Thoughts on Columbus, Ponce de Leon and North America

2018 HAL Voyage of the Vikings

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Perhaps it’s a fact of life that as one ages, curiosity increases and distraction ensues.  That might explain why, as we have researched the Viking Age, we find ourselves delving into topics further afield!  It was so easy to be side-tracked into a little exploration regarding Columbus which then led to a “look-see” about Juan Ponce de Leon!  And so on.

In the last blog post, I mentioned that Leif Erikson was the first explorer to establish a colony on the North American continent.  In 1000, he and his crew over-wintered in the settlement they named “Vinland.”    The ruins of the only Norse settlement found in North America thus far are in L’Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland. They were discovered in 1963.  It may or may not be Vinland—but  it is proof of the first European landfall in the Americas!  Almost 500 years later, while looking for a trade route to Asia, Christopher Columbus came upon the Americas, once again, albeit to the south.  The difference in 1492 was the exploration-conquest-colonization-profit factor.  Columbus’s 4 voyages led to ongoing European contact with the Americas.  The knowledge that a new continent existed between Asia and Europe was a breakthrough in geographical science and led Spain, Portugal, and other European sea powers into a new era of exploration and colonization.

Juan Ponce de Leon, at the age of nineteen, first came to the Americas as a “gentleman volunteer” with Christopher Columbus’ second expedition in 1493.  He stayed on in Puerto Rico.  By 1513, wealthy from his plantations and mines; politically connected; and having lost his Puerto Rico governorship to Columbus’ son, Diego, Ponce de Leon led the first known European expedition to “La Florida.”  He landed along Florida’s east coast near St. Augustine.  He charted the Atlantic coast down through Cape Canaveral, the Florida Keys, and then up the Gulf coast.  And historians agree, he never, ever, searched for a “Fountain of Youth!”  Upon his return to Puerto Rico in 1514, he was knighted by King Ferdinand, reinstated as governor of Puerto Rico, and authorized to colonize Florida.  He attempted to do that in 1521.  However, “the native Calusa people fiercely resisted the incursion.”  Ponce de Leon was injured in the leg by a poisoned arrow.  The settlers escaped to Cuba where Ponce de Leon died from his wound.  His body was returned to Puerto Rico.  His tomb is in the Cathedral of San Juan Bautista in San Juan.

Of course, European kingdoms continued to send expeditions and continued to establish colonies in the New World.  They built large trade networks across the Atlantic, introduced the natives to Christianity, and exchanged new plants, animals and food crops.  The search for a westward trade route to Asia continued.  Vasco Nunez Balboa crossed the narrow Isthmus of Panama and became the first European to see the Pacific Ocean.  Magellan sailed across the Pacific.  He was killed in the Battle of Mactan in the Philippines.  But the expedition went on to reach the Spice Islands in 1521, returning home via the Indian Ocean, and completing the first circuit of the globe!

What amazing feats of exploration!

This was a fun detour on the road of research.