Ponce de Leon was the first of the Spanish to explore land in the present limits of the United States. He had come to America with Columbus on his second voyage. He had spent nearly twenty years in the West Indies and, while governor of Puerto Rico, had heard rumors of an island to the north that was rich in gold, and of a fountain whose water would give perpetual youth to all who drank from it.
In the spring of 1513, the year in which Balboa discovered the Pacific Ocean, Ponce de Leon set out with high hopes in search of the island. On Easter Sunday he sighted land, and named it “Florida” after Pascua Florida, the Easter season. He landed near the site of the present city of St. Augustine, explored the coast, rounded the peninsula, and explored also the western coast of Florida.
Reports of the vast riches found by Cortes and Pizarro in Mexico and in Peru stimulated other Spaniards to action. Search began for wealth to the north of the Gulf of Mexico. Coronado had heard reports of ” Seven Cities of Cibola” and expected to find fabulous wealth in the heart of North America. About 154o he began explorations which brought him to what are now Arizona, New Mexico, and Kansas, but the seven cities turned out to be mere Indian villages with no great wealth.
While Coronado explored in the West, Hernando De Soto penetrated the continent from the east. He was an experienced explorer and had acquired great wealth in Peru. He brought with him from Spain more than six hundred men, two hundred horses, and a large drove of hogs. His expedition landed at Tampa Bay and began to move north and west through what are now the states of Florida, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi, finally reaching a river so broad that “if a man stood still on the other side, it could not be discerned whether he was a man or no.”
Having discovered the Mississippi River, he crossed it and continued his search in what is now Arkansas. He failed to find great wealth, and in 1542, his third year in what is now the United States, he died. In the darkness of night his men buried him in the waters of the mighty river he had discovered.