Finding the Fountain of Youth
Florida’s healing waters, oldest tourist attraction, originally resolving disputes
If you are over 50, there is a good chance silver hairs grace your head and a few wrinkles bracket the eyes. And you’ll swear it happened overnight. The puzzle is somehow slowing the aging process. Perhaps the most famous remedy dates back some 500 years, when explorer Juan Ponce de Leon was entangled in a tiff between Christopher Columbus' son, Diego Colon, and Spain’s King Ferdinand. To keep the peace, Ferdinand offered Ponce de Leon a governorship for claiming new lands.
So it was not to find the Fountain of Youth that led Ponce de Leon to set sail in 1511. In fact, there is no mention of healing waters in his correspondence with Spain. Instead, the quest for the magical spring arose on the deck of Ponce de Leon’s own ship. And it came from a young native claiming that his father had been made young by bathing in a freshwater spring on Bimini, off Florida’s east coast.
Though the boy had no idea how to find Bimini, the story is said to have so fascinated Ponce de Leon that his ships stopped at all the islands along the Western Bahamas, discovering 13 had freshwater springs. Some have speculated that the explorer’s keen interest was to impress King Ferdinand, who had taken a
new and considerably younger wife. Others believe his interest was that an island with fresh water was easier to colonize.
Florida today has some 900 freshwater springs in such places as Silver Springs near Ocala, Green Cove Spring south of Jacksonville, and De Leon Springs west of Daytona Beach. Each boasts healing agua. Ponce de Leon, in fact, discovered a freshwater spring in St. Augustine that later became a major Florida tourist attraction selling, what else, bottled water. In fact, a guest-book at the Spring House located at Ponce de Leon’s Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park in St. Augustine shows its first paid visitors began in 1868, officially making it Florida’s oldest continually run tourist attraction.
The million-dollar question is whether
PONCE DE LEON’S ST. AUGUSTINE SPRING DID NOT MAKE HIM YOUNG.
spring water has any healing abilities. It’s high in minerals and may in fact be healthier than tap water, which has been chlorinated and filtered to kill bacteria and other microbes. These treatments also remove the good minerals that come from natural springs. The water tested from the St. Augustine spring is, for instance, a great vintage, according to the St. Johns River Water Management District in Palatka―the spring is fed from the Florida Aquifer that dates back 17,000 to 26,000 years. So while fresh water is always a good thing for those working to establish a new colony, Ponce de Leon’s St. Augustine spring did not make him young, and by 1521 the local Timucua Indians of St. Augustine had grown tired of being enslaved by the Spanish. The chief directed him toward a magical spring that Indian legend said healed those who drank from it. Ponce de Leon again set sail with a rough map, this time headed around the Florida coastline for an area we today call Port Charlotte.
What Ponce de Leon didn’t know was that Charlotte Harbor was already occupied by the Calusa, considered Florida’s fiercest Indian tribe. It is not clear if the Timucua chief knew what the result would be―sending Ponce de Leon to visit an arch enemy―but historical records show that the Calusa attack on Ponce de Leon’s landing party was devastating. Most of his sailors were killed and Ponce de Leon himself was struck by a poisoned arrow. He would die from the wound in Cuba.
But Ponce de Leon’s legacy does not end there. It turns out that just a few blocks from Charlotte Harbor, in the town of Punta Gorda, on the corner of West Marion Avenue and Taylor Street, is an artesian healing well. Locals consider it the real Fountain of Youth, or at very least, a Fountain for Better Living. The well had delivered since 1894, its pump handle replaced in 1926 with a hose spigot to better serve the locals lining up two abreast down the street to get their water jugs filled.
Who knows how long old Ponce de Leon might have lived had he made peace with the local Calusa, and drunk from their Fountain of Youth.
SOME HAVE SPECULATED THAT THE EXPLORER’S KEEN INTEREST WAS TO IMPRESS KING FERDINAND.
Hilary Hemingway is a writer and director in TV and film, has published five books and produces mixed-media works of marine life.
Mossy St. Augustine is where visitors first sought the Fountain of Youth. An early 20th-centur y postcard (inset) attests to the attractions that include the Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park (below).
Ponce de Leon’s Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park in St. Augustine is Florida's oldest tourist attraction.
An artesian well in Punta Gorda (above left and inset) was long considered by locals as a Fountain of Youth for its healing powers. Today it's a tourist attraction. A 19th-century drawing (above right) depicts Juan Ponce de Leon searching Florida for the mythical waters.