Local Legends: The Fountain of Youth in St. Augustine

Is eternal youth possible? It’s a question humans have asked themselves for literal millennia. We’ve tried endless remedies in pursuit of staving off the aging process — everything from fad diets, to expensive medical treatments, to supposedly “magic” supplements. But one of the most persistent legends (especially here in Florida) is the promise of the Fountain of Youth in St. Augustine. How did this fable begin? How does it figure into our history? And what’s behind the story? Let’s take a look.    

Forever Young

Stories of magical healing waters that can preserve youth and heal illness have been told throughout recorded history. Alexander The Great made mention of a restorative “river of paradise” in his travelogues. Mythical middle-aged European kings were said to reign for centuries based on regular immersion in enchanted lakes. Nearly every culture in history has coined folk tales involving a quick dip in a miraculous body of water imparting bewitching effects.   

The Quest of Ponce de León

Still, there is no historical figure more inextricably linked with the legend of the Fountain of Youth than Ponce de León. Stories of the mysterious spot told by the natives of pre-American Florida reached the ears of the Spanish explorer in the late 1400s, piquing his interest enough that he staged multiple expeditions to search for the fountain in subsequent years. According to most accounts, de León’s quest became a lifelong obsession from then on.  

The Search

Ponce de León’s preoccupation with finding the Fountain of Youth saw him staging multiple excursions into early Spanish colonial areas such as Bimini, Puerto Rico and the Florida coast in the early 1500s. Sadly, his obsession resulted in de León and his crew mounting several aggressive and deadly attacks against the native people of the area. His crusade ultimately came to an end when he was mortally wounded in a battle with tribal warriors in 1521.        

The Legend Grows — And Falters

Despite meeting his end during the failed search, de León’s failure to locate the fountain only fueled its elusive legend, and made other explorers even more determined to hunt it down. Throughout the centuries, many intrepid explorers have mounted dogged, but  doomed-to-failure searches for the legendary site. But as society, science and human knowledge advanced, the idea of there being such a thing as a “Fountain of Youth” began to seem less and less likely. The stories eventually began to be passed down as myths rather than history.    

Lore and Legends

By the time the Spanish ceded control of Florida to the fledgling United States in 1819, the stories of the Fountain of Youth had all but receded into the distant past. That is, until a renewed interest in literary myths fueled by popular folk heroes like Johnny Appleseed, Paul Bunyan and Davy Crockett sparked a hunger for yarns of early American legends. Ponce de León and his resolute pursuit of the Fountain of Youth became a treasured tale once again.   

The Fountain Today

The folk tales of early America are still told today, and the Fountain of Youth is one of the most frequently recounted — especially in coastal Florida. Was it ever really out there? We’ll never know for sure. One thing is for certain, though: the mystery of the “healing waters” is a big part of the fabric of St. Augustine’s rich past. While here, travelers can visit the Fountain of Youth Archeological Park, a 15-acre preserve that not only features what could be the very restorative elixir that Ponce de León searched for centuries ago, bur also offers the Discovery Globe Museum, Planetarium, native art exhibit, decommissioned Spanish-era armaments, and much more.