Ponce de Leon - Frederick Ober

Florida and Bimini


Before proceeding farther with Juan Ponce on his voyage to Bimini and Florida, let us pause to discuss a question which has vexed the historians not a little. It relates to the date of his sailing, and consequently the date of the resultant discovery—namely, of Florida.

In Peter Martyr's Decades, as translated into English by Richard Eden, is the following reference to the "Discouerynge of the Lande of Floryda": . . ."The Gouerneur of the Ilande of Boriquena, Iohn Ponce de Leon, being discharged of hys office and very ryche, furnyshed and sent foorth two carauels to seek the Ilande of Boynca, in the which the Indians affirmed to be a Fontayne or Springe whose water is of vertue to make olde men younge. But, whyle he trauayled syxe moneths with outragious desire amonge many ilandes to fynde what he soughte and coulde fynde no token of any such fontayne, he entered into Bimini and discouered the lande of Floryda, in the yeere 1512, on Easter Day."

In his second Decade, Peter Martyr writes, addressing the bishop of Rome: "Among the islands on the north side of Hispaniola there is one about 325 leagues distant, as they say which have searched the same, in the which is a continual spring of running water, of such marvellous virtue that the water thereof being drunk (perhaps with some diet) maketh olde men young again. And here I must make protestation to your holiness not to think this to be said lightly or rashly, for they have so spread this rumor for a truth throughout all the court, that not only all the people, but many of them whom wisdom or fortune hath divided from the common sort, think it to be true."

"So fully persuaded was the worthy old cavalier, Juan Ponce, of the existence of this region, that he fitted out three ships at his own expense," says Washington Irving, in his Spanish Voyages of Discovery, . . . "and sailed with them on the 3rd of March, 1512."

This date was adopted by Irving and Bancroft, two eminent authorities, as well as by Herrera, and other writers of repute in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries; but original documents, discovered since they wrote, make it certain that the year of sailing, and hence of the discovery, was 1513.

Says Professor Shea, the author of Ancient Florida, "The capitulation under which Ponce de Leon sailed was issued at Burgos, Spain, February 23, 1512. He could not possibly, by March 27, have returned to Porto Rico, equipped a vessel, and reached Florida. The letters of the king to Ceron and Diaz, in August and December, 1512, show that Ponce de Leon, after returning to Porto Rico, was prevented from sailing and otherwise employed. The letter written by the king to the authorities in Espanola, July 4, 1513, shows that he had received from them information that Ponce de Leon had sailed that year."

While it is doubtful if Juan Ponce received his commission directly from the hands of the king, but, rather, through the influence of friends at court (he himself remaining in Porto Rico), there seems to be no doubt that the royal grant empowering him to "proceed to discover and settle the island of Bimini" was bestowed the year before he sailed.

Some writers allow him two caravels, some three; but all agree that he sailed from Boriquen, or Porto Rico, that he touched at Guanahani on his way to Bimini, and that he had with him as pilot the celebrated Anton de Alaminos, who had been with Columbus on his last voyage when a boy, and who was a native of Palos in Spain. To the fact that Alaminos was with him, doubtless, Juan Ponce owed his immunity from gales and adverse currents, and knowledge of the direct course from Boriquen to San Salvador. That he was with him was ascertained only indirectly through a passage in the Conquest of Mexico, by the stout old soldier Captain Bernal Diaz. Describing the first voyage to the coast of Mexico, under direction of Hernandez de Cordova, in 1517, and the attempt to return, after nearly all the members of the expedition had been wounded, he says: "Having determined to return to the Havannah, by the advice of Alaminos we ran for the coast of Florida, which by his maps, his degrees and altitudes he found to be distant about seventy leagues. With this navigation he was well acquainted, having been in that country on a voyage of discovery with Juan Ponce de Leon. Accordingly, having sailed for four days across the Gulf, we discovered that part of the coast of America to which we were bound."

The reception the Indians gave the discoverers of Mexico, when, wounded and in distress, they touched at the southern coast of Florida to refresh themselves before returning to Cuba, was so similar to that received by Juan Ponce at the hands of the same natives that no apology is offered for quoting the old soldiers' account of it entire.

"When we approached the coast the first object with us was to obtain a supply of water. Our captain, from his wounds and sufferings by thirst, was sinking hourly; on his account, therefore, and our own, twenty of us, of which number I was one, went on shore with the casks. The pilot, Alaminos, warned us to be prepared against a sudden attack of the natives, who had in that manner fallen on him in his former visit to this coast. We accordingly put a good guard in an open place near the shore, and proceeded to make wells, in which, to our great satisfaction, we found excellent water. We stayed about an hour, soaking cloths in it and washing our wounds, and this delay enabled the Indians to fall on us, for at the expiration of that period one of our sentinels gave the alarm, a few moments only before they appeared.

"These Indians were very tall of stature, and were clothed in the skins of animals. They assailed us with flights of arrows, by which they wounded six of us, myself among the rest. We, however, beat them off, and they then went to support another body of their countrymen who, in their canoes, had attacked and seized our boat and were dragging it away with them, having wounded Alaminos and four sailors. We followed them close, and, wading above our waists in the water, rescued the boat, leaving in all twenty-two of them dead, and three who were slightly wounded we made prisoners; these, however, died on the voyage.

