Don’t rely on Florida Lottery ads for your history information. The current TV and online ad depicts Juan Ponce de Leon heading across the Atlantic Ocean straight to Florida. But Ponce de Leon and most of the explorers of Florida who came after him, stopped in the Caribbean islands of Cuba or Puerto Rico, as Susan R. Parker reports in this article for the Saint Augustine Record.
Ponce had crossed the Atlantic probably in the year 1502, 11 years before setting out on his voyage that would bring him to Florida’s beaches. Ponce lived on the island of Hispaniola (today the Dominican Republic and Haiti) for about six years. Then, he relocated to Puerto Rico, where he established farms and prospected for gold. Ponce also wrangled with the relatives of Christopher Columbus in legal fights and attacks on each others’ reputations over the governorship of Puerto Rico and profits from that island. Finally, in March of 1513 Ponce left Puerto Rico on his Florida adventure.
Florida explorer Hernando de Soto also had a “layover” in the islands between his departure from Spain and his sailing to explore Florida. De Soto left the port of San Lucar, Spain, in April 1538. Two months later he arrived in Cuba. Appointed by the king of Spain as governor of Cuba, de Soto had administrative duties to take care of. He had to find capable men to govern the young towns on the island. De Soto also spent time learning about Cuba, marveling at the tropical fruits and fearsome reptiles.
Finally, he made a detailed will, stocked his ships with food from Cuba and loaded horses and pigs on board his ships. After more than a year in Cuba, de Soto sailed out of Havana on May 18, 1539, bound for Florida. A week later he sighted the west coast of Florida and began the arduous four-year trek through the Southeast.
Pedro Menendez de Aviles, founder of St. Augustine, as well stopped in the islands as he headed to settle in La Florida, a territory that extended far beyond today’s state boundaries. On June 27, 1565, Menendez departed the port of Cadiz, Spain, with 10 ships. His ships suffered through a hurricane in the middle of July and on Aug. 13, Menendez sailed into San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Menendez and his men worked at full speed to repair the storm-damaged boats and load supplies. Two days later, the fleet left Puerto Rico, headed for the east coast of North America. On Sept. 8, Menendez and his men stepped ashore at today’s St. Augustine.
Hardly any ships left Spain to go directly to Florida. The ocean currents took the ships southward to the Caribbean islands. And it was always necessary to re-stock food supplies in the islands before heading to the continent.
However, we really should call Ponce de Leon’s time in the islands more than a stopover. More than 10 years of building his fortune in the islands came in between his departure from Spain and his departure for Florida. When Ponce left Spain in 1502, he had no thoughts of Florida.