The Myth of Ponce de León and the Fountain of Youth

The Myth of Ponce de León and the Fountain of Youth

Tales of sacred, restorative waters existed well before the birth of Spanish conquistador Juan Ponce de León around 1474. Alexander the Great, for example, was said to have come across a healing “river of paradise” in the fourth century B.C., and similar legends cropped up in such disparate locations as the Canary Islands, Japan, Polynesia and England. During the Middle Ages, some Europeans even believed in the mythical king Prester John, whose kingdom allegedly contained a fountain of youth and a river of gold. “You could trace that up until today,” said Ryan K. Smith, a history professor at Virginia Commonwealth University. “People are still touting miracle cures and miracle waters.”

Spanish sources asserted that the Taino Indians of the Caribbean also spoke of a magic fountain and rejuvenating river that existed somewhere north of Cuba. These rumors conceivably reached the ears of Ponce de León, who is thought to have accompanied Christopher Columbus on his second voyage to the New World in 1493. After helping to brutally crush a Taino rebellion on Hispaniola in 1504, Ponce de León was granted a provincial governorship and hundreds of acres of land, where he used forced Indian labor to raise crops and livestock. In 1508 he received royal permission to colonize San Juan Bautista (now Puerto Rico). He became the island’s first governor a year later, but was soon pushed out in a power struggle with Christopher Columbus’ son Diego.

Having remained in the good graces of King Ferdinand, Ponce de León received a contract in 1512 to explore and settle an island called Bimini. Nowhere in either this contract or a follow-up contract was the Fountain of Youth mentioned. By contrast, specific instructions were given for subjugating the Indians and divvying up any gold found. Although he may have claimed to know certain “secrets,” Ponce de León likewise never brought up the fountain in his known correspondence with Ferdinand. “What Ponce is really looking for is islands that will become part of what he hopes will be a profitable new governorship,” said J. Michael Francis, a history professor at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. “From everything I can gather, he was not at all interested or believed that he would find some kind of miraculous spring or lake or body of water.” At least one historian suggests that perhaps Ferdinand, who had recently married a woman 35 years his junior, told Ponce de León to keep his eye out for it. But other experts dispute this.

Either way, Ponce de León set sail in March 1513 with three ships. According to early historians, he anchored off the eastern coast of Florida on April 2 and came ashore a day later, choosing the name “La Florida” in part because it was the Easter season (Pascua Florida in Spanish). Ponce de León then journeyed down through the Florida Keys and up the western coast, where he skirmished with Indians, before beginning a roundabout journey back to Puerto Rico. Along the way he purportedly discovered the Gulf Stream, which proved to be the fastest route for sailing back to Europe.

Eight years later, Ponce de León returned to Florida’s southwestern coast in an attempt to establish a colony, but he was mortally wounded by an Indian arrow. Just before leaving, he sent letters to his new king, Charles V, and to the future Pope Adrian VI. Once again, the explorer made no mention of the Fountain of Youth, focusing instead on his desire to settle the land, spread Christianity and discover whether Florida was an island or peninsula. No log of either voyage has survived, and no archaeological footprint has ever been uncovered.

Nonetheless, historians began linking Ponce de León with the Fountain of Youth not long after his death. In 1535 Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés accused Ponce de León of seeking the fountain in order to cure his sexual impotence. “He was being discredited [as] an idiot and weakling,” Smith explained. “This is machismo culture in Spain at the height of the Counter-Reformation.” The accusation is almost certainly untrue, Smith added, since Ponce de León fathered several children and was under 40 years old at the time of his first expedition.

Hernando de Escalante Fontaneda, who lived with Indians in Florida for many years after surviving a shipwreck, also derided Ponce de León in his 1575 memoir, saying it was a cause for merriment that he sought out the Fountain of Youth. One of the next authors to weigh in was Antonio de Herrera y Tordesillas, the Spanish king’s chief historian of the Indies. In 1601 he penned a detailed and widely read account of Ponce de León’s first voyage. Although Herrera only referred to the Fountain of Youth in passing, writing that it turned “old men to boys,” he helped solidify it in the public’s imagination. “They are really more entertainment than attempts to write a true history,” Francis said of these works.

The Fountain of Youth legend was now alive and well. It did not gain much traction in the United States, however, until the Spanish ceded Florida in 1819. Famous writers of the time such as Washington Irving then began portraying Ponce de León as hapless and vain. Artists also got in on the act, including Thomas Moran, who painted an oversize canvas of Ponce de León meeting with Indians. By the early 20th century, a statue of the explorer had been placed in the central plaza of Florida’s oldest city, St. Augustine, and a nearby tourist attraction pretended to be the actual Fountain of Youth. To this day, tens of thousands of visitors come every year to sample the sulfur-smelling well water. “It does not taste good,” said Smith, who worked there for four days in college. “Imagine what you would think the Fountain of Youth would taste like. It doesn’t taste like that.” Meanwhile, some grade school textbooks continue to present Ponce de León’s search for the fountain as historical fact.

In 2013, Ponce de León was back in the spotlight. In celebration of the 500th anniversary of his landing, reenactments took place in St. Augustine and Melbourne Beach, Florida, both of which claim to be the site where he first dropped anchor. There was also a Catholic mass in St. Augustine featuring a replica of the 15th-century font used to baptize him in Spain and a mass in Melbourne Beach, along with the unveiling of more statues and a commemorative stamp.

