Half a millennium ago, in 1513, the Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León departed Puerto Rico for the verdant island of “Bimini”—an uncharted land in what is now the Bahamas. He eventually landed instead in Florida, where he staked a claim for the Spanish Crown and ensured himself a spot in the annals of history.
As legend has it , and as scholars have maintained for centuries, Ponce was in search of the Fountain of Youth, a fabled wellspring thought to give everlasting life to whoever bathed in or drank from it. But new scholarship contradicts the old fable and suggests that Ponce was interested not in longevity but political gain.
The real story goes something like this: In 1511, messy political squabbling forced Ponce to surrender the governorship of Puerto Rico, an appointment he had held since 1509. As a consolation prize, King Ferdinand offered him Bimini, assuming the stalwart conquistador could finance an expedition and actually find it.
J. Michael Francis, a historian at the University of South Florida, St. Petersburg who has spent decades studying the Spanish colonies in the Americas , says no mention of a Fountain of Youth occurs in any known documents from Ponce’s lifetime, including contracts and other official correspondence with the Crown. In fact, Ponce’s name did not become connected with the Fountain of Youth until many years after his death, and then only thanks to a Spanish court chronicler out to discredit him.
Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés disliked Ponce, contending that he was gullible, egocentric and dull-witted. The animosity probably had something to do with court politics: Oviedo aligned himself with Diego Columbus, who was the son of Christopher and the man who helped push Ponce out of Puerto Rico.
In Historia general y natural de las Indias, Oviedo’s account of the Spanish settling of the Americas, he relates a tale in which Ponce, deceived by Indians, goes tromping off on a futile hunt for the Fountain of Youth. It’s all a literary device intended to make Ponce appear foolish. Although visits to spas and mineral baths were common in the 16th century, actually believing water could reverse aging was apparently considered pretty silly.
Oviedo’s satiric version of Ponce’s travels stuck. “You’ve got this incredible story that started out as an invention,” Francis says, “and by the 17th century, it has become history.” (For what it’s worth, Ponce died at age 47 after being wounded by an arrow in a fight with an Indian tribe in Florida.)
Of course, not all tall tales are codified by the passing years into something approaching fact. Sherry Johnson, a historian at Florida International University, says the myth of Ponce de León and his magical fountain remain because of the romance. “Instinctively, we latch on to it—this idea that we might never get old,” she says. It also fits the self-made mythos of America, a young country where, we’re taught, anything is possible.
Florida continues to capitalize on what could be its greatest legend, with hundreds of tourists drinking each day from the stone well at St. Augustine’s Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park. Despite debunking efforts by Francis and others, the story of Ponce’s fountain just won’t die.