When I was a young kid growing up in Bradenton FL, one of the most exciting annual events was a parade honoring Hernando de Soto, who’d landed in the area in 1539. I didn’t care about that, of course. For me, it was the men dressed up as Spanish conquistadores who tossed coin-shaped chocolates wrapped in gold foil to families lined up along the road. We then moved to Tallahassee, where, like all fourth graders across the country, I learned about state history. One of my favorite stories was of Ponce de León, said to have come to Florida in search of the fountain of youth. But although he didn’t find it (and may not have even been looking for it), I was proud of the fact that if it indeed existed, it might be in my own home state. I remember thinking, “I hope someone finds it!”
Of course, the Spanish legacy in Florida is more enduring than parades and childhood fantasies, none more so than St. Augustine, which claims to be the oldest city in the US. Although Ponce de León claimed La Florida for Spain after his arrival in 1513 in hopes that the region might contain some of the riches found in Spain’s other American colonies, Florida turned out to have none of those. It did, however, offer a strategic location for Spanish ships plying the waters between the Americas and Europe.
The town of St. Augustine was founded in 1565, 42 years before the English colony at Jamestown VA and 53 years before the pilgrims arrived at Plymouth Rock. The Spaniards were hopeful that St. Augustine could serve as a potential outpost for turning a profit in agriculture, fisheries, naval stores and ship building. For protection against British colonies, St. Augustine’s Castillo de San Marcos was built in the 1670s and today is the oldest masonry and only extant 17th-century fort in North America. It was constructed of a porous limestone called coquina, which it turns out was perfect for cannon warfare because rather than shattering, the coquina walls absorbed cannonballs, kind of like a bb gun’s bullets might be swallowed by thick Styrofoam. Spain managed to rule over Florida from 1565 to 1821, except for 20 years when the British flag flew over the region from 1763 to 1784. In 1821, Florida was purchased by the United States.
In St. Augustine is also an attraction called Ponce de Leon’s Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park, which recreates the settlement founded by Pedro Menendez de Aviles in 1565. There’s even a spring there, said to have quenched Ponce de León’s thirst and instrumental in St. Augustine’s founding and location. Tourists have been visiting the spring since 1868, drinking its waters in hopes of eternal youth. If you want, you can even buy a bottle of the spring water with “Fountain of Youth” written on it. I’m not sure whether it works, but both of my Floridian grandmothers could have visited what is touted as Florida’s oldest tourist attraction and drunk from the spring. One lived to 97 and the other to 99. On the other hand, Ponce de León only made it to 47.
And sadly, Florida’s fresh water is under siege, with pollution, increased population and rising sea levels all playing a part in its demise. Hope may spring eternal, but the Fountain of Youth’s days may be numbered.