Chapters
Spanish Colonial Florida

The Fountain of Youth Myth

By J. Michael Francis

I. The Fountain of Youth Myth

In 1575, not long before his death, a Spaniard named Hernando de Escalante Fontaneda drafted a remarkable memoir chronicling his 17-year ordeal as a captive among Florida’s Calusa Indians. Escalante was enslaved by the Calusas in 1549 after he survived a shipwreck in the Florida Keys. At the time, he was just 13 years old. Escalante remained among the Indians until 1566, when he was rescued by a group of Spaniards led by Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, the founder of St. Augustine.

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Map of the Caribbean islands, including Florida and part of southern North America to Cape Santa Elena (present-day Port Royal, South Carolina) and the northern part of South America. Cartographic elements include location of islands and settlements, sea banks or shoals, and degrees of latitude (including the Tropic of Cancer).

The John Carter Brown Library, Brown University

Escalante’s unique account is widely considered one of the most important documents on early-colonial Florida history. But perhaps it is best known as one of the earliest written references to Florida’s most enduring myth: Juan Ponce de León’s quest for the Fountain of Youth.

According to Escalante, Indians in Cuba and Santo Domingo were convinced that a magical river existed somewhere on the Florida peninsula and that bathing in it turned old men young again. Large numbers of these Indians went in search of the elusive waters, he wrote, and many died in the process. He derided the Indians for believing such a foolish legend and added that while he was a captive he had bathed in many of Florida’s numerous rivers. Yet “to my great displeasure,” he wrote with a hint of sarcasm, “I was never able to verify the fountain’s existence.” He then mocked the lone Spaniard naïve enough to believe such a tall tale. “It was simply laughable,” he wrote, that Juan Ponce de León would set out on such a quest.

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Portrait drawing of Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León with his signature.

This file has been identified as being free of known restrictions under copyright law, including all related and neighboring rights.

It might be easy to understand Escalante’s contempt if it were not for one small matter: Ponce was never searching for a Fountain of Youth. There, I said it. Ponce de León was never searching for a Fountain of Youth. Escalante was simply repeating an apocryphal story that had appeared in a work published more than two decades after Ponce’s 1513 expedition to Florida, and more than a decade after Ponce’s death. There is no historical evidence to suggest that Ponce was even aware of the fabled spring, let alone that he risked life and fortune on a quest to locate it.

Of course, Escalante did not invent the Fountain of Youth story, nor was he the first to associate Ponce with it. Rumors of magical rejuvenating springs had deep historical roots in medieval lore, occupying a privileged place in Eurasian mythology, along with tales of Amazon women, the Seven Cities of Cíbola, and other popular tales. Versions of these stories had long existed in many parts of Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. Thus, it is hardly surprising that not long after Columbus’s initial voyages to the Caribbean, reports began to emerge that the elusive waters were to be found somewhere in the New World.

II. General History of the Indies

Valdes’s first romantic work entitled, “Libro del muy esforzado e invencible caballero Don Claribalte (Book of the very striving and invincible knight Don Claribalte)” published in 1519.

It was not until 1535—more than 20 years after Ponce’s 1513 voyage to Florida and more than a decade after he died in 1521—that a historian associated him with a quest for the Fountain of Youth. It was the great Spanish chronicler Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés who introduced this story. In an exhaustive work of human and natural history that is widely considered the finest chronicle of the 16th century, Oviedo wrote about the explorers of the New World. He praised the actions of men like Christopher Columbus and, to a lesser extent, Hernando Cortés; however he vilified the greed, capriciousness, superstition, and stupidity of others. One of his targets was Juan Ponce de León.

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Portrait of a Man, Said to be Christopher Columbus (born about 1446, died 1506)

Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan, 1900

According to Oviedo, Ponce was a vain and credulous man, prone to pursue silly ventures that enhanced his own ego, no matter the cost. To illustrate this point, Oviedo claimed that a group of Indians in the Caribbean had deceived Ponce and his followers, leading them to believe that an enchanted spring was hidden somewhere in the islands of Bimini (the Bahamas), and that its waters made men young again. Convinced the rumors were true, Ponce and his men wandered aimlessly among the islands for six months, Oviedo claimed.

Continuing to mock Ponce’s gullibility, Oviedo claimed that he himself had witnessed first-hand how old men could turn young, something that was achieved without the assistance of any fountain; rather, the transformation was caused simply by a weakening of the brain, which made grown men behave like boys who possessed little reason or understanding. This, Oviedo claimed, was precisely what had happened to Ponce de León.

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The Fountain of Youth, 1546 painting by Lucas Cranach the Elder.

This file has been identified as being free of known restrictions under copyright law, including all related and neighboring rights.

If Oviedo initiated the link between Ponce and a search for the fabled fountain, another Spanish chronicler, Antonio de Herrera y Tordesillas , reinforced the connection. Herrera’s 1601 chronicle provides the most detailed account of Ponce’s 1513 voyage and appears to have been based in part on now-lost original accounts of the expedition. Often labeled as one of the great plagiarists of the early-modern era (a practice that was in fact common among virtually all early modern chroniclers) Herrera borrowed liberally from previous chroniclers like Oviedo and, most likely, Escalante’s captivity narrative.

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Retrato de Antonio de Herrera y Tordesillas, Cronista Mayor del Rey, y de las Indias, natural de Cuéllar.