What would Ponce de León make of all this attention, not all of it positive? “My take on that is that no publicity is bad publicity,” Smith said. “He’s a household name, and maybe in the end that’s what he was looking for.”


Ponce de Leon and the Fountain of Youth

  • Ph.D., Spanish, Ohio State University
  • M.A., Spanish, University of Montana
  • B.A., Spanish, Penn State University

Juan Ponce de León (1474-1521) was a Spanish explorer and conquistador. He was one of the first settlers of Puerto Rico and was the first Spaniard to (officially) visit Florida. He's best remembered, however, for his search for the legendary Fountain of Youth. Did he really search for it, and if so, did he find it?


The powers of the Fountain of Youth

Across cultural representations, the mythical Fountain of Youth is said to possess the power of curing sickness or restoring the youth of those who bathe in or drink its waters. Throughout historical documents and myths, these magical waters are sometimes characterized as a spring, waterfall, well, or pool — it varies. Some of these eternal waters are floral-scented, and others are described as sulfuric from their mineral-rich contents.

As the Our Fake History podcast notes, water iconography often indicates restoration or awakening. In Christianity, religious baptisms represent spiritual rebirth, and in Hinduism, bathing in the Ganges River cleanses the soul and washes away sins. It's only natural that water sources, like a fountain, became symbols of rebirth and immortality in the global consciousness. "You could trace that up until today," Virginia Commonwealth University professor Ryan K. Smith told History. "People are still touting miracle cures and miracle waters."

Fountains of youth made appearances in art through the centuries. French ivory carvings from the 14th century depict an old bearded man entering magical waters where young, amorous couples bathe. A 1546 painting by Lucas Cranach the Elder portrays a fountain in which the aged enter on the left and exit lithe and young on the right. These images were lifted from European romance literature of the medieval period and boomed throughout the age of colonization and exploration.


Florida Hist. Society -- "Ponce de Leon and Florida's Fountain of Youth"

Juan Ponce de Leon became the first known European to set foot in what is now the United States on April 3, 1513. Thinking he had discovered another Caribbean island, he named the land La Florida, in honor of the lush vegetation and the Easter season, called Pascua Florida.

The Florida Historical Society has presented much material about Ponce de Leon in anticipation of the 500th anniversary of his arrival.

After a few years of political intrigue in Spain and Puerto Rico, Ponce de Leon returned to Florida in 1521 to make a more substantial claim, but things did not go well on his second expedition. Warriors of the Calusa tribe shot Ponce de Leon with a poisoned arrow, and he died shortly afterwards in Havana.

Ponce de Leon is known for having sought the "Fountain of Youth", but in fact this story is most likely a myth. According to the Florida Historical Society, the Fountain of Youth was never described in a primary source until 1535. In the labyrinth of New World politics, this claim was likely invented to discredit Ponce de Leon and his surviving allies. At some point since then, the story became accepted fact and even appeared in many history textbooks.


Ponce De Leon Didn’t Search For A Fountain Of Youth

We’ve all heard the story about the silly Spanish explorer who searched all of what’s now Florida for the Fountain of Youth. The problem with the story is that there are no actual documents from his lifetime that make any mention of his fruitless search. In fact, there are no mentions of the Fountain of Youth made in connection with the explorer until after his death and then, the reference is made by a Spanish court chronicler who was politically aligned with Ponce de Leon’s main political rival: Diego Columbus.

The Whole Bushel

We’ve all heard the stories. Ponce de Leon, upon landing in the New World, came in contact with the native people who told him of an amazing water source that would grant eternal youth to anyone who bathed in it. And of course, this naïve, silly Spanish explorer spent the rest of his life looking for it, and never finding it. Today, of course, we know that no such thing exists, and it’s a great example of how far we’ve come in being educated about our world.

The problem is, there’s absolutely nothing to make anyone believe that Ponce de Leon was ever that gullible or was ever searching for the Fountain of Youth. We’re buying into a massive smear campaign that started after his death.

Ponce de Leon started out his career as the driving force behind the colonization of the island that’s now known as Puerto Rico. He was the island’s first governor, a title that was revoked after a power struggle with Diego Columbus, the son of rival explorer Christopher Columbus.

He lost his governorship, but he hadn’t entirely lost the good graces of Spain’s King Ferdinand. The king awarded him the right to explore and colonize first the island of Bimini, then Florida. And that’s exactly what he did. He explored the Florida coast, discovered the Gulf Stream, and made a few trips back to Puerto Rico. In the meantime, he was wounded by an arrow in a skirmish with the native people, and eventually died from the wound at 47.

Letters written during his travels still exist, addressed to both the king and the future Pope Adrian VI. No letters, documents, diaries, or journals from Ponce de Leon himself or his associates ever mention anything about the Fountain of Youth.

So where does the story come from, and why do we still tell it?

It first appears after the explorer’s death, in the writings of a Spanish court chronicler named Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo y Valdes. The chronicler says that Ponce de Leon (the 30-something father of several children) was searching for the Fountain of Youth to not only keep himself young, but to cure his impotence. The writings were most likely a political move the split between Ponce de Leon and Columbus’s son meant that the Spanish court was either on one side or the other—and the chronicler was well known to be on the side of Diego Columbus.

