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JUAN PONCE'S LAST CAMPAIGN
 "WITH this evyl begynnynge Iohn Ponce departed from hence to Boriquen, and from thence to
Florida, where he wente alande with his souldiers, to espye a place moste commodious to
inhabite and plante a colonie. But the Indians comynge forthe againste hym, assayled the
Spanyardes fiercely, and slewe and wounded many of them.
"At which conflicte also he hymselfe beinge wounded with an arrowe, dyed shortly after, in
the ilande of Cuba; and so endynge hys lyfe, consumed a great parte of the rychesse he had
before begotten at Saynt Johannes of Boriquen."
"Juan Ponce had not been as wary as usual," says Washington Irving, with reference to the
defeat at Guadalupe, "or he
 had to deal with savages unusually adroit in warfare. . . . This blow, at the very outset
of this vaunted expedition, sank deep into his heart, and put an end to all his military
excitement. Humbled and mortified, he set sail for the island of Porto Rico, where he
relinquished all further prosecution of the enterprise, under pretext of ill health, and
gave command of the squadron to a captain named Zuniga. But it is surmised that his malady
was not so much of the flesh as of the spirit. He remained in Porto Rico as governor; but
having grown testy and irritable, through vexations and disappointments, he gave great
offence and caused much contention on the island by positive and strong-handed measures in
respect to the distribution of the Indians."
That the dispirited commander of the squadron sailed away from Guadalupe most reluctantly,
we may reasonably suppose, for he left there, never to be seen again by men of his race,
the soldiers needlessly sacrificed in the ravine, the women who had been kidnapped by the
cannibals, and his precious blood-hound Becerrico. Most of them all, probably (if the
truth were told), he lamented gallant Becerrico, who had given his life to
 save his master's reputation, and died game at the very last. His body was not recovered,
having sunk almost as soon as the savage he was pursuing swam ashore, and probably became
food for sharks, as great numbers of them gathered about the scene of strife.
The bay in which the fleet was anchored while this futile attempt was made to subjugate
the Caribs, lies between two headlands on the southern coast of Guadalupe. Into it run the
combined waters of three streams—the "Trois Rivieres" of the present-day French, who
occupy the island. On the left bank of the central stream, overshaded by tree-ferns and
wild plantains, may be seen some primitive rock carvings, or petroglyphs, which mark the
site of Carib settlements.
Having Ponce de Leon's distressing experience in mind, the Spaniards left the Caribs to
themselves for many years; but finally the forces of Spain, France, and England, severally
and at various times used against the natives, effected their practical extermination, and
no Indian of their tribe lives in the island now.
The nearest settlement of Caribs descended from those we have described, reside in
Dominica, another insular gem of the
Carib-  bees, fifty miles from Guadalupe. Farther down the chain, in the island of St. Vincent, a
few more may be found—survivors of the volcanic eruption of 1902, when their
settlement was destroyed and many Indians lost their lives. The present descendants of the
brave Caribs, the only Indians who successfully resisted the murderous Spaniards in the
West Indies, are but two or three hundred in number, and dwell in the two islands
mentioned, Dominica and St. Vincent.
There is no trace of their ancestors' rivals and enemies, the Arawaks, in any island of
the Caribbean Sea, respecting the extermination of whom an Italian, writing in 1560, says:
"The natives, finding themselves intolerably oppressed, and with no chance of regaining
their liberty, with sighs and tears longed for death. Therefore, they went into the woods
and hanged themselves, after having killed their children, saying it was far better to die
than to live so miserably, serving such and so many ferocious tyrants and wicked thieves.
Finally, out of the two million of original inhabitants, through the number of suicides
and other deaths, occasioned by the oppressive labors and cruelties imposed by the
Spaniards, there are not
 now , one hundred and fifty to be found. And this has been their way of making
Christians of them.
"What befell those poor islanders has happened also to all the others, in Cuba, Jamaica,
and Porto Rico. And although an almost infinite number of Indians from the mainland have
been brought to these islands, nearly all have perished. In short, I may say that wherever
the Spaniards have unfurled their banner they have, by their great cruelties, inspired the
inhabitants with perpetual hatred."
