The Legend of Ponce De Leon
Few names have rooted themselves into the tangled history of Florida’s past more than Juan Ponce de León, the notorious Spanish Conquistador. His exploration of the land and exploitation of its native people has left its mark in more ways than one, and even today his presence can be felt in many parts of the state, especially St. Augustine.
As the first purported stop on his journey to map the Florida coastline, America’s oldest city has become an important part of the Ponce de Leon story, especially when it comes to his most famous campaign—the search for the fabled Fountain of Youth.
Unfortunately, he never found it, and never would anyone else—that we know of. But with strange sightings up and down the Florida coast, including St. Augustine, is there more to this story than what’s written in the history books?
Ponce de León’s name and likeness can be found scattered all across Florida, especially in St. Augustine, where a statue of the man sits in the Plaza de La Constitución, but there are some who believe that the explorer has left behind much more than just his controversial legacy.
For many years, there have been strange sightings throughout Florida, from the shores of St. Augustine to the southern Everglades, and all along Ponce de León’s coastal route. The phenomenon comes in many forms, but there are two stories in particular that have stood out time and time again.
First, is the glowing blue spirit they say haunts the inland swamps all across Florida. He is a man dressed as a Spanish Conquistador, and most commonly seen with an oil lamp in hand, roaming the waterways at night—searching.
Many believe that this is all that remains of Ponce de León, his spirit still trapped in Florida, obsessed with finding the Fountain of Youth that has evaded him for so long.
There are even tales of some local swampfolk trying to communicate with the wandering spirit, even sending a few warning shots its way—but to no avail. The spirit continues in its search uninterrupted, completely unaware of the time and place in which it resides, only concerned with finding the piece of immortality that it craves.
Floridians living on the coast have had similar experiences, but on a much grander scale. Tales of ghost ships have been a part of local legend since the Spanish ruled the lands and the threat of pirate attacks were a daily reality, but even today these haunted sails can be seen cresting the horizon, piloted by the dead and disappearing into the mist.
It may sound like the kind of stuff movies are made of, but these ancient galleons, flying the Spanish flag of the Conquistadors, are still seen to this day sailing the waters off of Florida. Is Ponce de León the captain of one of these vessels, scanning the coastline and looking for the legend that has been consuming him all these centuries?
St. Augustine itself has also had its share of local ghosts, not surprising considering its long and sordid history, but could Ponce de León be one of them? It seems likely, especially if you ask the employees and guests of the Ponce De León Hotel, a St. Augustine destination built in honor of the famous explorer.
Known affectionately as “The Ponce”, there are rumors that the Conquistador’s spirit has attached itself to this impressive property and, along with several others, has been haunting the hotel’s halls and suites ever since. Is it a coincidence, or has the original “Ponce” found a place to call his own?
Whether any of these strange hauntings are Juan Ponce de León himself, or just a case of collective, hopeful thinking, one thing is for certain—the man lived a life worthy of legend.
Juan Ponce de León was born in Valladolid, Spain in 1474 to a noble family. He served in the Spanish military from a very young age, and first came to the Americas alongside Christopher Columbus during his second expedition.
Ponce de León started climbing the ranks, and it wasn’t long before he was promoted to a high-ranking military position. His first station was on the colonial island of Hispaniola—modern day Dominican Republic and Haiti—where he had a major hand in squashing a rebellion led by the native Taíno people.
As the Spanish crown’s trust in Ponce de León grew, he was sent to explore the neighboring island of Puerto Rico in 1508. The success of that mission led to him being named the first Governor of Puerto Rico a year later, a position he would eventually lose to Diego Columbus, Christopher Columbus’ son, igniting a bitter feud.
In 1513, hoping to appease the politically jilted Ponce de León, the Spanish crown gave him permission to explore the rumored lands north of the islands and chart their mysterious coastlines. Although the land had already been explored in part by many pirates and slavers throughout the years, no official government expedition had been undertaken.
Ponce de León set out from Puerto Rico on March 4th, 1513 with three ships—the Santiago, the San Cristobal, and the Santa Maria de la Consolación—and the two-hundred men he hired to crew them.
They sailed north, first reaching dry land somewhere along Florida's east coast. The exact location has been disputed for many years, but most historians agree that their journey started at, or at least near, St. Augustine. Once landed, Ponce de León named the land La Florida, meaning “flowery”, in recognition of Florida’s lush vegetation.
After camping on shore for a few days, Ponce de León turned his fleet south to map the coastline, but on April 8th an encounter with the Gulf Stream forced them to turn back and rethink their approach. In the process, the San Cristobal, the smallest of the ships, was separated from the fleet and lost for two days.