The legend spread and grew. Even today, St. Augustine, Florida, boasts a Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park, and thousands upon thousands of tourists flock to a St. Augustine fountain named after the mythical water source that was never actually even searched for. Even some history textbooks present the story as known fact rather than the rather clever—and highly successful—political smear campaign that it absolutely was.

Ironically, the myth was perpetrated in large part by the same man that was mostly responsible for the legend that Columbus was originally refused funding for his voyages because everyone thought the world was flat. (No one thought that.) Washington Irving jumped on the Fountain of Youth bandwagon, going to extremes in portraying the explorer as silly and vain and it stuck.


Ponce de Leon’s enemies linked him to ‘Fountain of Youth’ myth, inadvertently making him immortal

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Juan Ponce de Leon is probably best known for discovering what is now known as the U.S. state of Florida, but he’s also associated with a search for the so-called “Fountain of Youth” which would supposedly make one young again if they so much as bathed in or drank from the water.

But as with many things that get mythologized over time, it turns out that Ponce de Leon likely never went in search of any such fountain, according to Ancient Origins.

Ponce de Leon was born in Spain around 1460. (Via Wikimedia Commons)

From Page to Explorer

Juan Ponce de Leon was born in 1460 (though some allege the actual year of his birth was 1474) to a poor family in Valladolid, Spain, and served as a page in the court of Aragon.

When he matured, Ponce de Leon became a solider, fighting in the Spanish military campaigns against the Emirate of Granada. But once the war ended, his services were no longer needed, so he decided to become an overseas explorer, hoping that he might gain fame and fortune as a result.

A 17th century Spanish engraving of Juan Ponce de León (Public Domain)

Ponce de Leon trained to be an explorer by joining the second expedition of Christopher Columbus to the New World in 1493. As a result of his service with Columbus, Ponce de Leon was named the military commander and later governor of the island of Hispaniola, which is now known as the Dominican Republic.

While serving as governor of Hispaniola, Ponce de Leon heard that another island, San Juan Bautista, was loaded with gold, so he obtained permission from the Spanish royal family to go and explore the island. A Spanish settlement was established on San Juan Bautista and once again Ponce de Leon became governor of what later became modern-day Puerto Rico.

A statue of Ponce de Leon in San Juan, Puerto Rico (Via Wikimedia Commons)

The Fountain of Youth?

As an explorer, Ponce de Leon was far from the only consquistador looking to make his name in the New World. And some of his rivals actively tried to bring about his downfall:

“In 1511, two years after he was granted the governorship of Puerto Rico, he was forced to surrender his position as the governor to Diego Columbus, the son of Christopher Columbus. As a form of compensation, the king of Spain offered him the mythical land of Bimini, assuming that Ponce de León was able to finance an expedition, and perhaps more importantly, find it.”

“The Fountain of Youth” — Painting by Lucas Cranach the Elder (Public Domain)

As he searched for the tiny island of Bimini, rumors spread that Ponce de Leon was actually seeking the elusive “Fountain of Youth,” but some historical scholars say that was never the the explorer’s intent:

“Instead, it was court politics that resulted in this connection. After Ponce de León’s death, a Spanish court chronicler by the name of Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés sought to discredit the conquistador. Oviedo was aligned with one of Ponce de León’s rivals, Diego Columbus.”

The court chronicler hated Ponce de Leon, so he slurred him as a fool who was motivated by ego and greed:

“In his Historia general y natural de las Indias, Oviedo relates a tale in which Ponce de León, having been deceived by the natives, goes on a wild goose chase for the ‘Fountain of Youth’, thus depicting him as a fool.”

Ponce de León and his explorers drinking from a spring in Florida while supposedly seeking the Fountain of Youth. (Public Domain)
Florida Instead of Bimini

As he continued to search for Bimini, Ponce de Leon instead found Florida, which got its name from the fact that Ponce de Leon landed there during the Easter season, which in Spanish is known as Pascua Florida.

A year later, Ponce de Leon was given permission to colonize the region of Florida, but during the expedition the explorer was wounded in a thigh by an arrow. That wound later killed him at the age of 61.

But despite meeting his end while attempting to secure his place in history, Ponce de Leon gained a bit of immortality, and to this day is one of the most recognizable names of all the famous Spanish explorers, second only to Columbus himself, who was his mentor in the early days of his career.

Oddly enough, however, Ponce de Leon is now associated with the fictional “Fountain of Youth” which it appears was little more than an attempt to discredit him. Instead, it has given him the sheen of immortality all these centuries later.

Here’s more on the famed explorer:

Featured Image: Madame Tussauds Orlando – Juan Ponce de Leon by Jared via Flickr (CC BY 2.0) with Fountain via Pixabay by Mabel Amber


Temple Games

The Blue Barracudas are eleven-year-olds Elena and Cory . The Green Monkeys are eleven-year-old James Valin and Jessica Hilton .

A rare shot in the crowd from this episode.

Fountain of Youth (Faucet Ramp)

Some say Ponce de Leon wanted to find the Fountain of Youth and sell its water in bottles. The players showed how he might have gotten the water into those bottles. When Kirk gave the signal, they pulled themselves up the mountain and turned all three faucets on. Then they turned back around, slid down, and then grabbed their bottles, filled them up, and dumped the water into their buckets. The player that had the heavier bucket of water at the end of 60 seconds won. Jessica 's bucket was heavier than Elena 's, giving the Green Monkeys the win.

