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!

 

Shipwreck of the Atocha

It was June 13, 1971. Don Kincaid, who had been diving off the coast of the Florida Keys, made his way to the surface with a handful of something shiny, coiled up like a small snake. He climbed aboard the work boat Virgalona with the aid of a ladder, and excitedly spread his find out for his colleagues to see.

Kincaid’s boss, shipwreck hunter Mel Fisher, congratulated him and radioed to his other cruiser nearby to join them. Kincaid had found nearly eight feet of gold chain, a sign that Fisher and his team were close to something big. In time, they would learn that they had found the remains of a Spanish treasure ship, part of a fleet lost in a hurricane in 1622. The ship was called Nuestra Señora de Atocha.

The workship James Bay, used by Mel Fisher and his crew to excavate the remains of the Spanish galleon Atocha.

The work ship James Bay, used by Mel Fisher and his crew to excavate the remains of the Spanish galleon Atocha (1979).

The Spanish government sent treasure fleets periodically to its New World possessions to collect gold, silver, precious stones, and trade goods that had been mined or produced there. The ships then returned to Spain to deliver their holdings into the coffers of the Spanish monarchy. The Atocha had been recently built at Havana, Cuba for one of these missions. The name Nuestra Señora de Atocha honored the Virgin of a shrine near Madrid. The ship was 600 tons.

An example of a Spanish galleon similar to the Atocha, on display at McKee's Museum of Sunken Treasure on Plantation Key (1972).

An example of a Spanish galleon similar to the Atocha, on display at McKee’s Museum of Sunken Treasure on Plantation Key (1972).

When the 1622 treasure fleet left Spain in April, it carried wine, cloth, ironwork, and books to distribute to Spanish settlements in the Americas. It also carried around half a million pounds of mercury, which would be used to extract silver from ore mined in what is now Bolivia. When the fleet reached the New World, the ships began trading their goods for the riches of the Americas. They took on silver from Peru, gold bars and silver coins from New Granada, tobacco, indigo, and tons of Cuban copper.

Fleet officials were already getting nervous; hurricane season had started. The oppressive tropical summer heat was intense, and workers cursed and sweated in the baking sun as they loaded cargo and tended their ships. The Atocha and its sister vessels remained docked at Havana while their captains awaited the new moon, which they believed would provide fairer sailing weather until they could get past the dangerous Florida coast. On September 4th, the fleet finally put out to sea.

 

Map showing the approximate location of the wreck of the Spanish galleon Atocha.

Map showing the approximate location of the wreck of the Spanish galleon Atocha (indicated by a red circle).

Less than two days later, a powerful hurricane passed over the fleet near the Dry Tortugas, snapping masts and scattering the ships. Two of the ships, Nuestra Señora de Atocha and the Santa Margarita, sunk within sight of one another after running aground between Key West and the Dry Tortugas. Only five people from the Atocha survived, one sailor, two ship’s boys, and two slaves.

The loss of the treasure of the Atocha and the Santa Margarita was a significant financial blow for Spain. The Spanish government needed this money to run the country, especially the military, which was involved at this time in the ongoing Thirty Years’ War plaguing Central Europe. The Spanish sent salvage ships to the supposed site of the wreck, where indigenous slaves dove to the sea floor with the aid of a diving bell to search for the lost cargo. Eventually, the Spanish recovered about half of the treasure lost from the Santa Maragrita. One Spanish recovery mission found the location of the Atocha, but the water was too deep for divers to reach it. The Spaniards had little choice to abandon the wreck and its treasure in the churning waters of the Florida Straits, where it would remain for over 300 years.

Treasure hunter Mel Fisher viewing items recovered from the wreck of the Atocha (1978).

Treasure hunter Mel Fisher viewing items recovered from the wreck of the Atocha (1978).

That is, until Don Kincaid swam to the surface to show his shining discovery to shipwreck hunter Mel Fisher. After nearly two years of additional searching, Fisher’s crew began unearthing large amounts of treasure from the sea floor. On one day in May 1973, the divers brought up around 1,500 coins. They nicknamed the area the “Bank of Spain.”

 Gold coins from the wreck of the Atocha on display at Mallory Square in Key West (1982).

Gold coins from the wreck of the Atocha on display at Mallory Square in Key West (1982).

The treasures kept coming. Swords, cannonballs, gold bars, a rosary, the navigator’s astrolabe – treasure after priceless treasure emerged from the deep. Some were sold to pay for the costs of the hunt, including payments to people who had invested in Mel Fisher’s expedition. Many artifacts from the Atocha are now on display in museums around the Florida Keys.

Treasure from the Atocha on display at Mallory Square in Key West (1982).

Treasure from the Atocha on display at Mallory Square in Key West (1982).

Cannons taken from the wreck of the Atocha (1975).

Cannons taken from the wreck of the Atocha (1975).

Astrolabe from the wreck of the Atocha (circa 1980s).

Astrolabe from the wreck of the Atocha (circa 1980s).

What secrets lie beneath the waters near your Florida community? Search the Florida Photographic Collection for more photos of shipwrecks and the treasures they have yielded over the years.

The Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine

Every Sunday, worshipers belonging to the oldest Catholic parish in the United States file into the St. Augustine Cathedral Basilica, where mass has been celebrated in some form or fashion for nearly 450 years. As timeless as this sturdy building may appear to the visitor, however, its history bears witness to many instances of warfare, disaster, and change that have shaped the city of St. Augustine.

This is an engraved, hand-colored map drawn by Baptista Boazio in 1589, depicts a raid on St. Augustine by the English navigator Sir Francis Drake. Boazio lived in London from about 1585 to 1603, illustrating accounts of English expeditions and campaigns.

This engraved, hand-colored map drawn by Baptista Boazio in 1589 depicts a raid on St. Augustine by the English navigator Sir Francis Drake. Boazio lived in London from about 1585 to 1603, illustrating accounts of English expeditions and campaigns.

In this zoomed portion of the Boazio map, notice the location of the parish church, marked "O" in the original and indicated with a green arrow.

In this zoomed portion of the Boazio map, notice the location of the parish church, marked “O” in the original and indicated with a green arrow.

St. Augustine was established in 1565 by Don Pedro Menendez de Aviles. He had carried with his expedition four priests who immediately began preparing to minister to the Spaniards who would settle in the new outpost. The map above shows the location of the first parish church at the southeast corner of the old plaza.

Depiction of the first mass celebrated in St. Augustine on September 8, 1565. This painting, dated 1919, is an exact copy of the version that hung on the wall of the St. Augustine Cathedral for many years before the building burned in 1887.

Depiction of the first mass celebrated in St. Augustine on September 8, 1565. This painting, dated 1919, is an exact copy of the version that hung on the wall of the St. Augustine Cathedral for many years before the building burned in 1887.

In addition to serving as the principal port and administrative center of Spanish Florida, St. Augustine was also the headquarters of the Catholic Church’s effort to minister to the Native Americans living in the surrounding area. Two lines of Franciscan missions extended outward from the town, one heading west as far as Tallahassee, and another stretching into present-day South Georgia as far as St. Catherine’s Island.

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Gregor McGregor (Part Two)

McGregor settled in on Amelia Island after capturing the Spanish town and blockhouse at Fernandina.

After Gregor McGregor captured the small fort and block houses at Fernandina on Amelia Island in June of 1817, he sent the Spanish prisoners to St. Augustine. McGregor planned to continue his invasion of North Florida, but delayed at Amelia Island to set up a government of his own. He established a postal delivery system, acquired a printing press for a local newspaper, issued his own currency and flew his own flag, a green cross on a white background.

Gregor McGregor's flag

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Gregor McGregor (Part One)

In July 1817, McGregor devised a plan to capture part of Florida and sell it to the United States.

Gregor McGregor was born in Scotland in 1786. After serving in the British Army for eight years he sold out of the army in 1810, having attained the rank of major. In 1812, McGregor sailed to South America to join the colonial revolution against the Spanish. He married a relative of Simón Bolivar and campaigned against the Spanish in South America and the Caribbean for several years.

In 1817, he left South America for North America to campaign against the Spanish in Florida. McGregor devised a plan to capture part of Florida and sell it to the United States. He obtained financial backing from an American mercantile company from Charleston, South Carolina, recruited veterans of the War of 1812, and invaded Amelia Island in North Florida.

Map from the Unconfirmed Spanish Land Grant of John McClure on Amelia Island, showing the location of Fuerte San Carlos (upper left) overtaken by McGregor on July 9, 1817

Map from the Unconfirmed Spanish Land Grant of John McClure on Amelia Island, showing the location of Fuerte San Carlos (upper left) overtaken by McGregor on July 9, 1817

Quotation below from Narrative of a Voyage to the Spanish Main in the Ship Two Friends (J. Miller: London, 1819), 87-88.

“On the 9th of July (1817), the little band of McGregor, attended by two schooners and a few row boats, passing the shores of Cumberland island, at the entrance of the river St. Mary’s, anchored in the Spanish waters of Amelia, disembarking in all about 60 muskets, under the very guns of the fort of Fernandina, and two block houses intended as a defense for the rear of the town. McGregor, assisted by Colonel Posen of the United States Army as second in command, led his little band over a swamp, which divided the point of debarkation from the town, plunged up to their knees in mud, exposed to the means possessed by the Spaniards of totally annihilating them… The garrison… did not offer a single coup de canon of resistance from the fort, and only one gun was fired from the Block house and that without the orders of the commandant.”

William Augustus Bowles (January 16, 1792)

On this date in 1792, William Augustus Bowles and his band of followers seized control of the Panton, Leslie & Company trading post on the Wakulla River.

William Augustus Bowles (ca. 1795)

William Augustus Bowles (ca. 1795)

William Augustus Bowles arrived in Florida as a British soldier during the Revolutionary War. He defected from Pensacola in about 1778 and sought refuge in the Creek Indian country. During his time among the Creeks, Bowles apparently married Mary Perryman, a daughter of Lower Creek headman William Perryman. Bowles used this union as the basis for his claim to exert political influence among the Creeks, later proclaiming himself “Director General of the Muskogee Nation.”