"After the natives were driven off we inquired of the soldier who brought the report what had become of his companion. He said that a short time before he saw him go towards the water-side with a hatchet in his hand, to cut a palmetto; that he shortly after heard him cry out, as he supposed when the enemy were putting him to death, and therefore he gave the alarm, the Indians appearing immediately after. This soldier was named Berrio, and he was the only person who escaped without a wound at Pontochan. We went in search of him, and found the tree which he had begun to cut, and the sand much trodden, but no trace of blood, and, of course, concluded that he had been carried off alive. After searching for the space of an hour we gave him up and returned to the vessels with the water, which, when our companions saw, they knew no moderation in their joy. One man in particular leaped into the boat when it came alongside the vessel, and seizing a cask of water, did not stop drinking until he died."

Alaminos the next year piloted Juan de Grijalva's expedition to Mexico, and in 1519 that of Hernando Cortes, which effected the conquest of that vast country and powerful kingdom. In July, 1519, he piloted the first vessel that ever sailed from Mexico to Europe, past the north coast of Cuba, through the Bahama Channel and across the Atlantic, conveying to the king of Spain a portion of the great treasures amassed by Montezuma. He discovered that passage through the island chain known as the Bahama Channel, in fact, and thus passed through the archipelago, in his two voyages in that sea, lengthwise and crosswise. His lengthwise voyage was with Juan Ponce, with whom we have seen him start out, in 1512 or 1513, seeking the wonderful island of Bimini.

Juan Ponce, as we have noted, made harbor in Guanahani, which is about midway the distance, in a straight line, from Porto Rico to Florida, at or near Cape Canaveral. He stayed here several days repairing his vessels (which had been inadequately fitted for the voyage in the haste of departure), and making inquiries of such Indians as he could capture respecting the island containing the fountain.

The Indians of Guanahani did not differ greatly, if at all, from those of Cuba and Hispaniola, but were vastly different from those of Florida, who were as warlike and ferocious as the Caribs themselves. If the Bahamans had originally emigrated from the North American continent, long centuries of isolation had made them a distinct people from their northern cousins, for they were as mild and peaceable as the others were fierce and bellicose. "In person," says an historian, "they were of a middle stature, well shaped but rather fleshy, of an olive color, with high foreheads, open countenances, and regular features. Their hair was black, lank, and very thick, sometimes cut short over their ears, and sometimes tied in tresses.

"They were for the most part naked, and their bodies and faces, like those of the North American warriors, were painted, generally red, but sometimes black or white. They were totally ignorant of the use of iron, and the only articles of any value discovered among them were cotton and gold, though the latter was not found in the Bahamas, but came from a distance. Although averse to war, they sometimes found it necessary to arm themselves in self-defence, and on such occasions they made use of javelins pointed with fish-bones. The principal talent they possessed, and which the Spaniards found of value, was their extraordinary expertness in diving, having probably been accustomed to subsist on conches obtained in this manner in the Bahamas. On this account they were generally transported by the Spaniards still farther south than Hispaniola, and employed in the pearl fishery on the island of Cubagua, coast of Cumana in South America. It is said that one hundred and fifty ducats, at that time a large price, was often given at Hispaniola for a diver of the Bahamas. They survived, however, but a few years under the dominion of their oppressors.

A few were taken along by Juan Ponce's orders, not to be sold as slaves, but to assist in securing provisions in the shape of conches from the sea, and to guide the vessels through the tortuous channels. Bimini, the vieja said, was still to the northward and westward, and in that direction the craft were steered. Several of the Lucayos (as the Bahamas were called by the natives) were visited in succession, but still the evasive Bimini eluded pursuit. Keys and islands, reefs and rocks, in the great chain, number more than two thousand, wad Juan Ponce could not visit them all, even had he the time, as the archipelago was then uncharted, and the location of but a few was known.

In looking for an island, however, he discovered a continent, for, after Alaminos had safely piloted him through the labyrinth of coral reefs into the Gulf Stream, he was borne along the coast of the peninsula to which, from its having been first seen on Easter Sunday—in Spanish, Pascua Florida—he gave the name by which it has been distinguished ever since. The Indian name of the country was Cautio, or Cancio, but, first seen as it was, at the height of the vernal season, with fields and forests abloom with gay-colored flowers, the name bestowed upon it, of the "florid," or "flowery," land, was peculiarly appropriate, not only, says the Spanish historian, "on account of the day in which it was discovered, but because of the exceeding beauty of its groves."

It was, however, a "promised land" into which Ponce de Leon was not to enter save through toil and suffering. He never really entered it, in fact, but coasted its shores, from the point at which land was first seen, probably at or near the site of the present St. Augustine (which was founded fifty-two years later), to the extreme tip of the peninsula, thence northward on the Gulf coast, probably to the boy of Appalachee. The date of discovery was March 27, 1513, but storms and adverse currents prevented him from landing until April 2nd, when he took possession, with the customary ceremonies, in the name of his sovereign.