Gold Dig (Peanut Shaft)

Ponce de Leon discovered gold in Puerto Rico and became one of the wealthiest spaniards in the New World. The players had to make money the old-fashioned way: they had to dig it up just like the indians did long before the Spanish arrived. When Kirk gave the signal, each player dug some gold from the bottom of the mine shaft, climbed up, and put them in their bins at their tops. Then they climbed back down and did it again. The player with the most gold in his bin at the end of 60 seconds won. James had six pieces to Cory 's six, resulting in a tie.

Transporting Gold (Bungee Soap Line)

Ponce de Leon had to ship all of his gold back to Spain. The players helped out. On one side were piles of gold. And on the other side were ships. When Kirk gave the signal, each team grabbed pieces of gold, stuck them to their helmets, and pulled themselves to their partners in the center. When they were there, their partners grabbed the gold from their helmets and slid back to their sides. Next, they went back, grabbed another piece of gold, and did it again. The team with the most gold in their baskets at the end of 60 seconds won. James and Jessica had three bricks to Cory and Elena 's two, giving the Green Monkeys the win and the right to enter Olmec's Temple.

Temple Games Results
Team Game 1 Game 2 Game 3 Pendants Won
Blue Barracudas Lost Tied Lost ½ Pendant
Green Monkeys Won Tied Won 2 Pendants


Is there a real-life fountain of youth? The science behind Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

Pirates of the Caribbean, the once youthful franchise, isn't as vibrant as it once was. While The Curse of the Black Pearl was a verifiable pop culture moment, the sequels have seen diminishing returns both in the zeitgeist and at the box office.

It is perhaps appropriate that just as the series was showing signs of its age, the fourth film, On Stranger Tides, which turns 10 this week, dealt with the pursuit of everlasting life. Jack (that's Captain Jack Sparrow to you) is tasked with leading an expedition to find Juan Ponce de León's famed Fountain of Youth.

While Jack's expedition is successful in locating the fountain, real-life pursuits for the mythic spring have only met with failure. Science, however, just might succeed where legend has failed.

THE BIOLOGICAL CLOCK

We all know that our genome is what defines how our bodies are built and how they behave. Sure, there are environmental factors that impact things like personality, but the physical reality of who we are is entirely dependent on our DNA, right? Not exactly.

You can think of your genome as a set of written instructions. Those instructions remain more or less the same throughout your life, regardless of experience or environmental factors. But that doesn't mean they're always expressed in the same way. If you imagine your genome as a book, that book can hit bookshelves in myriad ways. It can be printed in hardcover or paperback and there are font sizes, typefaces, margins, and the color and texture of the paper to consider. None of these change the content of the text — the story remains the same — but they do change the way it's experienced.

The same sort of thing is happening inside your body, and those variations are known as epigenetics. What you eat, how much you exercise, exposure to the Sun, and more, all of these things impact the way your genes express themselves and those changes have an impact on how your body ages.

Each of us makes decisions every day that change the way our genes express, and it's nearly impossible to know what epigenetic impact those decisions have, while they're happening. There is, of course, no scientific control against which we can compare those choices. Luckily, there is research to which we can refer.

In 2015, NASA selected twins Mark and Scott Kelly to participate in a year-long experiment to measure the influence of long-term space travel. Scott was sent to the International Space Station, where he lived from March 27, 2015, until March 1, 2016. Meanwhile, his twin brother, Mark, remained on Earth. The Kellys, being genetically identical, served as both experimental and control test subjects, and researchers were able to study the way differing environments impacted the bodies of genetically identical people. And they found a number of factors that impact aging.

There were changes in Scott's telomeres, the protective caps at the end of DNA strands. Surprisingly, these actually extended while Scott was in space, indicating a relative reduction in the aging process. Importantly, the telomeres returned to normal upon Scott's return to Earth, but it does indicate an environmental epigenetic influence.

Likewise, researchers observed a number of variations in genetic expression as a result of Scott's time in space, but the vast majority of them also reverted back to "normal" expression once the mission was over.

These findings tell us a couple of important things. First, environmental and behavioral variations do impact the way our genes are expressed. Second, those variations can be reversed when our environment or behaviors are altered.

All told, we're not entirely certain what causes aging, but we've learned that aging is a process amenable to influence. Your biological clock marches ever onward, but the spaces between ticks are dependent, at least in part, by environmental and behavioral variables.

TURNING BACK THE CLOCK

The mythic Fountain of Youth offered waters which, if ingested or bathed in, would turn entropy on its head, restoring you to a more youthful version of yourself. Almost without exception, single cells and more complex organisms experience senescence, the process by which function is lost over time. It's the reason our bodies weaken and become more susceptible to disease. Our cells don't die, but they stop dividing and growing.

There are some species who don't experience senescence, at least not in the same way we do. A lot has been made about the so-called immortal jellyfish. While they can still fall victim to disease or predation, they have the potentially unique ability to revert to an early stage in their lifecycle. These jellies begin life as a polyp before maturing into what we would normally consider a jellyfish. Under certain circumstances, however, they are capable of turning back the proverbial clock and returning to the polyp stage before maturing again.

It's the brainless invertebrate equivalent of deciding that being an adult is too tough and winding back to before puberty to give it another go.

Lobsters have a similar, albeit different, relationship with biological aging. A popular bit of internet trivia made the rounds several years ago, claiming that lobsters could, if left uninterrupted, live forever. It's the sort of story which hits a little harder because, unlike jellyfish, lobsters often find themselves on the dinner menu. Eating any animal comes with a certain level of guilt, but it gets turned up to eleven if the life you ended could have gone on forever.

