The Man Who Named Florida

Joe Marshall

Travel writer, photographer and compulsive itinerant. Likes an adventure. Has written online for Sabotage Times and First Choice and in print for The Guardian & Telegraph.

Published

Date (15/07/2016)

Ponce De Leon is a name that crops up across the map of America, a Conquistador who originally sailed with Colombus, you can still walk or sail in the footsteps of the Spaniard who went in search of the  Fountain of Eternal Youth.

There’s little more alluring when looking for adventure than the concept of a quest. And there’s little more enchanting than that of the quest for legend and magic. All over America are places named after Spanish conquistador and noble man Juan Ponce de Leon. The soldier and his quest for the Fountain of Eternal Youth are remembered across the States from big cities to tiny towns.  In Atlanta, Georgia the Ponce City Market, a multi-million dollar retail refurbishment of a 1920’s building can be found on Ponce de Leon Avenue. In the 1860’s this was a popular place for Atlantans to come and bathe in the Ponce de Leon Springs. Named by a local doctor who believed the springs kept one young.

There’s even a tiny community in Missouri named Ponce de Leon, or just “Poncie” to the locals. Far from anywhere the conquistador set foot it was named after the natural springs it was built around. It seems wherever there’s a spring there’s the temptation to name it after Ponce de Leon and his quest.

Cemetery at Old San Juan

The search for a fountain of eternal youth has inspired adventurers and explorers throughout the ages. From the ancient Greeks onwards until the 15th and 16th centuries when the legend of a life giving fountain became associated with one particular Spanish nobleman as he made his way from the Caribbean to the American mainland, discovering lands and gathering riches.

Born in 1474, Juan Ponce de Leon came from noble stock in the Spanish court of Aragon. He made his first voyage across the Atlantic as part of the 1200 strong crew of Christopher Columbus’ 2nd great voyage in 1493. Most probably just a young foot soldier at the time, he would rise up the ranks in the years to come serving the governor of Hispanola, the island now divided into Haiti and the Dominican Republic. In 1504 he helped establish the colony on the island by quelling the rebellion of a local tribe in bloody fashion, for which he was rewarded by being named as governor of the eastern region of the island.

It’s in this region that Ponce De Leon became associated with the legend of the Fountain of Eternal Youth.

In the search for fame and fortune Ponce de Leon led his first expedition for the Spanish crown in 1508 when he made his way to Puerto Rico. He founded the first European settlement there near the modern day city of San Juan and was soon named as governor of the island.

Today San Juan is the bustling capital of the US territory on the Caribbean Sea, the cobbled streets of the old town are awash with the colour of beautifully preserved colonial architecture. The streets of San Juan come alive at night as the cultural hub of the island draws party goers to its vibrant nightlife. Flanked by sandy beaches lapped by warm Caribbean waters, it’s a perfect base to explore the island’s rich rainforest interior, endless beaches and stunning coral reefs.

Turret along Old San Juan Wall in Puerto Rico

It’s in this region that Ponce De Leon became associated with the legend of the Fountain of Eternal Youth. Handed down through the ages, from the 5th century writings of Heroditus, then the 3rd century chronicles of Alexander the Great, the legend came into the public consciousness in the 15th century. Originally thought to be in Asia, the Spanish courts believed the Fountain of Youth to be obtainable once more with the discovery of the Americas, a new world believed to be the furthest reaches of the Asian continent. The Spanish brought the legend across the Atlantic with them and the local natives duly obliged, pointing them further westward with the promise of more land, gold and the quest for eternal youth. Or so the story goes.

The nearby Ponce de Leon Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park is built around a natural spring and has many exhibits based around America’s colonial beginnings. They even sell water from the fabled Fountain of Youth.

On royal decree Ponce de Leon led an expedition of 200 men from Puerto Rico in March 1513 in search of the island of Bimini in the Bahamas. On Easter Sunday he made land on an as yet uncharted coastline. Enchanted by the rich flora of the new land he named the place “La Florida” in honour of Easter which the Spanish called “Pascua Florida” – the Festival of Flowers. The discovery made Ponce de Leon and his crew the first Europeans known to have set foot on the Florida coast.

St. Augustine, Florida was originally thought to be the first landing point of Ponce de Leon’s arrival on the American mainland. Today the Sunshine State city is a popular tourist destination in the First Coast region. With some splendid examples of 18-19th century Spanish style architecture, as well British colonial buildings and early American architecture. A big attraction is the Castillo de San Marcos, the oldest masonry fort in the US at 350 years old. It’s a genuine and authentic city where you can learn about America’s modern history, with a sub-tropical climate guaranteeing year round tourism. The nearby Ponce de Leon Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park is built around a natural spring and has many exhibits based around America’s colonial beginnings. They even sell water from the fabled Fountain of Youth.

Continuing south, the expedition found themselves pushed back by Gulf Stream and made the first known recording of the great current. It forced them to hug the coast as they made their way down the Florida Keys before finding passage through the reefs and heading northwards in search of the western coastline of Florida.

Floridian Sunset

It wasn’t until late May that the expedition made contact with the Florida coast again. Historians are divided as to the exact location with theories placing it anywhere from Charlotte Harbour and as far north as Pensacola, where to the east, halfway between Pensacola and Tallahassee lies the small town of Ponce de Leon, home to Ponce de Leon Springs State Park. The park is densely wooded area popular with hikers, fishermen and holidaymakers. Nature trails lead visitors through the lush Floridian forestry but the main attraction are the large natural pools of crystal clear turquoise spring water that retain a warm natural temperature of 20°c. Perfect for bathing in in hope of attaining the elusive gift of eternal youth.

They were attacked by the fierce warriors of the Calusa tribe when they arrived and Ponce de Leon was struck by a poisoned arrow.

The expedition fell into trouble on arrival when local tribes met the conquistadors with hostility and drove them back out to sea. Juan Ponce de Leon eventually arrived back in Puerto Rico in October that year, 8 months after first setting sail. From there he returned to Spain where he was knighted for his exploits and granted governorship of Florida. He then returned to the Caribbean with an armada to quell further indigenous resistance.

He made his second trip to Florida in 1521, equipped to colonise the new lands for the Spanish crown. But the voyage would end disasterously. They were attacked by the fierce warriors of the Calusa tribe when they arrived and Ponce de Leon was struck by a poisoned arrow. Then Forced to retreat to Cuba on what would be the last living voyage for the conquistador who upon arrival in Cuba succumbed to his wounds and died. He was finally laid to rest in Puerto Rico, where his remains lie in the Cathedral of San Juan Bautista in the capital of San Juan.

 

Although the quest for the Fountain of Eternal Youth formed the narrative of Ponce de Leon’s journey in the centuries after his death, it was a legend as mythical as the fountain itself. It wasn’t until fourteen years after he died that the story was attached to him by the writer and historian Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés. It’s thought this came about as an attempt to discredit his achievements and untimely death as the result of folly and vanity by his political adversaries in the Spanish court.

Despite this Ponce de Leon achieved immortality in name if not in person. His achievements in conquest and discovery laid the foundations of a legacy that continues today in the towns, cities and streets that bear his name and continue his legend.

 

WORDS BY JOE MARSHALL