The Fake Story of Juan Ponce de León and the Fountain of Youth
Juan Ponce de León was one of the first Europeans known to have set foot on what is today the United States of America. This was due to his expedition to the area now known as Florida (the first one conducted by Europeans). Incidentally, the name Florida is said to have been given by Ponce de León himself. Additionally, Ponce de León discovered the Bahama Channel and colonized Puerto Rico.
Yet, Ponce de León is perhaps most remembered for his legendary search for the ‘Fountain of Youth’, a magical source of water that supposedly reversed the aging process and cured diseases. This quest has certainly overshadowed Ponce de León’s other accomplishments, though some have argued that the Spanish conquistador actually never searched for the ‘Fountain of Youth’ in the first place.
Juan Ponce de León’s Life
Although there are no official records, Juan Ponce de León is generally believed to have been born in 1460 to a poor but noble family in San Tervás de Campos in the province of Valladolid, Spain. Some sources have suggested that Ponce de León was born in 1474. As a boy, Ponce de León served as a page in the court of Aragon. Later, he served as a soldier, and took part in the Spanish campaigns against the Emirate of Granada. Once the war was concluded, Ponce de León’s military services were no longer needed in Spain. Thus, like many of his contemporaries, Ponce de León began seeking his fame and fortune through overseas exploration.
A 17th century Spanish engraving of Juan Ponce de León (Public Domain)
Ponce de León began his career as an explorer by being part of Christopher Columbus’ second expedition to the New World in 1493. He then settled on an island in the Caribbean known as Hispaniola (the present day Dominican Republic), where he was appointed as a military commander, and later as the governor of the island’s eastern province (when he successfully suppressed a native uprising.)
During his governorship, Ponce de León heard rumors that much gold was to be found on a neighboring island known as San Juan Bautista (which was called ‘Borinquen’ by the local Taino people). In 1508, Ponce de León received permission from the Spanish Crown to explore the island. As a result of his expedition, a Spanish settlement was established at Caparra, and Ponce de León was named governor of the island, which became known as Puerto Rico.
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In Pursuit of the Fountain of Youth?
Ponce de León was not the only conquistador in the New World, and there were those who were plotting his downfall. Thus, in 1511, two years after he was granted the governorship of Puerto Rico, he was forced to surrender his position as the governor to Diego Columbus, the son of Christopher Columbus. As a form of compensation, the king of Spain offered him the mythical land of Bimini, assuming that Ponce de León was able to finance an expedition, and perhaps more importantly, find it.
The Fountain of Youth, 1546 painting by Lucas Cranach the Elder (Public Domain)
Ponce de León’s search for Bimini eventually became associated with the pursuit for the ‘Fountain of Youth’. However, some scholars believe that Ponce de León had never embarked on a quest for this mythical spring.
Instead, it was court politics that resulted in this connection. After Ponce de León’s death, a Spanish court chronicler by the name of Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés sought to discredit the conquistador. Oviedo was aligned with one of Ponce de León’s rivals, Diego Columbus.
The court chronicler, who disliked Ponce de León, decided to portray him as a dim-witted, egocentric and gullible man. In his Historia general y natural de las Indias, Oviedo relates a tale in which Ponce de León, having been deceived by the natives, goes on a wild goose chase for the ‘Fountain of Youth’, thus depicting him as a fool.
19th-century German artist's impression of Juan Ponce de León and his explorers drinking from a spring in Florida while supposedly seeking the Fountain of Youth. (Public Domain)
Returning to the year 1513, Ponce de León’s expedition (perhaps in search of Bimini) bore fruit when he landed on what is now the eastern coast of Florida. One of the reasons Ponce de León named this area as Florida was because he landed there during the Easter season (known as Pascua Florida in Spanish).
Permission to colonize this region came a year later, though Ponce de León would only return to Florida in 1521. It was during this expedition that the conquistador was mortally wounded in the thigh by an arrow. He died from his wound in Havana, Cuba, several months later.
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Juan Ponce De León Statue - St Augustine, Florida (Public Domain)
In some ways, Ponce de León had achieved immortality. For a start, he is today remembered as the man who ‘discovered’ Puerto Rico and Florida. Additionally, his alleged ‘search for the Fountain of Youth’, though possibly not true, has also contributed to his place in history. Though people like Oviedo sought to discredit Ponce de León, this conquistador is perhaps better remembered for his fictional quest rather than for the negative traits his critics sought to ascribe to him.
Top Image: Detail of a portrait of Juan Ponce de León. Source: Jesús María del Rincón/CC BY SA 4.0
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