This file has been identified as being free of known restrictions under copyright law, including all related and neighboring rights.

Since the publication of Herrera’s chronicle, scores of modern writers have repeated, distorted, and often exaggerated the association between Ponce’s 1513 expedition and the Fountain of Youth. Over time, what began as myth has slowly transformed into historical fact.

If he was not searching for the fountain, why then did Ponce embark on such a costly expedition? Simply put, Ponce wanted to be compensated for having been forced to surrender the governorship of Puerto Rico in 1511. With no political future in the Spanish territories of Puerto Rico or Cuba, Ponce had to seek fame and fortune elsewhere. Rumors of rich islands to the northwest of Puerto Rico led the disgruntled Ponce to negotiate with King Ferdinand for the rights and privileges of a new conquest expedition. Like so many of his contemporaries, he expected these new territories to yield wealth, titles, power, and prestige. He was never searching for a magical elixir that promised to restore his youth.

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Pietro Martyr's map of 1511 shows "part of Bimini Island" north of Cuba and a cluster of islets suggesting the Marquesas.

From Legatio Babylonia, Seville, Spain

Of course, I am not the first historian to challenge the veracity of the Fountain of Youth story and its connection to Ponce de León’s expeditions to Florida. Over the past century, numerous scholars have attempted to dismantle the narrative, all to little avail. In 1935, historian Frederick Davis blamed modern writers for the fable. In 1965, Luís Rafael Arana not only contested the claim about Ponce’s quest but added that there was no evidence that Ponce was even aware of the story. In 1992, Gordon T. Pec blasted previous historians for “perverting” the “factual past” in favor of the Fountain of Youth fable. And there were others.

Most recently, Tony Horwitz’s witty satire, A Voyage Long and Strange on the Trail of Vikings, Conquistadors, Lost Colonists, and Other Adventurers in Early America, presented the Fountain of Youth story as one of many contemporary historical hoaxes, aimed not to inform, but rather to entertain, deceive, and relieve unsuspecting tourists of their spending money.

voyage_long_and_strange
A VOYAGE LONG AND STRANGE: Rediscovering the New World
by Tony Horowitz (Henry Holt and Co., New York, 2008)

In April 2013, Floridians across the state gathered to commemorate the 500-year anniversary of Ponce’s landing. Local, state, and federal organizations, as well as educational institutions, tourism officials, and businesses, conducted programs, conferences, and promotions aimed to attract visitors to the state and to share Florida’s rich but often neglected colonial past. But what stories we are going to tell? And who is going to tell them?

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Viva Florida 500, official anniversary poster.

Designed by Christopher Still.

Ponce de León and the Fountain of Youth tale will undoubtedly figure prominently in the commemoration celebrations of 2013. As Florida’s most enduring popular myth, it probably should. In fact, one might argue that the tale has become so deeply woven into the fabric of Florida’s collective identity that it has now transcended myth. It has become an integral part of Florida’s past, especially over the last 150 years. I think there is some truth to that claim, and I do not advocate a campaign to dismantle it. We can learn a great deal from studying myths, how they evolve and transform, and why they persist.

At the same time, the inherent danger in any commemoration celebration is that myth will overshadow history. In the end, the central problem with fables such as the Fountain of Youth is that they tend to simplify and trivialize the past. The upcoming 450th celebration provides a unique opportunity to move beyond myth, to share Florida’s real past.
From the earliest contact in the 16th century, Florida’s history became part of a global tale, one that extended into the vast Caribbean, across the Atlantic to the Iberian Peninsula and the rest of Europe. It became intimately connected to Africa and the slave trade. Goods from Asia circulated throughout the province.

Despite their declining numbers, Florida’s disparate Indian populations always outnumbered Europeans and Africans. For more than three centuries, European, African (both free and enslaved), and Indian men and women interacted. And like all human affairs, their relationships were complex and messy. At various times, Florida’s early inhabitants fought, negotiated, traded, competed, celebrated, married, raised families, exploited, and cohabited. Violent clashes occurred, but so did long periods of peace and coexistence. Tragedy blended with triumph, and events unfolded in unpredictable ways, often with surprising outcomes.

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The First Floridians

Courtesy of Floridahistory.org.

Ultimately, Florida’s “real” history is far richer and, dare I say it, entertaining, than the mythical tale of an aging conquistador on a failed quest to locate a magical river whose restorative waters would bring him good health and perpetual youth. We know the myth; it’s time to share the history.

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II. Spanish Roots of the American Dream Audio Program

Gary Mormino, Professor Emeritus,
University of South Florida, St. Petersburg

The American Dream, the quality of inextinguishable optimism, has its roots in New World Spain. Spanish sailors, as well as soldiers and priests, also expressed wonderment about the new continent and its possibilities. After all, the Spanish creed may well have been expressed in the words so oft linked with the quest for New World discovery: Más allá! Farther on! The Florida Dream incorporated the myth of the Fountain of Youth into a publicity campaign that lured millions of senior citizens to the Sunshine State. “Come to Florida,” the dream promised, and grey-haired auto workers and accountants from Kokomo and Kankakee migrated in hopes of palm trees, balmy Februarys, and youthful vitality. A refuge and a dream, a time warp and brave new world, Florida has provided a new home to millions of Americans wishing to reinvent themselves.

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III. Lesson Plan

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