When Juan Ponce de Leon set forth from Porto Rico, March 13, 1512, to seek the island of Bimini and its Fountain of Youth, he was moved by the love of adventure more than by that of juvenility, for he was then but about fifty, a time when a cavalier of his day thought himself but in his prime. He looked indeed with perpetual sorrow--as much of it as a Spaniard of those days could feel--upon his kinsman Luis Ponce, once a renowned warrior, but on whom age had already, at sixty-five, laid its hand in earnest. There was little in this slowly moving veteran to recall one who had shot through the lists at the tournament, and had advanced with his short sword at the bull fight,--who had ruled his vassals, and won the love of high-born women. It was a vain hope of restored youth
which had brought Don Luis from Spain to Porto Rico four years before; and, when Ponce de Leon had subdued that island, his older kinsman was forever beseeching him to carry his flag farther, and not stop till he had reached Bimini, and sought the Fountain of Youth.
"For what end," he said, "should you stay here longer and lord it over these miserable natives? Let us go where we can bathe in those enchanted waters and be young once more. I need it, and you will need it ere long."
"How know we," said his kinsman, "that there is any such place?"
"All know it," said Luis. "Peter Martyr saith that there is in Bimini a continual spring of running water of such marvellous virtue that the water thereof, being drunk, perhaps with some diet, maketh old men young." And he adds that an Indian grievously oppressed with old age, moved with the fame of that fountain, and allured through the love of longer life, went to an island, near unto the country of Florida, to drink of the desired fountain, . . . and having well drunk and washed himself for many
days with the appointed remedies, by them who kept the bath, he is reported to have brought home a manly strength, and to have used all manly exercises. "Let us therefore go thither," he cried, "and be like him."
They set sail with three brigantines and found without difficulty the island of Bimini among the Lucayos (or Bahamas) islands; but when they searched for the Fountain of Youth they were pointed farther westward to Florida, where there was said to be a river of the same magic powers, called the Jordan. Touching at many a fair island green with trees, and occupied by a gentle population till then undisturbed, it was not strange if, nearing the coast of Florida, both Juan Ponce de Leon and his more impatient cousin expected to find the Fountain of Youth.
They came at last to an inlet which led invitingly up among wooded banks and flowery valleys, and here the older knight said, "Let us disembark here and strike inland. My heart tells me that here at last will be found the Fountain of Youth." "Nonsense," said Juan, "our way lies by water."
"Then leave me here with my men," said Luis. He had brought with him five servants, mostly veterans, from his own estate in Spain.
A fierce discussion ended in Luis obtaining his wish, and being left for a fortnight of exploration; his kinsman promising to come for him again at the mouth of the river St. John. The men left on shore were themselves past middle age, and the more eager for their quest. They climbed a hill and watched the brigantines disappear in the distance; then set up a cross, which they had brought with them, and prayed before it bareheaded.
Sending the youngest of his men up to the top of a tree, Luis learned from him that they were on an island, after all, and this cheered him much, as making it more likely that they should find the Fountain of Youth. He saw that the ground was pawed up, as if in a cattle-range and that there was a path leading to huts. Taking this path, they met fifty Indian bowmen, who, whether large or not, seemed to them like giants. The Spaniards gave them beads and hawk-bells, and each received in return an arrow, as a token
of friendship. The Indians promised them food in the morning, and brought fish, roots, and pure water; and finding them chilly from the coldness of the night, carried them in their arms to their homes, first making four or five large fires on the way. At the houses there were many fires, and the Spaniards would have been wholly comfortable, had they not thought it just possible that they were to be offered as a sacrifice. Still fearing this, they left their Indian friends after a few days and traversed the country, stopping at every spring or fountain to test its quality. Alas! they all grew older and more worn in look, as time went on, and farther from the Fountain of Youth.
After a time they came upon new tribes of Indians, and as they went farther from the coast these people seemed more and more friendly. They treated the white men as if come from heaven,--brought them food, made them houses, carried every burden for them. Some had bows, and went upon the hills for deer, and brought half a dozen every night for their guests; others killed hares and rabbits by arranging themselves in a circle and striking down the game with billets of wood as
it ran from one to another through the woods. All this game was brought to the visitors to be breathed upon and blessed, and when this had to be done for several hundred people it became troublesome. The women also brought wild fruit, and would eat nothing till the guests had seen and touched it. If the visitors seemed offended, the natives were terrified, and apparently thought that they should die unless they had the favor of these wise and good men. Farther on, people did not come out into the paths to gather round them, as the first had done, but stayed meekly in their houses, sitting with their faces turned to the wall, and with their property heaped in the middle of the room. From these people the travellers received many valuable skins, and other gifts. Wherever there was a fountain, the natives readily showed it, but apparently knew nothing of any miraculous gift; yet they themselves were in such fine physical condition, and seemed so young and so active, that it was as if they had already bathed in some magic spring. They had wonderful endurance of heat and cold, and
such health that, when their bodies were pierced through and through by arrows, they would recover rapidly from their wounds. These things convinced the Spaniards that, even if the Indians would not disclose the source of all their bodily freshness, it must, at any rate, lie somewhere in the neighborhood. Yet a little while, no doubt, and their visitors would reach it.
It was a strange journey for these gray and careworn men as they passed up the defiles and valleys along the St. John's River, beyond the spot where now spreads the city of Jacksonville, and even up to the woods and springs about Magnolia and Green Cove. Yellow jasmines trailed their festoons above their heads; wild roses grew at their feet; the air was filled with the aromatic odors of pine or sweet bay; the long gray moss hung from the live-oak branches; birds and butterflies of wonderful hues fluttered around them; and strange lizards crossed their paths, or looked with dull and blinking eyes from the branches. They came, at last, to one spring which widened into a natural basin, and which was so deliciously aromatic that Luis Ponce
said, on emerging: "It is enough. I have bathed in the Fountain of Youth, and henceforth I am young." His companions tried it, and said the same: "The Fountain of Youth is found."
No time must now be lost in proclaiming the great discovery. They obtained a boat from the natives, who wept at parting with the white strangers whom they had so loved. In this boat they proposed to reach the mouth of the St. John, meet Juan Ponce de Leon, and carry back the news to Spain. But one native, whose wife and children they had cured, and who had grown angry at their refusal to stay longer, went down to the water's edge and, sending an arrow from his bow, transfixed Don Luis, so that even his foretaste of the Fountain could not save him, and he died ere reaching the mouth of the river. If Don Luis ever reached what he sought, it was in another world. But those who have ever bathed in Green Cove Spring, near Magnolia, on the St. John's River, will be ready to testify that, had he but stayed there longer, he would have found something to recall his visions of the Fountain of Youth.