Long before Florida became the country’s 27th state, the Timucua people and Spanish explorers inhabited St. Augustine, specifically the site of what’s likely the Sunshine State’s oldest attraction.
The Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park contains centuries of history on its 15 acres and sign-ins from visitors dating back to 1868. It’s a place where “legend meets history,” as one historian wrote, and modern-day visitors can drink from the same spring that Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon likely did.
It’d be wrong to classify the St. Augustine stop as merely a theme park, an attraction or a historical site. It’s more of an “edutainment” experience with interactive history and an archaeological site where significant artifacts have been unearthed over the years.
Besides, who wouldn’t want a chance at eternal youth with a simple drink of water?
“Everyone, in the back of their mind, hopes for a magic bullet. They hope for the thing that gives eternal youth – whether it’s a sip of water from a spring or a blessing from someone,” said John Fraser, owner and general manager of the park.
In search of Bimini
In early March 1513, Ponce de Leon set off from Puerto Rico with three ships hoping to find the island of Bimini. On Easter Sunday, March 27, 1513, he first sighted Florida and sailed along the state’s coast before a storm battered his crew for two days.
On April 2, Ponce de Leon took a reading at 30 degrees and 8 minutes north latitude, about 20 miles north of St. Augustine. From there, the explorer turned south and landed in the coastal Timucua village of Seloy, located within an area that had been inhabited by Native Americans for 4,000 years.
Since he believed his landing site was an island, Ponce de Leon called his new discovery La Florida because he discovered it at Easter during the Festival of the Flowers (Pascua de Flores).
Ponce de Leon reportedly marveled at the health of the Timucua people, who thrived on their supply of clean water, fresh game, seafood, beans, squash and maize.
“This fountain of fresh, free-flowing water and the healthy, vigorous Timucua who lived here became ‘proof’ to the discovery of a mythological pool that offered eternal youth,” wrote historian Dr. Roger Smith in his book about the Fountain of Youth site.
Some historians and Fraser point to signs they consider evidence of Ponce’s landing – a cross made from 27 blocks of coquina, an artifact still on display near the fountain and a salt cellar with an inscription on vellum detailing Ponce de Leon’s discovery. Others believe that Ponce de Leon actually landed near modern-day Melbourne Beach.
Fifty-two years later, Don Pedro Menendez de Aviles followed in Ponce de Leon’s footsteps when he landed near the Timucua village with the mission of beating back French intruders and…