In A Nutshell
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 He was the island’s first governor, a title that was revoked after a power struggle with Diego Columbus, the son of rival explorer Christopher Columbus.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.