records of this journey are somewhat scarce, but from what we understand this mission couldn’t have been more mismanaged if you had a family of chimpanzees plan it. In February, 1521, Ponce’s crew made landfall somewhere on the west coast of Florida. They got all psyched and started looking through the bushes for a place to set up camp when all of a sudden they were attacked by a hunting party of angry natives. It was the Calusa… again.
Nothing quite ruins a picnic with your bros like being chased by a group of mega aggro half naked dudes with spears. We don’t know much about what happened during this confrontation, presumably because the guy who would normally be writing everything down was too busy running for his life, but what we do know is that the Calusa warriors managed to chase the Spanish expedition all the way back into the sea. During the fiasco, Ponce took a poisoned arrowhead to the thigh. The ships high-tailed it out of there as the natives presumably spouted the equivalent of “Yeah, you better run!”
Ponce de Leon made it back to Cuba where he died a few months later from his wound. He hadn’t found eternal life, or donkey-loads of gold, but he did become the first man to truly explore the tropical wilderness of Florida.
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