They eventually reached the Florida Keys and discovered a passage that would lead them north along Florida’s west coast. They reached the mainland safely on May 23rd, but soon found themselves surrounded by Calusa warriors in canoes. An attempt to trade was made, but the Calusa, armed with bows, drove them off.
Ponce de León continued north, anchoring further up the coast to spend several days repairing his ships. Once again, they were met by a group of Calusa, and this time the encounter turned hostile, resulting in the loss of many lives on both sides.
Short on supplies and losing men, the fleet turned back the way they came and retraced their route east along the Florida Keys and up the peninsula, ending their voyage at Grand Bahama and making their way back to Puerto Rico.
In the end, the expedition was deemed a success, even despite Ponce de León never finding what he was really looking for—The Fountain of Youth.
Rumors of a Fountain of Youth have been shared between explorers since long before the days of Ponce de León. They tell of a magical spring, hidden away from the greedy eyes of mortal man, that can restore the youth of anyone who bathes in it, reversing sickness and even cheating death.
These tales, in some form, have been told for thousands of years, from the ancient writings of Herodotus, to the accounts of Alexander the Great and his many conquests. The details change, but the mythical pool has continued to capture the attention of explorers from all around the globe.
At the discovery of the new world, it was found that similar waters were rumored among the people of the Caribbean, specifically in a mythical land known as Bimini. This new lead, which seemingly explained the Fountain of Youth’s elusiveness up until that point, reignited the feverish hunt for its true location.
It is said that Ponce de León was among these explorers who came to believe that the new world was the true location of the fountain, having heard the tales of Bimini from many of the native people he has traded with during his time in the Americas.
In his Historia General y Natural de las Indias, well-known Spanish historian Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés claimed that Ponce de León wasn’t just following orders when he left to map the Florida coastline, and that he was really there for one reason and one reason only—to find the famed Fountain of Youth.
Many accounts of his journey were written long after his death, and none of the explorer’s own journals described his search for the land of Bimini, but to all who knew the man and traveled with him, it was clear what had been on his mind—and it consumed him.
Had this desperate, nearly disastrous journey along the Florida coast really been all about Ponce de León claiming his immortality? It seems that way, and knowing what we know now, it’s not hard to imagine what he was really doing that day he landed in St. Augustine, and what had guided him to that location in the first place.
There are many who believe that it was no accident that Ponce de León landed near St. Augustine. He was an experienced explorer, afterall, and it seemed unlikely that his starting point would be chosen at random. What was more likely, they say, is that he believed the Fountain of Youth would be found somewhere nearby.
We now know how that turned out, but the Spanish explorer was not alone in his belief, and in the 1860’s a series of popular attractions, all claiming to be linked to the notorious Fountain of Youth, were set up around a St. Augustine spring that was rumored to have unusual powers.
What started off as a simple tourist gimmick soon grew, and in 1904, the Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park was founded at the site by a local business woman and eccentric named Luella Day McConnell—known as "Diamond Lil."
Over the next 20 years, the park was expanded, and Diamond Lil began making one outrageous claim after another about her attraction. The most infamous being when she "discovered" a large cross made of coquina rock on the property and boldly declared that it was placed there by Ponce de León himself.
While Diamond Lil’s tall tales were far from reality, archaeological digs performed after her death proved to have a great deal of historical value. In 1934, the Smithsonian Institution unearthed a large number of Christianized Timucua burials dating back to the 16th century, proving that the park shared ground with the first Christian mission in the United States.
Today, the park leans less on its claims about the location of the Fountain of Youth, and instead exhibits native and colonial artifacts that celebrate St. Augustine's Timucua and Spanish heritage.
After mapping the Florida coastline, Ponce de León returned home to Spain in 1514. He was knighted by King Ferdinand for his successful endeavors in the new world, and reinstated as the governor of Puerto Rico. With this title, also came the authorization to return to Florida and start a new settlement.
He sailed back to the Caribbean, but after the death of King Ferdinand in 1516, his plans to settle Florida came to an abrupt halt. Instead, he was forced to return to Spain once more, but this time to defend his grants, titles, and claim to Florida in front of the new crown.
In 1521, Ponce de León finally got his wish and returned to Florida to establish a new Spanish colony. Unfortunately for him, the Calusa were waiting, and a bloody battle broke out in which he was seriously wounded. The fleet of colonizers were forced to abandon their mission and return to Cuba, bloody and beaten.
Ponce de León would never leave Cuba, dying from his injuries.
While Florida was not his final resting place, it was certainly one that consumed his thoughts until the very end, having never been able to fulfill his dream of colonizing the lands and unearthing the mystery of the Fountain of Youth—maybe even saving him from death.
Is that why strange sightings of a roaming spirit are still common on the Florida coast to this day?
Visit St. Augustine, and maybe you’ll find out for yourself.