Balboa was a daring conquistador who discovered and claimed the Pacific Ocean for Spain in 1513. Born in 1475, Balboa grew up in a family of low-ranking nobility.
In 1501, he left Spain and traveled to Hispaniola (Haiti and Dominican Republic today) to make his fortune. He ran a plantation and tried to raise hogs, but he fell into debt and fled his creditors by hiding in a cask aboard a supply ship. Bound for the Spanish colony San Sebastian, today in Colombia, the ship was wrecked and the crew later rescued by another famous Spanish conquistador, Francisco Pizarro.
When the crew learned that San Sebastian had been destroyed by an Indian attack, Balboa convinced his shipmates to sail on to Panama, a more peaceful area. They agreed, and Balboa and his companions established a settlement at Darien.
Local Indian stories told of a rich empire to the south and a vast “South Sea.” When Balboa asked the Spanish king Ferdinand II for an army to find and conquer this empire, Ferdinand agreed. But he appointed someone else as commander.
Furious, in September 1513 Balboa led his own force of about 190 Spaniards into the jungles of Panama in search of the empire and “South Sea.” After several weeks of travel through swamps and jungles, Balboa reached a mountain plateau and gazed south. Stretching to the horizon was the vast Pacific Ocean.
On that day, September 25, Balboa held a thanksgiving service and claimed the surrounding lands for Spain. The expedition reached the beach and Balboa waded into the waters with the Spanish flag, claiming the entire body of water for Spain.
Balboa returned to Darien, only to find that a governor from Spain had taken control. Balboa and the new governor waged a long, jealous feud for power. Balboa led another expedition to the Pacific in 1517 and explored the Gulf of San Miguel. But in 1519, the governor had Balboa beheaded for treason.