Fortunately for you, and unfortunately for the lobster, it isn't true. At least not wholly. Lobsters don't experience senescence in the ordinary sense. They have indeterminate growth, meaning they continue growing as long as they live. They also keep reproducing. Unlike humans and most other animals, there seems to be no moment in a lobster's life when its body dusts off its hands and calls it a day.

Still, lobsters do have a natural end. Even if they avoid predation or disease, their bodies won't go on forever. In order to accommodate the continual growth, lobsters have to molt. This process not only leaves lobsters vulnerable, but it also takes up a lot of energy. At a certain point in their lives (we're not quite sure precisely when that is) the energy needed to molt exceeds what the lobster is capable of. Their soft internal bodies keep growing, but the hard exoskeleton remains the same. The lobster is stuck and dies as a result. A pretty gruesome way to go.

Jellyfish and lobsters are pretty distant from us on the evolutionary tree, but they do provide some evidence that senescence isn't an absolutely necessary process, despite its almost near-ubiquity.

Researchers are working to identify the processes that cause aging in humans and reverse them. Building on the epigenetic hypothesis of aging, scientists at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies activated four genes known as Yamanaka factors.

Yamanaka factors are most commonly used in converting adult cells, like skin cells, to pluripotent stem cells. However, in this study, Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte and his colleagues activated the factors temporarily to measure the impact on aging in mice. In doing so, they were able to heal injuries and extend lifespan by 30 percent.

The ultimate goal here is to extend the years for which a person is healthy — a period known as the healthspan, which is an important distinction. Most of us would like to live longer, but we want those years to be fruitful. Some scientists believe this research could not only be applied to humans but might also be capable of reversing aging, not just delaying it. But there are risks. In the same study, if the Yamanaka factors were left activated too long or too often, tumors developed. The mice died within a week, proving the old adage about too much of a good thing.


The Myth of Ponce de León and the Fountain of Youth - HISTORY

Juan Ponce de León was a Spanish explorer. He is best known for exploring the coasts of Florida in search of the Fountain of Youth. It was believed that if you drank the water from the Fountain of Youth, you would become young again or live forever.

As with many historical events, the story of what happened changes over time as people retell it. It seems that this was the case with Ponce de León’s search for the Fountain of Youth. Both the fountain and his search for it are a myth. Historians can’t find any evidence that Ponce de León was searching for the mythical fountain. They believe the story was made up after his death.

So what was Ponce de León really searching for? The next best thing: power, fame, and fortune.

Ponce de León was born in 1460 in Spain. Historians believe that he got his start on Christopher Columbus’s second trip to the West Indies in 1493.

Ponce de León is a governor of the Island of Hispaniola (present-day Dominican Republic and Haiti). He hears rumors of gold on a nearby island (present-day Puerto Rico). Ponce de León gets permission from the King of Spain to explore the island. He sets sail in 1508. He takes 50 soldiers and one ship. There, he founds a settlement near present-day San Juan.

Ponce de León had great luck in Puerto Rico. He found lots of gold. He gave it to the King and Queen of Spain. The royal couple was so pleased, they made him governor of Puerto Rico.

The Spanish crown wanted more gold. They urged Ponce de León to explore more islands in search of more gold.

The Myth Part of the Story

Ponce de León heard of a magical Fountain of Youth on nearby Bimini Island. He set sail for the island, but ended up on the coast of Florida instead. He landed in Charlotte Harbor near present-day St. Augustine. There he searched up and down the coast for the mythical fountain.

The True Part of the Story

Ponce de León landed on the east coast of Florida in March of 1513. He landed around the time of the Christian holiday, Easter. In Spain, Easter was known as the “feast of Flowers.” In honor of the holiday, Ponce de León named this new land Florida, which means “Flowery.”

Ponce de León stayed in Florida for several months. There is no evidence that he was searching for the mythical Fountain of Youth. He was most likely searching for more gold for the Spanish crown. He never found it. But the Spanish king was pleased and named Ponce de León governor of Bimini and Florida.

In February 1521, Ponce de León returned to Florida to explore the western side of the peninsula. His expedition spent several months exploring. In July 1521, native warriors attacked the group. Ponce de León was injured in the fighting. Many believe he was shot in the leg with a poison arrow. Shortly after, the expedition sailed to Cuba, where Ponce de León died later that month. He was 61 years old.


The Quest for the Fountain of Youth

Human kind, indeed all living things have always been tethered to aging and death. For all of our mastery of technology and medical knowledge, it is an inevitable, inescapable fate for us to grow old and die. For thousands of years there have been those who would avert this creeping certainty of aging, who would break the cycle of deterioration, death, and decay. The quest for a way to remain young forever has consumed mankind and throughout history, across a wide range of cultures, there has been a strong belief in lost magical springs with the purported ability to restore youth, stop aging, indeed to staunch the inexorable march of death.

The search for eternal youth and a fountain of youth is a frequent fixture of various myths and legends from around the world. One of the earliest accounts of such a place comes from the 5 th century BC, when the Greek historian Herodotus wrote of a fountain in the land of the Macrobians, which gave the people of the region exceptionally long life spans. In the 3 rd century AD, Alexander the Great was said to have searched for a fountain of youth, allegedly crossing a mythical land covered in eternal night called The Land of Darkness to reach it. The legendary Christian patriarch and king, Prester John, allegedly ruled over a land containing a similar fountain during the early Crusades during the 11 th and 12 th centuries AD. In Japan, stories of hot springs that can heal wounds and restore youth were also common and still are to this day.

