No book about Florida’s fabled places would be complete without mentioning Ponce de Leon’s quest for the Fountain of Youth. In my personal search for this fabled fountain I’ve been to the St. Augustine’s Fountain of Youth many times. You know the place, that tourist attraction where after paying admission they give you a paper cup so you can drink from the rejuvenating spring. I personally can’t say that I felt any different after drinking from that spring. I’ve also been to several springs in Florida claiming to “possibly” be the real Fountain of Youth. I’ve even been to Ponce de Leon Springs…both of them. That’s right, there are two Ponce de Leon Springs, one north of Deland in Volusia County and the other just off I-10 in Holmes County.
I doubt that either of these springs was ever visited by Ponce de Leon. There are six mineral springs in Safety Harbor that claim to be the mythical fountain. After checking out all these places I have concluded that the best candidate for the Fountain of Youth is Green Cove Springs in Clay County. That’s just my opinion, but there is some historical evidence that either Ponce de Leon or a member of his crew may have visited that spring.
Ponce de Leon was 39 years old in 1513 when he discovered Florida, which at the time he believed was an island. The truth is, the Fountain of Youth was not his primary objective, he was looking to find gold and to claim lands for Spain. That’s not to say that he wasn’t interested in finding a spring of rejuvenating water, because he had heard stories told by the Caribbean Indians, but it was most likely a secondary item on his exploration agenda. The average Spaniard lived to about 50 years of age in the 1500s, so DeLeon at 39 would have certainly taken advantage of any youth restoring waters.
Spanish historian Lopez de Gomara wrote in his journal that Indians living in the islands of Hispaniola had told him about a fountain with healing waters north of Cuba and Haiti. The Indians usually referred to this mystical place as a river, waterfall, or spring, it was the Spanish that added the word “fountain.” Some of the facts about this miracle water source may have been misinterpreted in the translation between the native tongues and Spanish. Were the Indians simply referring to springs where exploring conquistadors could obtain fresh drinking water? After all, water sustains life and without it life can be rather short, and with it life will certainly be longer.
Ponce de Leon may have heard about the Fountain of Youth back in Spain. Pietro Martire d’Anghiera, an Italian geographer living in Spain, wrote in 1513 that “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.” Apparently he was skeptical of this place because he added “They have so spread this rumor for a truth through all the court, that not only all the people, but also many of them whom wisdom or fortune hath divided from the common sort, think it to be true.”
When King Ferdinand drew up the charter authorizing Ponce de Leon to claim lands for Spain and to share in any riches found in these places, no mention is made of looking for a fountain of healing waters. The first link between DeLeon and the mystical fountain is found in Historia General y Natural de las Indias compiled in 1535 by Spanish historian Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo wrote something about Ponce de Leon being a desperate man seeking a cure for his sexual impotence. Curiously, if history is correct, Ponce de Leon fathered twenty-one children; obviously he gained virility from some source. Did he drink from the fountain?
And what about the discrepancies in Ponce de Leon’s age? After returning from his discovery of Florida, Ponce seemed to have a problem remembering his age. In a statement to the Mayor of the Royal Court in September 1514, DeLeon said he was 40 years old. That is correct based on his birthdate of 1474, but in September 1519, just four years later, DeLeon declares in an official document that he was 50 years old. He should have been only 44, what happened; did he drink from the wrong fountain?
The legends passed by the Caribbean Indians may have been referring to a water spring on the island of Bimini, but DeLeon landed on the coast of Florida. Historians are not quite sure where Ponce de Leon landed, some indications show that landfall was north of present day St. Augustine and other records suggest that it was near Cape Canaveral. If we go by historical documents that refer to DeLeon planting a stone cross at a river he dubbed “Rio de La Cruz” then he may have landed at the inlet that today bears his name, Ponce de Leon Inlet, between Daytona and New Smyrna. Here we find an intersection of the Indian and Halifax rivers forming a cross with the intersection of the inlet and Spruce Creek. What the historical documents do not verify is that he landed at St. Augustine where the Fountain of Youth tourist attraction is located.
In 1989, while doing historical research, I interviewed a member of a secret society in St. Augustine that claims to know the true location of the elusive Fountain of Youth. The alleged clandestine society is so secret that even its name cannot be revealed, thus I have no idea of what to call it. However, according to my informant, who claimed to be 93 years old and looked 40, it was founded prior to 1845, the year Florida gained its statehood. Members of this secret order are sworn to protect the mystical fountain from disclosure and development. Knowledge about the spring was allegedly passed down through a St. Augustine family of British-Spanish descent. As proof, my anonymous source offered copies of census records of members who had lived beyond 110 years, including Juan Gomez of Panther Key who drowned at the age of somewhere between 119 and 122. I pointed out to my mysterious source that drinking from the fountain must have done no good since they all were dead.
He responded saying that all had been killed or drowned, none had died of old age. I checked his documents again and he was correct. So even if you do drink from the fountain of life it won’t protect you from getting hit by a tour bus from Jersey.
There is really no evidence that Ponce de Leon ever found the Fountain of Youth. But is it entirely a fable? Florida has more springs than any other state, including Wakulla Springs, which means “place of mystery waters.” At 200 feet, Wakulla is the deepest spring in the world. The most beautiful is Silver Springs near Ocala. Ancient people living around Silver Springs referred to it as “Sua-ille-aha,” which vaguely translates to “sun glittering waters.” It was considered a sacred place of “life giving water.” In 1856, anthropologist Daniel Brinton explored Silver Springs and wrote of the early Indians “spreading the fame of this marvelous fountain to far distant climes, and under the stereoscopic power of time and distant came to regard it as the life giving stream, whose magic waters washed away the calamities of age and pains of disease, round whose shores youths and maidens ever sported young and eternally joyous.”
Florida’s springs are indeed life giving, even more so than realized by the early Indians. Not only is the crystal clear water from these springs life-sustaining, there is an abundance of nutrients necessary for maintaining good health. Here’s a short list of rejuvenating trace nutrients found in Florida’s springs: Carbonate, boron, chromium, copper, gold, iodine, manganese, nickel, fluoride, phosphate, potassium, silicate, sodium, sea salts, zinc, sulfate, sulfur, iron, magnesium, and others. In Safety Harbor, known for its famous Spa, there are five springs, four of which are named for their curative effects on certain parts of the body, Kidney Springs, Stomach Springs, Liver Springs, and Beauty Springs. So maybe there really is some truth to the Fountain of Youth in Florida. Just look at all the senior citizens living life to its fullest. Florida has a larger elderly population than any other state, as a matter of fact, life doesn’t begin until sixty-five in the Sunshine State. When native Floridian Mary Thompson died in July 1996, she was 120 years old and held the honor of being America’s oldest living person. With evidence like this, maybe Florida really does have a Fountain of Youth.