Ponce de Leon was commissioned not only to conquer the Indians of the islands, but also
those of the Terra Firma coast, now called the Spanish Main; but having been so lacking of
success at the outset, he retired to Porto Rico—as we have seen—and thence
sent Captain Zuniga in his place. This commander left no record of his achievements; but a
slave-hunter who went over his route about twenty years later tells the tale with brutal
frankness. "All along the coast," he says, "the Indians came down from the hills to fish;
therefore we used to land and hide ourselves, often waiting all day, and on the Indians
arriving we jumped out, like so
 many wolves attacking so many lambs, and made them our slaves. In this way we caught
upward of fifty, the greater part women with little children.
"While we were on the coast, a Spaniard, Captain Pedro de Calice, arrived with upward of
four thousand slaves; and he had captured as many more, but, from famine and fatigue, they
had died on the journey. And when some of them could not walk, the Spaniards, to prevent
them from remaining behind to make war, killed them by burying their swords in their sides
"It was really a most distressing thing to see the way in which these wretched creatures,
naked, tired, and lame, were treated, exhausted as they were with hunger, sick and
despairing. The unfortunate mothers, with two or three children on their shoulders or
clinging around their necks, overwhelmed with tears and grief, were all tied with cords or
with chains round their necks and arms. This captain had gone seven hundred miles into the
country inland, which when the Spaniards first went there was full of people, but now was
The best we can say of Juan Ponce is that he was not the worst of that class of
cut-  throats denominated "conquistadores," or conquerors, but really entitled to be called
robbers, kidnappers, and murderers. We can hardly sympathize with him in his grief over
the disaster at Guadalupe, since it was mortified pride, and not contrition for his sins,
that cast him into gloom. He retired to his castle at San Juan, and during a period of
nearly or quite five years made it his headquarters, though occasionally visiting other
parts of Porto Rico.
He thus remained, says one who wrote of his voyages, "in a state of growling repose,"
until the discovery of Mexico by Cordova; the further exploration of its coast by
Grijalva, and its invasion by Hernando Cortes aroused him from the seeming lethargy into
which he had fallen.
When tidings of the first expedition, along the coast of Yucatan, was brought him, the old
lion of Boriquen merely regarded the messenger drowsily; at the news that Grijalva had
returned to Cuba with quantities of gold, he yawned, but sat up and took notice; when,
however, he was told of what Cortes had done: of the armies he had met and vanquished, the
vast treasure he had wrested from Montezuma, and already
 shipped to Spain, he roused himself to action.
The Florida which he had discovered was not, then, an island, after all, but a continent;
and that base-born Hernando Cortes had invaded it. He had penetrated beyond the
coast—as he himself should have done, instead of retreating before a paltry band of
Indians; and he had sent home to Spain a treasure-ship, through the very channel he had
found when searching for the fountain of Bimini.
Once again the Casa Blanca was a scene of preparation for an expedition, and the harbor of
San Juan resounded with the sounds of labor, as vessels were careened, seams opened by the
heat of the sun in decks and sides were calked, and booms and top-masts fitted. Shortly
after, on a day in 1521, two ships sailed out of San Juan harbor, the equipping and
manning of which had taken the bulk of that fortune which Juan Ponce, as conqueror and as
governor, had wrung from the wretched natives of Boriquen.
He was taking leave of the
 island forever—though he had no premonition of the event which, in a few months, was
to deprive his family of its protector and the island of its governor. Again, from the
battlements, Dona Inez and her children waved him farewell, and, after watching the
vessels sail into the horizon, returned to their dreary, uneventful existence in the
Governor Ponce's voyage through the Bahamas was the roughest, stormiest, that he had ever
undertaken, and the sufferings of his crews were great. But they were no longer sailing an
unknown sea, and, notwithstanding contrary winds and baffling currents, eventually the
coast of Florida was sighted. Had the natives of Florida been informed of his coming, they
could not have been more alert and aggressive, for scarcely had a port been found and a
boat-load of fighting-men disembarked, than they were upon them, with pointed reminders,
in the shape of darts and arrows, that their presence was not wanted.
It seemed fated that Ponce de Leon should never penetrate the region he had found,
 nor more than set foot on shore, for no sooner had he landed than the savages came down
with overwhelming force. Caught at a decided disadvantage, with half his men still afloat
and the others unprepared for conflict with a large body of the enemy, yet the gallant
veteran led the soldiers against the savages with his old-time valor and energy.
