The Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park claims to be the landing site of Spanish explorer Ponce De Leon, who arrived on the banks of St Augustine, Florida in 1513. No evidence has been found to substantiate these claims but the city of St Augustine has constructed a thriving tourism industry around such assertions.
Research by local historians suggests a site for his landing lies in Brevard County, over 140 miles south of St Augustine. Ponce De Leon is believed to have sought the freshwater source heralded as ‘The Fountain of Youth’ but little evidence of this exists. The voyager had never made any claims to be actively seeking the shores of St John’s County. In contrast, Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés stated that De Leon was attempting to prevent his aging. Such tales are reminiscent of fables and fairytales; the fanciful days of yore.
It is more probable that Ponce De Leon was endeavouring to find gold and contribute to the expansion of the Spanish Empire. St Augustine, as a European colony, was discovered 50 years earlier and remains the oldest continuously inhabited European-established settlement within the borders of the continental United States.
In 2400 BC, Native Americans began to occupy the region between Southern Georgia and Northern Florida. The Timucua were a community of different tribes, all sharing a common language. They would trade between each other and go to war as rival factions. The Timucua are thought to be the people that witnessed the arrival of Ponce De Leon on the shores of St Augustine. A painting of the scene, by Thomas Moran, can be found at the Cummer Museum in Jacksonville. This painting is striking, but factually inaccurate as it depicts Plains Indians, who journeyed from the modern states of Dakota and Oklahoma. By the 16th century, the Timucua population had shrunk considerably. Persecution and epidemics of infectious European diseases had reduced their number by 75% and in the 18th Century their treatment worsened. They became extinct as a people due to their mass enslavement.
Deadly disease and war, accompanied by the North American slave trade, had decimated the Native American population of North Eastern Florida. The preservation of Timucuan culture at the Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park has helped the site gain historical legitimacy. The significance of the landscape was discovered in 1934, when the proprietor intended to plant citrus trees. In doing so, the remains of Timucuan villagers were disturbed. The Smithsonian Institute divulged that these were the first Christianised Native Americans. The sensitivity of the discovery was not recognised and for decades the burial site was championed as a tourist attraction. By 1991, a full and proper reinterment was conducted.
A Timucua village would consist of 200 people in over 30 homes. The central council building acted as a large meeting space for villagers. Early European settlers described these as being sizable enough to house 3000 people. Though largely agricultural, the Timucua hunted alligators, manatees and whales. Their instruments were primitive: natural materials such as animal bones and shells were fashioned into lethal arms. Hunting was a ceremonious event, with intricate attention paid to rites. They believed that such acts had a supernatural power. The tools used by the Timucua are today displayed at the park. For thousands of years they lived undisturbed. Unfortunately, we are now restricted to learning about their culture through the presumptions of - often white - historians.
The history of the park is intriguing and leads many to question the legitimacy of archaeological discoveries. The park was bought in 1904 by Luella Day McConnell, who fabricated stories to shock and appall the people of St Augustine. Having bought the land, ‘Diamond Lil’ opened her land as a tourist attraction; she sold water from a well that had been dug for her by acquaintances. The elixir of life would not be found here, though tourists have been attracted to the site for nearly 150 years.
The Fountain of Youth detracts from what is an impressive archaeological site. A Spanish settlement was uncovered by researchers from the University of Florida and has been excavated over the decades, revealing a Christian missionary that was the first on American soil. Mission Nombre de Dios was begun in 1587 and substantiates the thought that St Augustine was discovered by Pedro Menéndez de Avilés. Today, it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Many of the exhibits are dated, but they still provide visitors with an important understanding of St Augustine’s history.