One of the most persistent legends of Florida, the story of the Fountain of Youth tells how Ponce de Leon came to the tropical peninsula searching for a magical fountain that would restore health, remove years, and even bring the dead back to life. As a child growing up in Florida, it was the earliest history I learned. I always felt a great deal of sympathy for the Conquistador, wandering through the swamps and palmetto thickets of early Florida, looking for something that wasn’t there. But that was his legacy, the thing that he was known for. His quest for the mythical fountain defined him because he spent his life and career looking for it.
Except that he didn’t
The legend of a magical fountain goes back at least as far as the ancient Greeks. Herodotus (who also wrote stories about a Persian army so large it drank the entire Mediterranean Sea dry) told of a mystical fountain, whose waters gave an entire race of humans unnaturally long life.
But the story may go back farther yet. Old Celtic legends say that the magical cup of Cerridwyn gave forth magical, life-giving waters. These, along with many other stories, in turn contributed to the legend of the Holy Grail.
The legend lives on in stories of places like Lourdes, a native spring in France whose waters have been said to bring healing even to the paraplegic.
Why all the stories of the magic water?
I think it helps to understand the state of public utilities in ancient times. Pretty much, there were none. People drank directly from rivers, lakes and streams. Germs lived in the water and people did nothing about them because they didn’t know such things existed. If a village was especially lucky, it had a natural spring nearby. Spring water was cleaner, being filtered by earth and sand.
Sometimes streams or rivers became poisoned. There was simply no way to know if there was a dead cow rotting upstream, or someone had dug a latrine that was poisoning the water source. Of course, when things like this happened, everyone didn’t get sick. In order to survive at all, a person living in ancient times needed an immune systems as fierce as a whole pride of lions. But some people wouldn’t be able to shrug it off, and these people got sick.
It was soon learned that a change of water helped these folks, and so certain sources, the ones that were situated in places that never got polluted, gained the reputation of possessing “healing waters.” If you came there with a sick stomach, stayed a while and drank the relatively germ-free water, you got well.
Juan Ponce de Leon was a bastard grandchild of the king of Spain. (The suffix “de Leon” was added to the family name “Ponce” because of the royal connection.) Born in 1474, he had no real opportunity to achieve fame or fortune in his native land. So he sailed with Columbus on the second voyage of discovery. He received a land grant in the New World, married and became quite prosperous. He was also instrumental in putting down a native rebellion.
Despite political conflicts at home in Spain, Ponce de Leon was made governor of Puerto Rico. He found gold here, and established plantations, dutifully sending a cut of all profits back to the Spanish Crown.
Other Spaniards, more politically astute, were gaining properties and governorships in the Caribbean, and the grateful king was running out of lands to grant. However, rumors had surfaced of an island further north, called “Beminy.” In 1512, Ponce de Leon was granted permission (but no money) to look for this island, and to rule it, and any other islands he found on the search.
It is hard to believe how crude navigation was at the time. Heading north, the three ships in the expedition blundered into the side of Florida, which Ponce de Leon named in honor of the season of Easter, which the Spanish called Pascua Florida, the Festival of Flowers.
Exactly where he landed remains in dispute, because of the limits to calculating location. Juan Ponce de Leon may not have been the first Spaniard to find this land, but he was the first European to record the effects of the Gulf Steam… the powerful current swept one of his three ships out into the Atlantic Ocean, and it was nearly lost.
For the next 19 years, he divided his time between explorations of this new land, visits with his family in Puerto Rico, and trips to Spain. In between he fought the natives of the region. These tribes had originally been friendly to the Spanish, but after years of enslavement and religious conversion through torture, they had had enough. One by one the tribes rose against the Europeans. Ponce de Leon’s house was burned in one attack, and his family barely escaped.
He was on his third expedition to Florida when he was hit by a poisoned arrow fired by a member of the Calusa tribe. Though he lived long enough to be evacuated to Havana, he eventually died from his wound.
It was only after his death that the Fountain of Youth was attached to his name. Rumors of the Fountain had run through the region for decades. This was the origin of the “Island of Beminy.” Natives had spoken of a tribe to the north who lived unusually long lives. Scholars currently believe they were talking about the Maya, and simply got their directions a little mixed up.
But the rumors had circulated. And Ponce de Leon had political enemies back in Spain, enemies who wanted to make a fool of him. So the rumors were twisted. Instead of exploring a region of the New World looking for slaves, gold, farmland, or other things that Spanish colonies had produced, his enemies said that he had been looking for the Fountain of Youth. It was whispered, then said, that he needed it, because he was “unable to perform as a husband.” Snickers ensued. It was a good story, and it stuck. It stuck for 500 years, and is now so engrained that it can’t be removed from Florida history, even with facts.