Do not get the Fountain of Youth mixed up with the toddler’s pool

During the Age of Exploration, when European global exploration took off in the 15 th century AD, interest in such a mythical fountain of youth had not waned. The New World of the Americas began to be seen as a potential location for a fountain of eternal youth. The Caribbean in particular was considered a prime candidate, as many islanders spoke of a lost land of wealth and prosperity known as Bimini, which became entwined with the legend of a fountain of youth. The Fountain of Youth was a hot topic in those days. The Spanish historian, Lopez de Gomara, wrote of Indian accounts of a magical river, waterfall, or spring that could reverse aging and could be found in the lands north of Cuba and Haiti. Pietro Martire d’Anghiera, an Italian geographer living in Spain, in 1513 wrote of the fountain as well, saying:

“Among the islands of the north side of Hispaniola, about 325 leagues distant, as said by those who have searched for it, is a continual spring of flowing water of such marvelous virtue that the water thereof being drunk, perhaps with some diet, maketh old men young again”

During this era of exploration of the New World, it was indeed the Spanish who took a particular interest in such a mystical spring, after hearing widespread talk of Bimini and fountains of restorative waters from the Arawaks in Hispaniola, Cuba, and Puerto Rico. Florida was a land of many natural springs, and it was thought that one of these was the mystical Fountain of Youth of local legend.

One name has become inextricably linked to the quest for the Fountain of Youth is that of the Spanish explorer and conquistador Juan Ponce de León, who was the first governor of Puerto Rico and, in 1513, led the first European expeditions into what would become Florida. It was alleged that during his explorations of Florida, while looking to find lost gold and claim land for Spain, the explorer had the ulterior motive of finding the lost land of Bimini and thus the Fountain of Youth, which he was convinced existed. It was claimed that during his forays into Florida, the explorer would unofficially go off with a small contingent of men in an effort to locate the fountain.

Although Ponce de León became connected to and perhaps best known for his quest for the Fountain of Youth, it has long been debated as to just how much fact there is to this story. One of the problems lies in the fact that there are virtually no surviving records of the expeditions to Florida written by Ponce de León himself, and the fountain is not mentioned in any that do exist. Most accounts that we now have were actually written long after his death by native arrow in 1521. Nevertheless, historical references to the explorer’s obsession with the mythical fountain abound. One of the best sources of information on Ponce de León’s travels and search for the fountain is the writings of Antonio de Herrera y Tordesillas, who was the Chief Historian of the Indies in 1596. Amongst his accounts, Herrera wrote in his impressively titled record Historia general de los hechos de los Castellanos en las islas y tierra firme del Mar Oceano of Ponce de León’s quest:

“Juan Ponce overhauled his ships, and although it seemed to him that he had worked hard he decided to send out a ship to identify the Isla de Bimini even though he did not want to, for he wanted to do that himself. He had an account of the wealth of this island (Bimini) and especially that singular Fountain that the Indians spoke of, that turned men from old men into boys. He had not been able to find it because of the shoals and currents and contrary weather. He sent, then, Juan Pérez de Ortubia as captain of the ship and Antón de Alaminos as pilot. They took two Indians to guide them over the shoals… The other ship arrived and reported that Bimini had been found, but not the Fountain.”

This seems intriguing, but considering that it was written over 70 years after the explorer’s death, one has to wonder how much veracity the account holds. This information could have been hearsay, and was probably second or third hand information at best.

An even earlier account in 1535, closer to Ponce de León’s death, was written by a court chronicler by the name of Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo, in his book Historia General y Natural de las Indias, in which he mentions the explorer going off looking for the fountain using information gathered from the natives of the area. Oviedo’s report is difficult to take at face value for several reasons. It is said that the chronicler did not like Ponce de León, and wrote the account in a way that suggests the explorer was trouncing off on a fool’s errand. In short, it is believed that the whole story written by Oviedo was an attempt to gain favor with the courts and was a political attack designed to discredit Ponce de León and basically make him look like an idiot. Oviedo even went as far as to suggest that Ponce de León’s quest for the fountain was part of a misguided attempt to cure his sexual impotency. Ouch. The political animosity between the two was understandable, since Oviedo was in with Diego Columbus, who had helped to push Ponce de León out of Puerto Rico and just so happened to be the son of none other than Christopher Columbus. Due to this underlying rivalry, it is hard to know how reliable Oviedo’s account is.

Other historical accounts also make mention of Ponce de León’s quest for the Fountain of Youth. In Francisco López de Gómara’s Historia General de las Indias of 1551, the author describes Ponce de León’s search for the fountain. In 1575, the author Hernando D’Escalante Fontaneda wrote in his memoir that the Fountain of Youth was located in Florida and that the Spanish explorer had gone looking for it there. Fontaneda claimed to have been a prisoner of local natives for 17 years as a boy, and described the Indians as making use of a lost river that contained curative water, which he says Ponce de León was looking to find. Fontaneda’s account has a very skeptical feel to it, and the author seems to doubt that finding the fountain was the explorer’s first priority.

