Ponce de León, the son of a respected noble family, was born in the Spanish province of Campos at San Servos. As a youth, he served as a page in the court at Aragon and later fought against the Moors at Granada. In 1493, he accompanied Christopher Columbus on his second voyage to the New World. Ponce subdued the rebellious native population of eastern Hispaniola (today's Dominican Republic). For this service to Spain, he was named governor in 1502.
In 1508-09, Ponce conquered and explored Borinquén (Puerto Rico) in response to rumors of gold on the island. For the next two years, he remained as governor, vastly enriching himself through gold and slaves. He was forced out in 1512 by political opponents.
During his stay in Puerto Rico, Ponce heard reports of a miraculous fountain with restorative waters at a location called Bimini. The Crown authorized him to seek additional lands.
A privately financed venture party set out from Puerto Rico in March 1513 in search of Bimini. They arrived at a site north of present-day St. Augustine on April 2. Ponce named the land Florida in honor of the recently celebrated Easter holy day (Pascua florida or Pascua de flores, meaning Easter in Spanish). Still believing that he had discovered an island, Ponce attempted to circumnavigate it, sailing as far south as Key West and then north to the vicinity of what would become Tampa. It is believed that the natives' hostility dissuaded the group from attempting a permanent settlement. Ponce returned to Puerto Rico in the fall of 1513 and later departed for Spain, where he was named the governor of Bimini and the "island" of Florida.
When Ponce returned to the New World in 1515, he served as a soldier for several years in attempts to suppress native rebellions. In 1521, he led an endeavor to colonize the west coast of Florida. Taking two ships with 50 horses and 200 men, the group landed at an unknown location and met immediate resistance from the natives. Ponce was wounded by an arrow and he, along with his entire force, withdrew to Havana where he died.
Ponce de León is regarded as the Western discoverer of Florida. He was typical of the conquistadores of his age, believing that the spread of Christianity was such a great gift to the natives that their losses of freedom and life were of little consequence.