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 Fountain of Youth and other Myths
During the Age of Discovery, many men got caught up in the search for legendary places. Christopher Columbus was one: he claimed to have found the Garden of Eden on his Third Voyage. Other men spent years in the Amazon jungle searching for the lost city of El Dorado, "the Golden Man." Still others searched for giants, the land of the Amazons and the fabled Kingdom of Prester John. These myths were very pervasive and in the excitement of the discovery and exploration of the New World it did not seem impossible to Ponce De Leon's contemporaries to find such places.
Juan Ponce de León
Juan Ponce de León was born in Spain in 1474 but came to the New World no later than 1502. By 1504 he was well-known as a skilled soldier and had seen much action fighting the natives of Hispaniola. He was given some prime land and soon became a wealthy planter and rancher. Meanwhile, he was surreptitiously exploring the nearby island of Puerto Rico (then known as San Juan Bautista). He was granted rights to settle the island and he did so, but later lost the island to Diego Columbus (son of Christopher) following a legal ruling in Spain.
Ponce de Leon and Florida
Ponce de León knew he had to start over, and followed rumors of a rich land to the northwest of Puerto Rico. He took his first trip to Florida in 1513. It was on that trip that the land was named "Florida" by Ponce himself, because of the flowers there and the fact that it was near Easter time when he and his shipmates first saw it. Ponce de León was awarded the rights to settle Florida. He returned in 1521 with a group of settlers, but they were driven off by angry natives and Ponce de León was wounded by a poisoned arrow. He died shortly thereafter.
Ponce de Leon and the Fountain of Youth
Any records that Ponce de León kept of his two voyages have been long since lost to history. The best information concerning his journeys comes to us from the writings of Antonio de Herrera y Tordesillas, who was appointed Chief Historian of the Indies in 1596, decades after Ponce de Leon's journeys. Herrera's information was likely third-hand at best. He mentions the Fountain of Youth in reference to Ponce's first voyage to Florida in 1513. Here's what Herrera had to say about Ponce de León and the Fountain of Youth:
"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 (that had been left to search for Bimini and the Fountain) arrived and reported that Bimini (most likely Andros Island) had been found, but not the Fountain."
Ponce's Search for the Fountain of Youth
If Herrera's account is to be believed, then Ponce spared a handful of men to search for the island of Bimini and to look around for the fabled fountain while they were at it. Legends of a magical fountain that could restore youth had been around for centuries and Ponce de León had no doubt heard them. Perhaps he heard rumors of such a place in Florida, which would not be surprising: there are dozens of thermal springs and hundreds of lakes and ponds there.
But was he actually searching for it? It's unlikely. Ponce de León was a hardworking, practical man who intended to find his fortune in Florida, but not by finding some magical spring. On no occasion did Ponce de Leon personally set off through the swamps and forests of Florida deliberately seeking the Fountain of Youth.
Still, the notion of a Spanish explorer and conquistador seeking a legendary fountain captured the public imagination, and the name Ponce de Leon will forever be tied to the Fountain of Youth and Florida. To this day, Florida spas, hot springs and even plastic surgeons associate themselves with the Fountain of Youth.
Fuson, Robert H. Juan Ponce de Leon and the Spanish Discovery of Puerto Rico and Florida Blacksburg: McDonald and Woodward, 2000.