Although there is a certain romantic element to the idea of Ponce de León going off in search of fabled lands and mystical springs in the jungles of ancient Florida, it is uncertain if it ever happened at all. In the end, we are left with scattered historical documents that were written after Ponce de León’s death and none of which were written by the explorer himself, leaving his true intent and what really happened lost to the mists of time.

This uncertainty regarding the historical quest for the Fountain of Youth has not stopped the legend from enduring. Some even claim that the explorer was successful in his mission, indeed possibly still alive somewhere out there, enjoying his perpetual youth. To this day, there is a spring said to be the actual one that Ponce de León was searching for in St. Augustine, Florida, which is said to be the oldest city in the U.S. The Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park in St. Augustine has become a popular tourist destination, where visitors can drink cups of water from the fabled spring. The park has seen various important archeological finds, such as an ancient cemetery and the ruins of missions dating back to the city’s founding. Although the site undoubtedly has historical value, the elderly people who come to visit in droves have yet to miraculously regain their youth, and it is doubted if Ponce de León ever even set foot in St. Augustine.

The Fountain of Youth Archeological Park, St. Augustine, Florida

Whether Ponce de León ever really did search for the Fountain of Youth, there have nevertheless been stories over the years of those who have claimed to have found it. In 1989, the author Charlie Carlson allegedly interviewed a man who claimed to be a member of a secret society that had located the Fountain of Youth and were tasked with protecting it. The interviewee claimed to be 93 years old, whereas Carlson described him as looking around 40. The man claimed that the fountain had been found sometime before 1845 and that it was his society’s duty to make sure that it remained secret from the world. This anonymous informant reportedly offered proof to back up his claims in the form of census records for all of the members who had lived past 110 years old, of which there were quite a few. Some had apparently lived to be up to 122 years old while appearing to be much younger. Although many had died in accidents such as drowning, against which the magical waters offered no protection, not a single one was found to have died of old age. Is there really a secret cabal of immortals out there who have drunk from the fountain and have pledged to eternally hide its secret? Nobody knows.

While in modern days it will likely be genetics and stem cells that lead to prolonged life, mankind’s quest for immortality is not new and has taken many forms through the centuries, with various elixirs, magical charms, and famous artifacts such as the Philosopher’s Stone all reputed to grant everlasting life. Perhaps in the case of Florida’s Fountain of Youth there may be such a place tucked away among the many springs that are to be found here. Whether it is there or not, it is intriguing to imagine such wonders, and there will be those who will search no matter what, enamored with the notion that it could be possible to live forever if only they could find it. Maybe there are even those who already have.


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Herodotus mentions a fountain containing a special kind of water in the land of the Macrobians, which gives the Macrobians their exceptional longevity.

The Ichthyophagid then in their turn questioned the king concerning the term of life, and diet of his people, and were told that most of them lived to be a hundred and twenty years old, while some even went beyond that age—they ate boiled flesh, and had for their drink nothing but milk. When the Ichthyophagi showed wonder at the number of the years, he led them to a fountain, wherein when they had washed, they found their flesh all glossy and sleek, as if they had bathed in oil- and a scent came from the spring like that of violets. The water was so weak, they said, that nothing would float in it, neither wood, nor any lighter substance, but all went to the bottom. If the account of this fountain be true, it would be their constant use of the water from it which makes them so long-lived. [1]

A story of the "Water of Life" appears in the Eastern versions of the Alexander romance, which describes Alexander the Great and his servant crossing the Land of Darkness to find the restorative spring. The servant in that story is in turn derived from Middle Eastern legends of Al-Khidr, a sage who appears also in the Qur'an. Arabic and Aljamiado versions of the Alexander Romance were very popular in Spain during and after the period of Moorish rule, and would have been known to the explorers who journeyed to America. These earlier accounts inspired the popular medieval fantasy The Travels of Sir John Mandeville, which also mentions the Fountain of Youth as located at the foot of a mountain outside Polombe (modern Kollam [2] ) in India. [3] Due to the influence of these tales, the Fountain of Youth legend was popular in courtly Gothic art, appearing for example on the ivory Casket with Scenes of Romances (Walters 71264) and several ivory mirror-cases, and remained popular through the European Age of Exploration. [4]

European iconography is fairly consistent, as the Cranach painting and mirror-case Fons Juventutis (The Fountain of Youth) from 200 years earlier demonstrate: old people, often carried, enter at left, strip, and enter a pool that is as large as space allows. The people in the pool are youthful and naked, and after a while they leave it, and are shown fashionably dressed enjoying a courtly party, sometimes including a meal.

There are countless indirect sources for the tale as well. Eternal youth is a gift frequently sought in myth and legend, and stories of things such as the philosopher's stone, universal panaceas, and the elixir of life are common throughout Eurasia and elsewhere. [5]

An additional inspiration may have been taken from the account of the Pool of Bethesda where a paralytic man was healed in the Gospel of John. In the possibly interpolated John 5:2–4, the pool is said to be periodically stirred by an angel, upon which the first person to step into the water would be healed of whatever afflicted him or her.

