Juan Ponce de León (1460-1521) was the first conquistador to visit Florida. He was the first Governor of Florida and of Puerto Rico. But he may be best known for his quest to find the Fountain of Youth.
Juan Ponce de Leon was born in Spain and grew up to be a soldier. He sailed with Christopher Columbus and found his way to Puerto Rico, where he was appointed Governor by the King of Spain. The son of Christoper Columbus was given that job after a few years.
Ponce de Leon was also given the governorship of Hispaniola and of Florida, but again these were positions he held for a limited time. Governors of Spanish colonies were expected to get as much wealth as possible for themselves and for Spain, and Ponce de Leon did just that. He became famous for subduing the Taino people who lived in the area, and for crushing later rebellions by these people.
He married and had several children, but he continued his explorations. He fought with the people he found living in the areas he explored, and he died when he was shot by a member of the Calusa tribe. His tomb is in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
When you study the Age of Exploration, you can see the explorers from different points of view. Many years ago, school kids of Florida and California learned about the bold conquistadores who bravely explored the New World. “He will always be remembered as the brave conquistador who first explored many parts of Florida and searched for the mythical fountain of youth,” says one source about Ponce de Leon.
But you can also look at the Spanish explorers as intruders who brutally exploited the people who were already living in the places they “discovered.” They were involved in slavery, murder, genocide, and pillaging of the lands they visited. Ponce de Leon was no exception.
So why do we include him among our Heroes? He is here as the hero of the legend of the Fountain of Youth. We hope that you will discuss with your class whether he should be considered a hero or not.
Ponce de Leon was, like most of the conquistadores, a man who set out to seek his fortune. He had few prospects back in Spain, and no trade beyond being a soldier.
The Fountain of Youth
If you go to St. Augustine, you can find the Fountain of Youth, or at least the Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park. In reality, there is no Fountain of Youth, and there never was one. Nor is there any evidence that the park is the site of Juan Ponce de Leon’s landing or settlement in Florida.
Did Ponce De Leon search for the Fountain of Youth? Probably not. He never wrote about it. His quest to find the Fountain of Youth was not mentioned until 35 years after his death when one of the Columbus family, his rivals, claimed that Ponce De Leon had stumbled onto Florida while searching for a mythical river that made anyone who drank its water — or even bathed in it — young.
Some say that the historians made up this story to imply that Ponce De Leon was old and feeble and foolish.
Was any part of the story true? It is true that people in the Caribbean told stories about a magical spring (or fountain, or river, or some source of water) with remarkable healing properties. This story is found in Ancient Greece and medieval Europe, too. It’s a popular myth. Some said the magic water was in Bimini, which is in the Bahamas, and Ponce De Leon might have been planning to go there.
Ponce De Leon and the Fountain of Youth are mentioned in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story, “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment.” The story was also included in a couple of 16th century history books.
Practice critical thinking by having students search online:
- Have students look for evidence that Ponce de Leon was actually looking for the Fountain of Youth, and ask the class to decide (perhaps by voting) whether the story is true or not.
- Challenge students to examine the website of the ountain of Youth Archaeological Park. Does the website say that the park is really the site of the Fountain of Youth, or of Ponce de Leon’s settlement? Do they suggest it?
- National Geographic has an article on the Fountain of Youth.
- Free cartoon PowerPoint from Mr. Donn
- Another PowerPoint with lots of text.
- An oral history activity
Statue of Ponce De Leon in San Juan, Puerto Rico
There are a lot of statues of Juan Ponce De Leon in various places, including the ones above. Have students copy one or more in a drawing or in clay.
Compare the various statues.