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- Spanish explorer and conquistador
When Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León discovered Florida, he was said to be looking for the fabled Fountain of Youth — which adds a touch of irony to the state’s current status as one of America’s top retirement destinations.
Ponce de León earned a reputation as an able fighter during Spanish wars against the Moors and got his first taste of adventure at sea when he joined Christopher Columbus’s second voyage to the New World in 1493. He went on to help subjugate the native people of Hispaniola, the island that is now home to the Dominican Republic and Haiti, and the Spanish crows granted him land and a post as governor.
He earned even more money and favor when he found gold in what is now Puerto Rico (although his name has long been associated with searching for the Fountain of Youth, he more likely cared about the gold) and became governor there.
His next assignment: explore northward, where more islands were rumored to lie. On April 2, 1513, his three ships arrived at what he thought was another lush tropical island, and he named it La Florida, meaning flowery or ornate. In reality, he had arrived at the east coast of what is now the state of Florida.
They stayed for five days, then set sail again and were immediately caught up in the Gulf Stream, which almost carried them out into the open ocean. After about eight months of exploring the Florida Keys and other Caribbean islands, Ponce de León returned home to Puerto Rico. He returned to colonize Florida in 1521, but Calusa braves attacked his landing party, and he died from an arrow wound.
Although it’s impossible to know exactly where the initial Spanish expedition landed (guesses range everywhere from St. Augustine to Melbourne Beach), many locales in that part of Florida bear Ponce de León’s name. They include Ponce Inlet, just south of Daytona Beach, and its Ponce de León Inlet Light. Thousands of tourists visit the inlet’s beaches and its lighthouse each year.