Fountains of Youth

The legend of Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon’s quest to find the Fountain of Youth is one of the most popular stories in Florida history and culture. Books, paintings, movies, and even live pageants depict old Ponce as the guy who was convinced he would find a fountain in Florida whose waters would turn back the hands of time and keep anyone who drank from it or bathed in it young. He never found the fountain, of course, or else we’d refer you to him for the full story. We can, however, tell you a bit about Ponce’s exploration of Florida and the fountains of youth his journey has inspired over the years since his departure.

Drawing of Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon at the Fountain of Youth (date unknown).

Drawing of Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon at the Fountain of Youth (date unknown).

You might be surprised to learn that for all the hoopla about Ponce’s fountain quest, no documents from his lifetime survive to prove that the fountain was the object of his mission at all. Stories of such a fountain had already been around for centuries, sort of like that of the Holy Grail. Ponce would certainly have been aware of these stories, but evidence is lacking that he put much effort into finding out if they were true. The legend of Ponce’s search for the fountain of youth seems to start years after his death, when a chronicler of the Spanish court wrote a history of his expeditions. In reality, the explorer was more likely prodded by the prospect of finding gold and land, as well as the Spanish king’s promise to make him governor of the territory he discovered.

Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon (date unknown).

Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon (date unknown).

Whatever his motivation, Ponce set out from Puerto Rico on March 3, 1513 to explore. On March 27th the crew spotted land, and after a few more days they went ashore and Ponce claimed the land for Spain. All of this took place during Pascua Florida, the traditional “feast of flowers,” and accordingly Ponce decided to call the new territory Florida. The exact location of his landing is uncertain, although plenty of theories exist. Most guesses have him going ashore somewhere between St. Augustine and the mouth of the St. Johns River. After claiming possession of Florida, Ponce and his ships moved down the east coast, along what is now the Florida Keys, and then into the Gulf of Mexico. Depending on which historian you ask, he then made it as far as Charlotte Harbor or maybe even Pensacola Bay before returning to Puerto Rico.

A man poses as Juan Ponce de Leon during the Ponce de Leon Festival in Punta Gorda (circa 1960s).

A man poses as Juan Ponce de Leon during the Ponce de Leon Festival in Punta Gorda (circa 1960s).

Ponce later made a second voyage to Florida, this time equipped to stay for a while. He brought two ships, 200 colonists, 50 horses, cows, pigs, and everything necessary to set up a permanent colony. Florida was no empty territory at this time, however. The fledgling settlement, likely located near Charlotte Harbor, came under fierce attack from the native Calusa Indians, who did not appreciate the Spaniards’ intrusion. Several settlers were killed, and Juan Ponce was badly wounded by an arrow. The expedition decided to cut its losses and retreat. The ships sailed to Cuba, where Ponce died of his wound. His remains were shipped back to Puerto Rico for burial, and it would be several more years before another permanent Spanish settlement was attempted.

 

Statue of Juan Ponce de Leon near the historical marker in Punta Gorda commemorating his establishment of a colony near Charlotte Harbor (photo 1972).

Statue of Juan Ponce de Leon near the historical marker in Punta Gorda commemorating his establishment of a colony near Charlotte Harbor (photo 1972).

While Ponce may not have actually done much searching for the famous fountain of youth, the romantic allure of the story has been irresistable to generations of Florida visitors. Business owners have capitalized on this trend, too. Take, for example, the Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park in St. Augustine. Since the 1860s, the park has delighted visitors with its collection of Old Florida attractions, all centered around a spring reputed to be mentioned in accounts of Ponce’s original landing in 1513.

Fountain of Youth Park in St. Augustine. The

Fountain of Youth Park in St. Augustine. The “Luella Day” who signed the photo was Luella Day McConnell, known locally as “Diamond Lil.” She purchased and enlarged the attraction in the early 1900s (photo 1907).

 

An old water mill, one of the attractions at the expanded Fountain of Youth park in St. Augustine (1946).

An old water mill, one of the attractions at the expanded Fountain of Youth park in St. Augustine (1946).

Another would-be Fountain of Youth appears in this postcard, which depicts the “Tomoka Cabin” near Ormond Beach. Shortly after the Hotel Ormond opened for business in 1888, the proprietors built this small structure next to the serene waters of the nearby Tomoka River. Hotel guests would often bring picnic lunches to this spot and spend the day exploring. The fountain seen here was part of the mystique of the place. At least one visiting group probably wished it was purveying something other than youth or mineral water. Local legend has it that a group of visitors was once stranded here when the hotel staff left them overnight. The weather became so cold they burned the furniture for heat!

A worn postcard depicting the

A worn postcard depicting the “Fountain of Youth” at the Tomoka Cabin near Ormond Beach (circa 1910).

