Juan Ponce de Leon and the Fountain of Youth

The activity of the Spanish adventurers in their search for gold was unceasing, and this eager desire for riches led to a far more rapid exploration of the American continent than could have been accomplished under any other incitement. It was this that led Balboa in his perilous journey across the Isthmus, and that was the inciting cause of the remarkable achievements of Cortez and Pizarro. The same wild thirst for wealth led a succession of bold adventurers northward, and gave rise to an extended exploration of the territory of the southern United States. The earliest of these was Juan Ponce de Leon, who in 1512 discovered a country which he named Florida, either because he first saw it on Easter Sunday (Pascua florida), or on account of its beautiful appearance. He made several efforts to land, but was driven off by the warlike natives.

It was not merely the passion of searching for new countries that prompted Ponce de Leon to undertake this voyage; he was influenced by one of those visionary ideas which at that time often mingled with the spirit of discovery and rendered it more active. A tradition prevailed among the natives of Puerto Rico, that in the isle of Bimini, one of the Lucayos, there was a fountain of such wonderful virtue as to renew the youth and recall the vigor of every person who bathed in its salutary waters. In hopes of finding this grand restorative, Ponce de Leon and his followers ranged through the islands, searching, with fruitless solicitude and labor, for the fountain which was the chief object of their expedition. That a tale so fabulous should gain credit among simple uninstructed Indians is not surprising. That it should make any impression upon an enlightened people appears, in the present age, altogether incredible. The fact, however, is certain; and the most authentic Spanish historians mention this extravagant sally of their credulous countrymen. The Spaniards, at that period, were engaged in a career of activity which gave a romantic turn to their imagination and daily presented to them strange and marvellous objects. A new world was opened to their view. They visited islands and continents of whose existence mankind in former ages had no conception. In those delightful countries nature seemed to assume another form; every tree and plant and animal was different from those of the ancient hemisphere. They seemed to be transported into enchanted ground; and, after the wonders which they had seen, nothing, in the warmth and novelty of their imagination, appeared to them so extraordinary as to be beyond belief. If the rapid succession of new and striking scenes made such impression upon the sound understanding of Columbus that he boasted of having found the seat of Paradise, it will not appear strange that Ponce de Leon should dream of discovering the fountain of youth. Ponce de Leon was killed by the Indians in a second visit to Florida in 1521.

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