His northernmost landing on the Atlantic coast was at north latitude thirty degrees and eight minutes, between St. Augustine and the mouth of the St. John's River. Thence he turned southward, doubled Cape Canaveral, and struggled for weeks against the Gulf Stream currents, until he had coasted the keys as far as the westernmost group, which he called the Tortugas, because they were the abode of innumerable sea-turtles. They are known by the name he gave them to-day, as also is a bay north of Cape Sable and west of the Everglades, which is still on the maps as the "Gulf of Ponce de Leon." He attempted to land at various points among the mangrove-bordered cays, or keys, and did succeed in obtaining wood and water from one of them, as well as in careening a caravel which was in need of repairs; but everywhere he met with a hostile reception from the natives—the fierce, implacable Yemassees, ever alert to repel an invasion of their territory.

The peninsula of Florida was inhabited by various tribes of Indians, the Yemassees being the southernmost and the Appalachees the northernmost, but all were warlike. They opposed Ponce de Leon, Narvaez, and De Soto; and the fighting qualities of their descendants were tested more than three hundred years later, by soldiers of the United States, during the long and protracted Seminole War. Those met by Narvaez and De Soto, however, were, with the exception of the Appalachees, less ferocious than the Yemassees of the east coast and the keys, though brave to rashness in defence of their homes.

In connecting with the famed Bimini table a gushing stream of crystal water, delicious tropical fruits, and an abundant supply of the precious metal, the natives seem to have assigned to the island-paradise just those things in which the Bahamas are most deficient. In appearance only some of the islands are attractive and tropical, for though their beaches are beautiful, the waters that lave them clear and transparent, the vegetation is far from luxuriant, gold in a native state is unknown, while springs and streams are almost unknown. Ponce de Leon, then, was seeking something that existed only in the Indians' fancy, and probably the story was an adaptation of some shrewd medicine-man's conception of the heavenly paradise which he and those who obeyed his teachings were to possess in the world to come.

Whatever it may have been, and wherever located, Juan Ponce de Leon did not discover it, though in coasting the keys he found many an islet abounding in wild life of various sorts, such as snowy herons and gaudy flamingoes, bulky pelicans and graceful egrets, with turtles so numerous that his sailors caught them by the hundred.

After pursuing his voyage along the gulf coast of Florida until, it is thought, it trended decidedly westward—which would have taken him at least to Appalachee Bay—Juan Ponce turned about and retraced his course to and around the southern tip of the peninsula with its fringe of keys, and across the strait of Florida to the Bahamas. On his way thither he passed very near the small island which to-day bears the name of Bimini, and said to contain the fabulous spring with healing waters. It lies westward from a group called the Berry Islands, and northwest from New Providence, on which is Nassau, the capital and chief settlement of the Bahamas. This islet he failed to discover, but a trusty captain in his fleet, Juan Perez de Ortubia, guided by another old woman, succeeded in finding it, after Juan Ponce had passed on to Porto Rico.

On the return voyage, the island now known as "Bahama" was visited for the first time, and a group which also bore an aboriginal name, the Lucayos, thought to be identical with the great and little Abaco. One islet of the group the governor called La Vieja, because the only inhabitant discovered there was a lone old woman, who, like the female guide from Porto Rico, professed to know all about Bimini and the Fountain of Youth. She and the vieja from Boriquen compared notes, so to speak, and the result was the discovery of Bimini, just mentioned, for Juan Ponce de Leon took one old woman, and Juan Perez the other, and scoured the chain from one end to the other. The old woman from the Bahamas, being a Lucayo, was the successful one, for when Juan Perez overtook his commander, off the coast of Boriquen, he confirmed the story of an island with verdure and a spring of crystal clearness, but could not vouch for the efficacy of its waters. As neither of the viejas grew any younger, or more comely, and as Juan. Ponce de Leon made no haste to return to the northern Bahamas (allowing seven or eight years to elapse before he did so), it is doubtful if the story of Juan Perez gained credence.

The two voyages of Ponce de Leon through the Bahamas, in 1513 and 1521, were the last the Spaniards made in that direction for many years, all their time being given to the development of regions more productive in precious metals. As gold was discovered in Hispaniola during the first voyage of Columbus, and afterwards in Darien, Mexico, Nicaragua, and Peru, their attention was drawn thither to the exclusion of all other places. Only when the chain was traversed by some galleon going for, or laden with, gold and silver from the mines of "terra firma" were the Bahamas brought to mind.

After the English had discovered what fine harbors some of the islands contained, with fishing and turtling in the waters around them, the Bahamas became the resort of British sailors. Then it was found that these harbors, as well as the channels between the islands, and many an obscure haven (into which a craft of shallow draught could sail, but not a merchantman deep-laden), were well situated for privateering and piracy. Thus they became the resorts of those "brethren of the sea," the buccaneers, and later of out-and-out pirates like "Blackbeard" Tench, whose wild career of murder and lawlessness was ended only when brave Lieutenant Maynard sailed into a harbor on the North Carolina coast with his head at the end of his bowsprit.