PONCE DE LEÓN, Juan (1474-1521). Letter signed ("Jon poce de leo" {NEED STRAIGHT LINES OVER O IN POCE AND O OF LEON] with large penwork sign manual) as Adelantado (Governor) and Captain-General of San Juan Bautista (Puerto Rico), to Ochoa de Isásaga of the Casa de Contratación de Indias in Seville (a precursor of the Supreme Council of the Indies); [Caparra?], Isla San Juan [Puerto Rico], 7 October 1511.
PONCE DE LEÓN, Juan (1474-1521). Letter signed ("Jon poce de leo" {NEED STRAIGHT LINES OVER O IN POCE AND O OF LEON] with large penwork sign manual) as Adelantado (Governor) and Captain-General of San Juan Bautista (Puerto Rico), to Ochoa de Isásaga of the Casa de Contratación de Indias in Seville (a precursor of the Supreme Council of the Indies); [Caparra?], Isla San Juan [Puerto Rico], 7 October 1511.

PONCE DE LEÓN, Juan (1474-1521). Letter signed ("Jon poce de leo" {NEED STRAIGHT LINES OVER O IN POCE AND O OF LEON] with large penwork sign manual) as Adelantado (Governor) and Captain-General of San Juan Bautista (Puerto Rico), to Ochoa de Isásaga of the Casa de Contratación de Indias in Seville (a precursor of the Supreme Council of the Indies); [Caparra?], Isla San Juan [Puerto Rico], 7 October 1511.

1 page, 4to (10 x 8 in.), the sheet with indistinct watermark, address panel on verso, light stains at edges, left-hand margin with minor paper loss, otherwise in surprisingly good condition, with original deckle edges of the sheet preserved on three sides. Written in a typical Spanish court hand, several letters in the top line of text with penwork flourishes, address on verso in the same scribal hand, boldly docketed (by Isásaga?) on verso "Juan Ponce de Leon" followed by a small cross. In Spanish (full transcription available).



An unpublished, newly discovered letter of exceptional interest for the history of the eventful early phases of Spanish exploration and conquest in the years immediately following Columbus's epic voyages. Juan Ponce de León, a native of Castile who had fought in the final years of the Moorish expulsion from Spain, was one of a group of young men from noble Spanish families who accompanied Christopher Columbus on his second voyage to the New World. The flotilla departed Cadiz in September 1493 and over the next three years revisited Cuba and Española and was responsible for the discovery and partial exploration of Dominica, the northern islands of the Lesser Antilles, the Virgin Islands, Jamaica and the large island called Boriquén by the Taino natives, named San Juan Bautista by Columbus and, since 1512, known as Puerto Rico. The richly forested island was sighted by Columbus's flotilla between November 18 and 19, 1493. (No log or full roster of those who sailed on this momentous voyage exists, but contemporary testimony, beginning with Francisco de Oviedo and Bartolomé de las Casas, is extensive; later authorities To name a few) include Samuel Eliot Morison, Admiral of the Ocean Sea; Anthony Q. Devereaux, Juan Ponce de León, King Ferdinand and the Fountain of Youth, 1993; Robert H. Fuson, Juan Ponce de León and the Spanish Discovery of Puerto Rico and Florida, 2000; Vicente Murga Sanz, Juan Ponce de León, 1971; Iñigo Abad y Lasierra, Historia geográfica, civil y pol/aitica de la Isla de San Juan, 1959; Aurelio Tió, Nuevas fuentes para la historia de Puerto Rico, 1961).

Ponce de León's subsequent activities for almost a decade after that voyage of are almost entirely undocumented. He may have returned to Castile, or is believed by some to have sailed again for the New World in 1502 with Don Fray Nicholas de Ovando, newly appointed governor of Española (Hispaniola). Columbus had founded the earliest permanent European settlements in the New World there, and the island had become the administrative center of the growing Spanish presence in the Caribbean. It is recorded that Ponce de León served with distinction in the difficult battles against the hostile Taino inhabitants (as chronicled by de las Casas), winning the commendation of Ovando, and was rewarded with a prosperous encomienda (land grant) and the post of Lieutenant Mayor of Higüey (a district in the eastern part of Española). Ponce de León's massive stone home, built there in 1505, still stands near San Rafael del Yuma, Dominican Republic. In this period he befriended another encomendero, Vasco Nuñez de Balboa (1475?-1519) also destined to win fame as a conquistador (Fuson, p.69).

By this time, the once productive gold mines on Española were beginning to yield little ore, while the supply of Indian slave labor to work at its extraction had been severely depleted during the Taino revolts. As Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo recounts: "Because [Ponce de León] had been a captain during the conquest of Higüey he had information from that province and sought to learn from the Indians who on the island of Boriquén or San Juan had a lot of gold. And having learned this, he communicated in secret with the Knight Commander [Ovando] who at that time resided in Española; who gave him permission to pass to the Island of San Juan to explore and learn what it was like."