According to legend, the Spanish heard of Bimini from the Arawaks in Hispaniola, Cuba, and Puerto Rico. The Caribbean islanders described a mythical land of Beimeni or Beniny (whence Bimini), a land of wealth and prosperity, which became conflated with the fountain legend. By the time of Ponce de Leon, the land was thought to be located northwest towards the Bahamas (called la Vieja during the Ponce expedition). The natives were probably referring to the area occupied by the Maya. [4] This land also became confused with the Boinca or Boyuca mentioned by Juan de Solis, although Solis's navigational data placed it in the Gulf of Honduras. It was this Boinca that originally held a legendary fountain of youth, rather than Bimini itself. [4] Sequene, an Arawak chief from Cuba, purportedly was unable to resist the lure of Bimini and its restorative fountain. He gathered a troupe of adventurers and sailed north, never to return.

Found within the salt water mangrove swamp that covers 6 kilometres (3.7 mi) of the shoreline of North Bimini is The Healing Hole, a pool that lies at the end of a network of winding tunnels. During outgoing tides, these channels pump cool, mineral-laden fresh water into the pool. Because this well was carved out of the limestone rock by ground water thousands of years ago it is especially high in calcium and magnesium. [ citation needed ] Magnesium, which has been shown to improve longevity and reproductive health, [6] [7] is present in large quantities in the sea water. [8] While it is not known whether any legend about healing waters was widespread among the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean, the Italian-born chronicler Peter Martyr attached such a story drawn from ancient and medieval European sources to his account of the 1514 voyage of Juan Diaz de Solis in a letter to the pope in 1516, though he did not believe the stories and was dismayed that so many others did. [9] [10]

In the 16th century the story of the Fountain of Youth became attached to the biography of the conquistador Juan Ponce de León. As attested by his royal charter, Ponce de León was charged with discovering the land of Beniny. [4] Although the indigenous peoples were probably describing the land of the Maya in Yucatán, the name—and legends about Boinca's fountain of youth—became associated with the Bahamas instead. However, Ponce de León did not mention the fountain in any of his writings throughout the course of his expedition. [4]

Ponce de Leon and the Fountain of Youth are mentioned in Nathaniel Hawthorne's short story, "Dr. Heidegger's Experiment." Heidegger situates "the famous Fountain of Youth, if I am rightly informed. in the southern part of the Floridian peninsula, not far from Lake Macaco. Its source is overshadowed by several gigantic magnolias, which, though numberless centuries old, have been kept as fresh as violets by the virtues of this wonderful water."

The connection was made in Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés's Historia general y natural de las Indias of 1535, [11] in which he wrote that Ponce de León was looking for the waters of Bimini to regain youthfulness. [12] Some researchers have suggested that Oviedo's account may have been politically inspired to generate favor in the courts. [4] A similar account appears in Francisco López de Gómara's Historia general de las Indias of 1551. [13] In the Memoir of Hernando d'Escalante Fontaneda in 1575, the author places the restorative waters in Florida and mentions de León looking for them there his account influenced Antonio de Herrera y Tordesillas' unreliable history of the Spanish in the New World. [14] Fontaneda had spent seventeen years as an Indian captive after being shipwrecked in Florida as a boy. In his Memoir he tells of the curative waters of a lost river he calls "Jordan" and refers to de León looking for it. However, Fontaneda makes it clear he is skeptical about these stories he includes, and says he doubts de León was actually looking for the fabled stream when he came to Florida. [14]

Herrera makes that connection definite in the romanticized version of Fontaneda's story included in his Historia general de los hechos de los Castellanos en las islas y tierra firme del Mar Oceano. Herrera states that local caciques paid regular visits to the fountain. A frail old man could become so completely restored that he could resume "all manly exercises … take a new wife and beget more children." Herrera adds that the Spaniards had unsuccessfully searched every "river, brook, lagoon or pool" along the Florida coast for the legendary fountain. [15]

The city of St. Augustine, Florida, is home to the Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park, a tribute to the spot where Ponce de León was supposed to have landed according to promotional literature, although there is no historical or archaeological evidence to support the claim. There were several instances of the property being used as an attraction as early as the 1860s the tourist attraction in its present form was created by Luella Day McConnell in 1904. Having abandoned her practice as a physician in Chicago and gone to the Yukon during the Klondike gold rush of the 1890s, she purchased the Park property in 1904 from Henry H. Williams, a British horticulturalist, with cash and diamonds, for which she became known in St. Augustine as "Diamond Lil".

Around the year 1909 she began advertising the attraction, charging admission, and selling post cards and water from a well dug in 1875 for Williams by Philip Gomez and Philip Capo. [16] [17] McConnell later claimed to have "discovered" on the grounds a large cross made of coquina rock, asserting it was placed there by Ponce de León himself. She continued to fabricate stories to amuse and appall the city's residents and tourists until her death in a car accident in 1927.

Walter B. Fraser, a transplant from Georgia who managed McConnell's attraction, then bought the property on August 15, 1927 for $100,000 and made it one of the state's most successful tourist attractions. [18] [19] The first archaeological digs at the Fountain of Youth were performed in 1934 by the Smithsonian Institution. These digs revealed a large number of Christianized Timucua burials. These burials eventually pointed to the Park as the location of the first Christian mission in the United States. Called the Mission Nombre de Dios, this mission was begun by Franciscan friars in 1587. Succeeding decades have seen the unearthing of items which positively identify the Park as the location of Pedro Menéndez de Avilés's 1565 settlement of St. Augustine, the oldest continuously inhabited European settlement in North America. The park currently exhibits native and colonial artifacts to celebrate St. Augustine's Timucua and Spanish heritage.


Watch the video: Finding the Fountain of Youth - Illustrated Lecture