Toward the close of the fifteenth century Spain achieved her final triumph over the infidels of Granada, and made her name glorious through all generations by the discovery of America. The religious zeal and romantic daring which a long course of Moorish wars had called forth were now exalted to redoubled fervor. Every ship from the New World came freighted with marvels which put the fictions of chivalry to shame; and to the Spaniard of that day America was a region of wonder and mystery, of vague and magnificent promise. Thither adventurers hastened, thirsting for glory and for gold, and often mingling the enthusiasm of the crusader and the valor of the knight-errant with the bigotry of inquisitors and the rapacity of pirates. They roamed over land and sea; they climbed unknown mountains, surveyed unknown oceans, pierced the sultry intricacies of tropical forests; while from year to year and from day to day new wonders were unfolded, new islands and archipelagoes, new regions of gold and pearl, and barbaric empires of more than Oriental wealth. The extravagance of hope and the fever of adventure knew no bounds. Nor is it surprizing that amid such waking marvels the imagination should run wild in romantic dreams; that between the possible and the impossible the line of distinction should be but faintly drawn, and that men should be found ready to stake life and honor in pursuit of the most insane fantasies.

Such a man was the veteran cavalier Juan Ponce de Leon. Greedy of honors and of riches, he embarked at Porto Rico with three brigantines, bent on schemes of discovery. But that which gave the chief stimulus to his enterprise was a story, current among the Indians of Cuba and Hispaniola, that on the island of Bimini, said to be one of the Bahamas, there was a fountain of such virtue, that, bathing in its waters, old men resumed their youth.2 It was said, moreover, that on a neighboring shore might be found a river gifted with the same beneficent property, and believed by some to be no other than the Jordan. Ponce de Leon found the island of Bimini, but not the fountain. Farther westward, in the latitude of 30 degrees and 8 minutes, he approached an unknown land, which he named Florida, and, steering southward, explored its coast as far as the extreme point of the peninsula, when, after some further explorations he retraced his course to Porto Rico.

Ponce de Leon had not regained his youth, but his active spirit was unsubdued. Nine years later he attempted to plant a colony in Florida; the Indians attacked him fiercely; he was mortally wounded, and died soon afterward in Cuba.

The voyages of Garay and Vasquez de Ayllon threw new light on the discoveries of Ponce, and the general outline of the coasts of Florida became known to the Spaniards. Meanwhile, Cortes had conquered Mexico, and the fame of that iniquitous but magnificent exploit rang through all Spain. Many an impatient cavalier burned to achieve a kindred fortune. To the excited fancy of the Spaniards the unknown land of Florida seemed the seat of surpassing wealth, and Pamphilo de Narvaez essayed to possess himself of its fancied treasures. Landing on its shores, and proclaiming destruction to the Indians unless they acknowledged the sovereignty of the Pope and the Emperor, he advanced into the forests with three hundred men. Nothing could exceed their sufferings. Nowhere could they find the gold they came to seek. The village of Appalache, where they hoped to gain a rich booty, offered nothing but a few mean wigwams. The horses gave out, and the famished soldiers fed upon their flesh. The men sickened, and the Indians unceasingly harassed their march. At length; after 280 leagues of wandering, they found themselves on the northern shore of the Gulf of Mexico, and desperately put to sea in such crazy boats as their skill and means could construct. Cold, disease, famine, thirst, and the fury of the waves melted them away. Narvaez himself perished, and of his wretched followers no more than four escaped, reaching by land, after years of vicissitude, the Christian settlements of New Spain.

The interior of the vast country then comprehended under the name of Florida still remained unexplored. The Spanish voyager, as his caravel plowed the adjacent seas, might give full scope to his imagination, and dream that beyond the long, low margin of forest which bounded his horizon lay hid a rich harvest for some future conqueror; perhaps a second Mexico, with its royal palace and sacred pyramids, or another Cuzco, with the temple of the Sun, encircled with a frieze of gold.

1I From Parkman's "Pioneers of France in the New World." By permission of the publishers, Little, Brown & Co. Ponce de Leon was born in Aragon, Spain, about 1460, and died in Cuba in 1521. Before making the exploration here described, he had been in America with Columbus in 1493; been governor of the eastern part of Espanola; been transferred to Porto Rico as governor, and empowered to conquer the Indians. He returned to Spain in 1511 and in February, 1512, was commissioned to discover and settle the island of Bimini. This island, one of the Bahamas, was in the region in which tradition had placed the Fountain of Youth. After his expedition to Florida here described, he was occupied with Indian wars in Porto Rico and Florida, and finally died from a wound received from an arrow shot by an Indian.
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2Parkman comments on this tradition of the Fountain of Youth as follows: "The story has an explanation, sufficiently characteristic, having been suggested, it is said, by the beauty of the native women, which none could resist and which kindled the fires of youth in the veins of age."
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© 2002 by Lynn Waterman