The Gulf Coast has its share of candidates as well. St. Petersburg features a “Fountain of Youth Park,” complete with a fountain fed by a mineral spring.

Postcard depicting the

Postcard depicting the “Fountain of Youth” at Waterfront Park in St. Petersburg (circa 1950s).

To the south in Sarasota County, Warm Mineral Springs has its own Fountain of Youth. The proprietors were quick to note that this was the “real” one. Unlike most of Florida’s springs, this one is quite warm. Each day, about 17,000 gallons flow from the springs every three minutes. The temperature is about 87 degrees Fahrenheit year-round. The site was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1977.

Promotional literature for Warm Mineral Springs, located near Venice in Sarasota County (1956).

Promotional literature for Warm Mineral Springs, located near Venice in Sarasota County (1956).

We at Florida Memory are convinced that all of Florida’s beautiful springs qualify as fountains of youth. They might not erase wrinkles and sun spots, but they do help roll back the years by providing a place for the entire family to relax and have fun. Search the Florida Photographic Collection for more images of Florida’s many spring systems!

 

Spanish Cattle in Florida

There are several obvious places to look for signs of Florida’s Spanish heritage. Place names like Santa Rosa Island, Cape San Blas, and Boca Raton are hard to miss. Then there’s Saint Augustine, home to the Castillo de San Marcos and the nation’s oldest Catholic parish.

These are great places to visit, but there’s no need to travel so far to find living traces of Florida’s colonial Spanish era. Often, a nearby cow pasture will do the trick.

Florida cowman reenactor with scrub cattle at Lake Kissimmee State Park (circa 1980).

Florida cowman reenactor with scrub cattle at Lake Kissimmee State Park (circa 1980).

Florida scrub cattle, or Cracker cows, are often associated with the U.S. settlers who began tending them in the 19th century. Their origins, however, are Spanish.

When Juan Ponce de Leon arrived on his final mission to Florida in 1521, he brought Spanish Andalusian cattle with him to help provision the growing settlement he hoped to establish on Florida’s Gulf coast. Calusa Indians attacked the would-be Spanish colonists, and they were forced to retreat to Cuba and leave many of their supplies behind.

No records exist to explain just what happened to the cattle, but it’s possible some of them survived and remained in the wild.

Juan Ponce de Leon (circa 1500s).

Juan Ponce de Leon (circa 1500s).

If this didn’t get the herd started, the larger Spanish settlement at St. Augustine certainly did. Once the Spaniards established themselves on Florida’s Atlantic coast in 1565, they began expanding their influence outward into the territory through a series of Catholic missions.

Each became a small village, complete with facilities for ministering to Native Americans and for sustaining the Spanish inhabitants. More Andalusian cattle flowed into the area to serve these missions, and Spanish landowners began raising cattle as well.

These cows were unfenced; they wandered at will in the woods to graze until they were rounded up. Brands were used to keep each owner’s cattle separate. The system worked, although years of conflict between the Spanish, Native Americans, and British settlers from the north acted to scatter the herds across the peninsula.

Old Spanish cattle brands. Date of drawing unknown.

Old Spanish cattle brands. Date of drawing unknown.

The Spanish hold on Florida began to unravel in the 18th century, and new inhabitants began tending the cattle roaming around the region. Years of free range living had toughened the herds, making them less vulnerable to parasites and better able to tolerate life in areas with less than an ideal food supply.

Native Americans began using the cows as an auxiliary food supply. When U.S. settlers began arriving in the area, they bought (or took) scrub cows to improve their own herds. As the 19th century progressed and the Seminoles were pushed farther south, the herds they had once tended came increasingly under the control of these newcomers.

Cattle drive at Bartow (circa 1890s).

Cattle drive at Bartow (circa 1890s).

A variety of other breeds have been introduced into Florida herds in the past two centuries, but the Cracker (or scrub) cattle can still be found on ranches across the state. To the untrained eye, they might not look much different from any other Florida cows, but in reality they’re a testament to Florida’s Spanish heritage.

For more photos of the Florida cattle industry, check out our Cattle Ranching photo exhibit, or search the Florida Photographic Collection.

Juan Ponce de León Lands in Florida

On April 2, 1513, Juan Ponce de León landed somewhere along the east coast of Florida.

Juan Ponce de León from Herrera's Historia General, published between 1601 and 1615

Juan Ponce de León from Herrera’s Historia General, published between 1601 and 1615

More than 500 Native American nations inhabited the Americas at the time of first contact. The arrival of European and African peoples forever changed life on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean and initiated environmental and demographic changes that continue to the present day.

Peruuiae Avrifer Regionis Typus, by Abraham Ortelius, ca. 1584

Peruuiae Avrifer Regionis Typus, by Abraham Ortelius, ca. 1584