Spanish Sea: The Gulf of Mexico in North American Discovery, 1500-1685

By Robert S. Weddle | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 2
Florida and the Fountain: Juan Ponce de León 1513-21

NORTH of Cuba and Haiti lie the Bahama Islands, known to sixteenthcentury Spaniards as the Lucayos. The natives, first contacted by Columbus on October 12, 1492, when he landed at Guanahani, or San Salvador, were whiter and more graceful than the aborigines of either Cuba or Hispaniola. The women were so strikingly beautiful that men came from Florida, Yucatán, and even Tierra Firme to seek their favor and live among them; so wrote Francisco López de Gómara, circa 1550. These foreigners attracted by the island sirens contributed to a great diversity of language and an elevation of manners and culture: "It is from there," says the chronicler, "that the report comes of amazon women and a fountain that restores old men."

Such an account, in circulation in one form or another almost since the first Discovery, was a natural for stirring the fancy of an unemployed conquistador. In that circumstance in 1512 was Juan Ponce de León. That the Fountain of Youth legend influenced his discovery of Florida has long been accepted as fact.

The myths were by no means new, nor did they die with Ponce. López, de Gómara merely provided embellishment for the tale recorded by Peter Martyr in 1516. Among the islands north of Hispaniola, says Martyr, was one called Boyuca, alias Ananéo, which had a notable fountain: "From the drinking of its water the aged are rejuvenated." The story was widely circulated in the Spanish court at Burgos, and no few noblemen "distinguished by virtue and fortune" had taken it as truth.

The fable of "the rejuvenating fountain that makes old men young," as Fernández de Oviedo tells it, came to light while Ponce was fitting out his ships to discover the island of Bímini. "It was so widely

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