More than riches or wealth, love or happiness, humans have long been occupied with the search for everlasting life. For centuries upon centuries, we’ve scouted and scoured the globe in search of the Fountain of Youth, the mythical spring which will restore our health, vigor, and youthfulness. Multitudes of accounts, from Herodotus to Alexander to the crusaders, depict the hunt: a discovery, a sip . . . disappointment. The search for the Fountain of Youth is even deeply entrenched in the roots and discovery of our own humble continent.
Around the turn of the sixteenth century, Spanish conquistador Juan Ponce de León was devotedly traversing the globe in honor of his country. First with Christopher Columbus, then with his own Spanish crew, Ponce de León explored the Caribbean and helped squelch the “rebellions” of natives. His work for the crown eventually earned him a place as the first Governor of Puerto Rico. But in 1513, his governance of Puerto Rico challenged by Columbus’s son, Ponce de León was reassigned by King Ferdinand to search for the island of Beniny. The letter from King Ferdinand detailed Ponce de León’s course of action should he find gold or salvageable land but mentioned nothing of the Fountain of Youth, yet throughout history Ponce de León’s journey is associated with the fabled spring.
Regardless whether or not the King’s letter referenced the mythical chase, the mere mention of Beniny was association enough. Like Herodotus and Alexander before them, the Taino Indians of the Caribbean (the natives Ponce de León had been conquering and conversing with for a few decades) told tales of a fabled, youth-granting fountain, and this spring, they claimed, was located on the island of Beniny. So, although King Ferdinand never blatantly implored Ponce de León to search for the spring, and although Ponce de León’s own accounts never reference the fountain, the implications were there long before future storytellers fable-ized them. Some even claim that King Ferdinand’s recent betrothal to a woman thirty-five years his junior was likely the impetus for his desired discovery of the island.
And so Ponce de León set sail for Beniny. The conquistador may never have discovered Beniny, but he did find something larger: Florida. Ponce de León returned to Florida again and frequently encouraged the new King to continue exploring and colonizing the new land. Ponce de León met his end soon thereafter from an Indian arrow, but he was forever associated with his discovery of Florida and his search for the Fountain of Youth.
In the years following his death, Spanish storytellers and writers, historians and explorers, frequently referred to Ponce de León’s exploration for and discovery of the Fountain of Youth in St. Augustine. Some claimed he wanted to cure his own impotence or the King’s. Some of these accounts, like Antonio de Herrera y Tordesillas’, romanticized Ponce de León and his Fountain, claiming locals regularly frequented the spring, their vigor restored and able to return to “all manly exercises . . . take a new wife and beget more children.” Herrera also claimed that Spanish explorers, including Ponce de León, explored every “river, brook, lagoon or pool” along Florida’s coast on their hunt for the mythical spring. Whether to discredit the successful Ponce de León by portraying him as a gullible treasure-hunter or simply to gain popularity for their writings, Herrera and his contemporaries’ exaggerated accounts of Ponce de León and the Fountain of Youth were eventually taken as truth.
The widely-held belief of Ponce de León’s discovery of St. Augustine’s own Fountain of Youth brought visitors to the site for centuries. Beginning in the 1860’s, the site of the Fountain of Youth (now known as the Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park) became a tourist attraction, making it the oldest attraction in Florida. The park was casually successful until 1904, when the site was purchased by Luella Day McConnell. McConnell, who purportedly purchased the park in diamonds and cash, earning her the nickname “Diamond Lil,” lived up to her chimerical name, both by implanting a diamond in her front tooth and by spreading mythical tales of the park and its surroundings. Diamond Lil’s work to mythologize the park increased its popularity and broadened the public’s interest in the park, turning it into the massive tourist attraction it is today.
The Fountain of Youth Park, in addition to claiming to be home to Ponce de León’s magical spring, is also touted as the point of discovery of the Americas. Throughout the twentieth century, archaeologists’ excavations of the park have proved the historical impact of the site, validating claims that it is, in fact, the location of the first Spanish settlement and fortifications in America. And although research into the spring reveals it comes straight from the Floridian aquifer, which rests beneath much of North Florida, there is still no scientific evidence of the water containing any magical properties. But if you’d like to see for yourself, the Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park sells bottles of the sulfurous water. If you envision yourself as a modern Alexander or Herodotus, crack open a bottle and take a swig—you just might feel a little spark of youth!