There is disagreement as to the exact date of Ponce de León's first voyage to San Juan Bautista: traditional authorities date it August 1508 (after he had received the requisite royal commission to explore the island), but Tió, on the basis of new documentary evidence, convincingly argues that Ponce de León made an earlier, unofficial visit, as early as 24 June 1506 (Tió, p.164). Juan González Ponce de León, a cousin of the explorer who served as translator on the exploration stated in a later deposition that five ships, carrying about 100 men, had sailed from Santa Domingo to San Bautista in 1506, landing at El Aguado at the mouth of the Añasco (Fuson, p.73). On this first, unauthorized voyage, the excellent natural harbor of present-day San Juan was explored, and cooperative Taino Indians showed the Spaniards where they could collect placer gold in certain inland streams. Encouraged by these indications, Ponce de León elected to establish a makeshift camp, later named Caparra, some 10 miles inland, on a marshy site which Oviedo (who later visited it) describes as pestilential. But it was almost two years before the island's potential could be exploited, for following the death of Christopher Columbus in 1506 there was considerable uncertainty about the valuable New World titles, privileges and patents granted by Ferdinand and Isabella which his eldest son, Diego Columbus (1450?-1515), stood to inherit. Finally, on 17 May 1508, Ponce de León formally petitioned King Ferdinand for permission to explore San Juan Bautista, and this was granted on 15 June, "primarily on the basis of the gold that had been discovered during Juan Ponce's visit to the island in 1506" (Fuson, p.75).

Ponce de León's second voyage--the first under official sanction, and the first to establish a settlement on Puerto Rico--was made in August 1508. The Caparra camp was expanded into a more permanent fort and farm intended to support the continuing prospecting for gold, and, in March 1509 Juan Ponce succeeded in making the important cacique Agueybana I a Spanish crown vassal. In April 1509, Ponce de León returned to Santa Domingo to report to Governor Ovando on the findings of his 1508 expedition.

At this point, an early transatlantic power struggle broke out--one with far-reaching consequences. In June 1509, Diego Columbus, son of the late Admiral, arrived in Santa Domingo to succeed Ovanda as interim Viceroy of the Indies. Diego acquiesced for a time in Ponce de León's role as acting governor of San Juan, although another newly arrived individual, Don Cristóbal de Sotomayor, claimed he had been chosen by Ferdinand to be Governor of the island. Back at the court in Spain, the former Governor, Ovando, induced Ferdinand to confirm Juan Ponce de León as official Governor of San Juan. Juan Ponce's royal appointment was dated August 14, 1509, but did not reach the New World for several months. In the meantime, relations between Ponce de León and Diego Columbus had deteriorated. On 28 October, Diego Columbus (as yet unaware of Ferdinand's appointment) replaced Juan Ponce, appointing Juan Cerón Deputy Mayor of San Juan and Miguel Diaz de Aux chief sheriff or bailiff (alguacil mayor), tightening his control over the island through these proxies.

Finally, a month later (28 November 1509) the royal order arrived. Ponce de León's position was further bolstered in March 1510 when Ferdinand and his daughter Juana (Juana la loca) named him captain, interim governor and judge of San Juan Bautista; not long afterwards, he was granted the additional titles of "captain of the sea and land and chief justice" of the island. Thus reinstated, he promptly arrested both Juan Cerón and Miguel Diaz de Aux and sent them back to Spain in July 1510, no doubt to the extreme displeasure of Columbus's son, the Viceroy. Sotomayor, meanwhile, relinquished his ambition to be governor and served as a lieutenant of Ponce de León, who named him alguacil mayor. During this turbulent period the King, Ferdinand, "not only took a personal interest in San Bautista and Juan Ponce de León, but he was also well aware of the jurisdictional problems caused by the concessions made to Christopher Colombus and the inheritance of these titles by Christopher's son, Diego" (Fuson, p.80). Anxious to assert royal control over the lucrative new colonies, Ferdinand contested Diego Columbus's rights to the privileges and patents granted his father in the New World. Diego petitioned the Council of Castile for redress.

In 1510, Ponce established the town of Caparra and erected an ample stone home in the settlement. While the Spanish population of San Juan Bautista had burgeoned rapidly, the Indian population declined precipitously--largely due to smallpox and measles--and mistreatment of the Tainos increased. In February 1511, the Tainos, under the cacique Aguaybana II, revolted violently against the Spanish. The uprising, chroniclers record, began with the killing of Cristóbal de Sotomayor and his nephew Diego and soon enveloped the island. For the next year, Ponce de León commanded the Spanish forces in the bloody contest, which dragged on until 1514 when the Taino under cacique Jaureyvo were vanquished by Cristóbal de Mendoza in the battle of Vieques. But in late 1511, the date of the present letter, the revolt was in full swing in many parts of the island.

In his communication to Ochoa Alvarez de Isásaga, one of the governors of the Casa de Contratación de Indias, Ponce describes the turmoil produced by the Taino revolt and its effect on his enterprises: "The mines are running well, though war is no help since every day more caciques rebel and refuse to go [to work]. The Caribs have always been bad for this island." He assures Isásaga that, in spite of the perilous conditions, he is doing his best to carry out the King's desire that the mines be worked, and explains that "The gold has not been sent because no furnaces to smelt it are available."