In 1783, Bowles left North America for the Bahamas. There, he solicited support for a plan to challenge the Indian trade monopoly exercised by Panton, Leslie & Company in Spanish Florida.

Detail from the Forbes Purchase Map (1817) showing the confluence of the St. Marks and Wakulla Rivers

Detail from the Forbes Purchase Map (1817) showing the confluence of the St. Marks and Wakulla Rivers

In January 1792, Bowles and his adherents—made up of disaffected whites, runaway slaves and a few Seminoles—attacked the Panton, Leslie & Company trading post on the Wakulla River. Bowles briefly seized the store, shown on the map above as “Old Store,” located about four miles upriver from Fuerte San Marcos de Apalache, before walking into a trap set by the Spanish. The Spanish first sent Bowles to Cuba, and later imprisoned him in the Philippines. Little did the Spanish know it would not be the last time they would encounter William Augustus Bowles.

Eight years later, having escaped from the Philippines, Bowles again launched a plan against the Spanish and Panton, Leslie & Company, this time striking at Fuerte San Marcos de Apalache. In early 1800, he took control of the fort for several weeks before being ousted by Spanish reinforcements from Pensacola. Bowles evaded capture by Spanish authorities until 1802. In 1805, he died at Castillo Morro in Havana, Cuba.

British Intrigue and the Events at Prospect Bluff

Although not part of the United States during the War of 1812, Florida witnessed its share of fighting between Spanish, British, American, African and Native American belligerents involved in the protracted conflict.

Conventional histories of the War of 1812 end the conflict with Andrew Jackson’s campaign against Pensacola and New Orleans in 1814 and 1815. However, for African and Native American peoples in the southeast, the war continued after the fighting ceased between the British and the Americans.

In the summer of 1814, several British vessels arrived at St. George Island along Florida’s Gulf Coast. They carried supplies for the construction of a fort along the Apalachicola River. In the waning stages of the War of 1812, the British hoped to continue the conflict in Spanish Florida with the help of Native Americans and Africans hostile to the United States.

Map of the Forbes Purchase (ca. 1820). In the lower left portion of the map is St. George Island. The “Negro Fort” was located on the Apalachicola River near Prospect Bluff.

Map of the Forbes Purchase (ca. 1820). In the lower left portion of the map is St. George Island. The “Negro Fort” was located on the Apalachicola River near Prospect Bluff.

Prior to the War of 1812, several agents of the British Empire, most notably William Augustus Bowles, attempted similar schemes to enlist black and Indian allies in armed struggle against the Americans with the goal of wresting control of Florida away from the Spanish. Bowles seized the Panton, Leslie & Company trading post on the Wakulla River in 1792. Panton, Leslie & Company, a Scottish-owned firm, enjoyed a monopoly over the Indian trade in West Florida. The Spanish granted the firm these rights as they were unable to satisfy Creek and Seminole demands for trade goods themselves. The Spaniards apprehended Bowles and sent him to a prison in the Philippines.

William Augustus Bowles (ca. 1795)

William Augustus Bowles (ca. 1795)

The intrepid Bowles escaped incarceration and returned to Florida in 1800. This time he besieged Fuerte San Marcos de Apalache, forcing the Spanish to withdraw. Shortly thereafter, an expedition sailed from Pensacola and expelled Bowles. He was later captured by the Spanish, who imprisoned him in Havana, Cuba, until his death in 1805.

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The United States Formally Takes Control of Florida (July 17, 1821)

The United States signed the Adams-Onís Treaty with Spain on February 22, 1819. The treaty provided for the transfer of Florida from Spain to the United States, and established the southern boundary between the U.S. and Mexico.

Map of Florida (ca. 1821)

Map of Florida (ca. 1821)

The formal transfer of Florida took place on July 17, 1821. An exchange of flags occurred first at St. Augustine on July 10, and then on July 17 at Pensacola. Andrew Jackson became governor of the newly created territory of Florida.

Drawing of the exchange of flags: St. Augustine (July 10, 1821)

Drawing of the exchange of flags: St. Augustine (July 10, 1821)

As part of the treaty with Spain, the U.S. agreed to honor Spanish land grants in Florida. Spain encouraged settlement in Florida by offering land grants in order to boost economic activity in the colony. Holders of Spanish land grants could submit claims to the U.S. government for compensation, or to retain their land after 1821.

The Spanish land grants provide information on the settlement and cultivation of Florida during the Second Spanish Period (1783-1821), and the Territorial Period (1821-1845).

Map showing the confirmed claim of John McIntosh along the St. Johns River at Migert’s Point

Map showing the confirmed claim of John McIntosh along the St. Johns River at Migert’s Point

Map showing confirmed claim of John Bolton

Map showing confirmed claim of John Bolton

The collection of Spanish Land Grants on Florida Memory includes many land grant claims with colorful maps depicting the landscape of Florida.