Exactly 500 years ago, give or take a day or two (they used a different calendar back then) Juan Ponce de Leon and a couple of hundred conquistador buddies were sailing off the coast of what he called Florida. Although this wasn’t exactly the world’s first all-inclusive Caribbean cruise, it was the first time European tourists had shown up in the Sunshine State in any serious numbers. Legend has it (and some people still believe) that Juan was an idiot, out searching for the Fountain of Youth. Serious historians pooh-pooh this interpretation; mainly because nobody connected to the expedition mentioned anything about it at the time. In fact, the Fountain of Youth story only shows up, ironically, more than ten years after Ponce de Leon died. However, Ponce de Leon will forever be connected to The Fountain of Youth — credible history or not.
The problem with Ponce de Leon is his historical fact has gotten tangled up with his historical fiction, and now a lot of people can’t tell the difference. Let me help.
First, a quick and dirty run at the facts. Juan Ponce De Leon was a soldier. He made his bones fighting with Ferdinand and Isabella against the Moors i the Reconquista of Spain. When that was over (circa 1492) rather than take early retirement (the guy was 18 or 19) he decided to try his conquistadoring luck in the New World, and like most folks who get into a good thing early and stick with it, he did quite well for himself. He signed on with Christopher Columbus, on his second voyage to the Americas, and ended up in Hispaniola. Conquistadoring was booming at the time. Apparently, less than 10 years into this “We Discovered America” business, the locals were already fed up with the illegal immigrants from Iberia who were wandering around as if they owned the place. They wanted them to go home — at spear point, if necessary. Unfortunately, Ponce de Leon was not the guy to mess with on this one. In fact, he was so good at beating up the natives he was made the governor of a province. As a kick-ass soldier and competent administrator, he was earmarked to explore and settle Puerto Rico when the guy who was supposed to do it didn’t. He went there around 1508, and when he discovered gold, he was made governor of the new colony he’d established there. This is where it gets complicated. Suffice it to say there was a problem between Christopher Columbus’ son, Diego Colon, and Ferdinand of Spain. Ferdinand needed to curtail Colon’s power, and so he gave all the rumoured lands north of Puerto Rico — notably “the islands of Benimy” — to Ponce de Leon, as long as he explored and settled them. In 1512, Juan headed north to see what he could do, and six months later, he and his bros were doing Spring Break in Fort Lauderdale.
So how did we get from straightforward Spanish Imperial history to a Captain Jack Sparrow/Penelope Cruz Fountain of Youth adventure? Easy! Bad information and bad interpretation!
Stories about a Fountain of Youth are as old as the Pharaohs’ search for immorality in their Pyramid tombs. Herodotus, the first historian, talked about it as an old tale. Arab scholars, who kept his and other ancient texts alive during the European Dark Ages, wrote about it up to medieval times, and it was certainly know to the Spanish who’d been going through the Moors’ abandoned libraries, burning everything they didn’t understand. To the early Spanish explorers, therefore, the Fountain of Youth was as real as El Dorado and the lost Christian Kingdom of Prester John. These things were all findable.
Meanwhile, in the Caribbean, the natives were telling tall tales about a land just over the horizon. This place was the second coming of Eden — where the waters held the key to everlasting youth. Obviously, the Spanish were interested. However, since none of the locals had actually been there, they were probably giving a garbled version of the Mayan civilization. The Mayans, in order to please their gods and make it rain, had a nasty habit of rounding up scores of youthful virgins and offering them immortality. The only catch was the virgins had to have their throats cut — usually while standing over a fresh water sinkhole called a cenote. The stories the Spanish got were heavy on the immortality and the water and seriously light on the throat cutting. Anyway, the locals called this “wonderful” place Bimini. (Sound familiar?)
Decades later, when Spanish scholars were writing the histories, they came across the native accounts of Bimini and Ferdinand’s offer of “the islands of Benimy.” They put dos a dos together and came up with cinco: Ponce de Leon had been looking for the Fountain of Youth all along. From there, all it took was 500 years of repetition to utterly erase the line between fact and fiction.
History has a way of sorting things out, though. These days, when you look around the great retirement communities of Florida, you’d swear the search for the Fountain of Youth is still going on.