The following section of the letter apparently relates to Ponce de León's plans for a new voyage of discovery. Sometime in the summer of 1511, Miguel de Pasamonte, royal treasurer of the Indies, had informed Ponce de León that there might be additional islands to the north yet to be discovered; some adventurous slavers had already ventured amongst them. We can only surmise that the prospect of a new enterprise may have had considerable appeal to Juan Ponce in the midst of his current political and military difficulties. In a council meeting at Caparra, Pedro Moreno (who later served as Governor of Puerto Rico) was selected as a special emissary to return to Spain to inform the King about the situation in San Juan and, it evidently, to privately solicit royal approval and support for a Ponce de León's new expedition to locate and explore the islands to the north, known collectively as Bimini. (While Juan Ponce may also have heard vague rumors of a natural spring whose waters had curative or restorative properties, the idea of his seeking a "Fountain of Youth" was a later embellishment of the historical account).

Here, in this newly discovered letter, Ponce de León, expressing himself in a guarded fashion, enquires about Moreno and his mission. With a sense of palpable urgency, Ponce de León writes: "I am also sending the letters and list to the court, since Pedro Moreno, who is empowered to negotiate my position is already there. If any matters concerning my affairs should be communicated to your worship from those gentlemen, I beseech you to look after them as I shall do here with your own interests. Also enclosed with the packet addressed to your highness are ones to the secretary and another to Pedro Moreno to explain about the issues to be discussed with your Highness. Pedro Moreno has not sent me any good news nor identified the specific person who will present them to the court and it is very important to me that he contacts me and I get answers to what I have written."

The materials alluded to so anxiously in Ponce de León's letter very likely concern his need for royal permission to undertake the planned Bimini expedition that ultimately resulted in the discovery of the Florida. As one historian concludes (our translation): "through the agency of Pedro Moreno, Ponce de León communicated, in verbal or written form, his intention and purpose" to the King (Murga, pp.99-100).

But in the meantime, Diego Columbus's prolonged suit against the crown, seeking to recover the full rights and privileges originally granted his father, was resolved in his favor by the Consejo de Castilla. This represented a defeat for both Ferdinand in his efforts to tighten his control over the new colonies, and for Ponce de León, his protege. Not surprisingly, one of Diego Columbus's first acts was to re-appoint Juan Cerón, Ponce de León's old rival, Governor of San Juan Bautista (although Ponce de León remained Captain General). The Royal contract obtained by Moreno and Ponce's allies at court was signed at Burgos on 23 February 1512. It gave exclusive authorization to Juan Ponce, for the period of three years, "to discover and settle" the "island of Bimini." It spelled out how the expedition was to be conducted and how any "metals and profitable things" found there should be apportioned (see full text in Fuson, pp.92-95).

Finally, on 3 March 1513, the epic voyage was launched. Ponce de León and three ships, carrying not more than 65 men, left from San Juan Bautista, sailing northwest, skirting Turks and Caicos Islands and the Bahamas. What appeared to be a very large island was sighted on April 3, and, at a site believed to have been some 30 miles south of Daytona Beach, Ponce de León went ashore, becoming the first recorded European to set foot on the North American continent. As Antonio de Herrera recounts, the explorers called the land "La Florida, because it presented a beautiful vista of many blossoming trees and was low and flat; and also because they discovered it during the time of Easter [Pascua Florida]"(quoted by Fuson, p.105).

The written records of the early years of Spanish exploration were naturally subject to many vicissitudes, and, perhaps not surprisingly, outside of the records of the Archivio General de las Indias, we have been unable to locate any other letters and documents signed by the discoverer of Florida. No such letter or document has been offered at auction in the last 100 years, according to available records. A search of principal American institutional collections lists not one Ponce de León letter or document. Of the surviving letters and documents of the discoverer of Florida, THIS IS THE BY A CONSIDERABLE MARGIN THE EARLIEST IN EXISTENCE, ONE OF ONLY THREE WRITTEN AND SIGNED IN THE NEW WORLD BY PONE DE LÉON, AND THE ONLY EXAMPLE IN PRIVATE OWNERSHIP..

1. Document signed, Valladolid, November 30, 1514; receipt delivered by the King's Secretary, Lopez de Conchillos, 2 ff (Murga, p.354). Seville, Archivio General de las Indias
2. Document signed, Valladolid, November 30, 1514, receipt for documents to be taken to the officers of Casa de Contratación, delivered by King's Secretary, Lopez de Conchillos, 2 ff (Murga, p. 355). Seville, Archivio General de las Indias.
3. Letter signed, Puerto Rico, February 10, 1521, to Emperor Charles I, 1 p., (illustrated in Murga, plate 32). Seville, Archivio General de las Indias.
4. Letter signed, Puerto Rico, February 10, 1521, to Cardinal Adriano de Tortosa, 1 p., (illustrated in Murga, plate 34). Seville, Archivio General de las Indias.
5. (The present) Letter signed, Puerto Rico, 7 October 1511, to Isásaga, 1 page. Newly discovered and previously unpublished.

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