Making his way to the fore-front, he shouted, waving his sword: "Santiago! Santiago! Good
St. James is with us, men. Now at them!" In the fore-front of battle he stood, urging his
soldiers to come up and close in an attack, and, while thus exposed (though sheathed in
armor from throat to toe), he was struck in the thigh by an arrow and fell to the sands.
The battle did not rage long after that, for the men had no heart to fight after their
leader was struck, and made his disability a pretext for retreating to the ships. They had
a very good excuse for retiring, inasmuch as many had been killed before the wounding of
their commander-in-chief, and many more were wounded. Those nearest to Ponce de Leon, when
he fell, seized and bore him on board ship, where, after an inspection of the wound, it
was decided to set sail for Cuba, in
 the hope of securing competent surgical aid at Havana.
The stragglers were recalled by trumpet, at the sound of which the savage Floridians
hurried to the strand by hundreds and mocked the discomfited Spaniards as they hoisted
sail and bore away. They left a host of scoffing Indians on the shore, hearing the gibes
of whom, and learning that they had shown no mercy to such as had fallen into their hands,
the wounded veteran would fain have sallied forth again. He called for his armor, of which
his attendants had stripped him, and for his sword; but at the first venture he fell
fainting to the deck. Before the Cuban shores were sighted, it was evident to all that
Juan Ponce de Leon had received a mortal hurt. Like the gallant Cordova, who four years
before had returned to Havana from Yucatan by way of Florida, and had been wounded by
those same savages, Juan Ponce was death-struck ere he reached the shore. Havana harbor
was at last made, however; he was taken to land and given every attention; but in vain.
After a few days of painful lingering, during his conscious intervals in which he calmly
gave orders for the disposition of his body and effects, he was
 carried off, either by a fever resulting from the wound, or by the poison in which, it was
thought, the arrow had been dipped.
While many followers of Juan Ponce de Leon had lost their lives in the battle that brought
him his mortal injury, and many more were seriously wounded, yet personal mention is made
only of the commander, who, having most to gain by a victory, had also most to lose by
defeat. Still, less is known of his last hours than we could wish, and no account exists
by any one who was present at his death-bed; though we know that he was tenderly cared for
to the last, and at his death was mourned by all who knew him as a valiant and honorable
His remains were taken on board the flag-ship, with all the honors of war, and from the
harbor of Havana the little fleet sailed into the open channel between Cuba and Florida.
Thence the Bahama archipelago was entered, and through that sea, which Juan Ponce de Leon
was the first to navigate in its entire extent, was borne the body of him who sought
therein the isle and fountain of eternal youth. Back to Boriquen they bore him, and at
the castle, Casa Blanca, he
 was received by the weeping Dona Inez and her children.
They gave him sepulture at first within the castle, but eventually his ashes were
deposited beneath the high altar of the Dominican church in San Juan de Puerto Rico.
Removed from that sanctuary in 1863, after having been religiously preserved for more than
three hundred years, these sacred relics were for a while unsepultured; but at last, after
the American invasion of Porto Rico, were placed beneath a monument erected in memory of
him who was "a lion by name and a lion by nature."
Upon his original tomb, says Barcia, quoting Herrera, was carved an epitaph in Latin,
which is paraphrased as follows in Spanish:
"Aqueste lugar estrecho
Es sepulcro del varon
Que en el Hombre fue Leon,
Y mucho mas en el hecho."
"This narrow grave contains the remains of a man who was a Lion by name, and much more by
his nature," or deeds.
Juan Ponce de Leon left two sons, one of whom, Don Luis, was made an adelantado
 by Charles V., in recognition of his father's services; and a daughter Isabel, who was
afterwards married to one Antonio de Gama, a licentiate of Porto Rico. In the year 1553
the wife of a Ponce de Leon perished at sea off the coast of Mexico, and so late as 1566
Porto Rico boasted of an alcalde named Juan Ponce de Leon.
"It was a noble name," says the historian Oviedo, "that of the adelantado Juan Ponce de
Leon, who in truth was an honorable cavalier, a noble person, who labored hard in the
conquest and pacification of Isla Espanola, Higuey, and the Isle of St. John."