Oh, To Be Young Again: St. Augustine’s Fountain of Youth

Much has been written about the Fountain of Youth, but it’s difficult to put into context exactly what this place means to the history of St. Augustine until you walk the grounds of the archaeological park. Stand exactly where Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon is said to have landed, touch the colored soil deposits echoing the footprint of structures built by those who stood there first, and sip from the freshwater spring from which the park is named.

Located at 11 Magnolia Avenue, the 15-acre waterfront site features a spring house, a Navigator’s Planetarium that details the celestial techniques used by early European explorers Ponce De Leon and Pedro Menendez de Avilies to reach La Florida, and a three-story Discovery Globe that rotates to reveal the explorers’ routes to the New World. Park guests can also enjoy a historic firearms presentation, demonstration of primitive Timucuan weapons, and an authentic cannon firing.

The Artesian spring once flowed freely to the surface, but now must be pumped up from 265 feet below ground because of the massive drain on the aquifer. A 15ftx13ft cross was discovered immediately adjacent to the spring. “We don’t know how it got there but at 15 tall, 13 wide, 1513 is the year Ponce de Leon is sad to have landed here,” says Kit Keating, public relations officer for The Fountain of Youth. “The discovery was reported in the St. Augustine Record on April 19, 1909. Was it put there 450 to 500 year ago? We don’t know.”

While there are no eyewitness accounts of the 1513 voyage, archival documents related to the exploration were written by Antonio de Herrera y Tordesilla’s in 1601. “In it he gives all the details that he had of Ponce de Leon’s voyage. Those details include on April 2, 1513 he sighted land about 11 miles north of here and anchored off for the night. The next day he looked for a good harbor to land in,” says Keating. “Well, 11 miles north of here you can see St. Augustine’s inlet. Add to that there was a Timucua village of a couple thousand people and you cook see the smoke from the cook fires. It’s a shoe in that if he saw the inlet, and he probably did, that he landed here. This was a major habitation.”

The park has detailed Timucua village that illustrates a maternal society where the men did the fighting but the women made the rules. Historical reenactors comprised of Cherokee nation from North Georgia portray as close as they can the Timucua daily life.

In 1565, the site was settled by Pedro Menendez de Avilies as the first successful European settlement in the states.  Menendez de Avilies landed with five ships said to be carrying 800 people. The ships stayed offshore rather than navigate through the shallow, sandy inlet.  A run of freshwater from the free-flowing spring to the bay created a peninsula that served as the perfect encampment for the military mission.

Differentiations in the soil an estimated eight inches below the surface show exactly where Spanish colonial structures were built. Archaeologists used ground penetrating radar to determine the exact location of the first European settlement. It is also the first Christianized colony on record.

The property was purchased by the Fraser estate in 1927 from Luella Day McConnell, who first operated the park as an attraction in 1904.  “When the Fraser family bought this place, they didn’t know what they had. They bought a spring which they touted as Ponce de Leon’s Fountain of Youth,” Keating says. “If you fast forward to 1934, a gardener was planting some citrus trees and clinked into a skull. It was quickly established that it was not a crime scene but an Aboriginal Native American burial. But something was weird.”

The Timucua buried their dead vertically in a fetal position and nothing like that had ever been found on the grounds. Instead, remains were positioned in line with traditional Christian burial practices making the Fountain of Youth the site of the first Christianized burials in the New World. “It became apparent that the first mission church in the continental United States was built right here,” Keating says. “The Franciscans built it in Mission de Nombres de Dios in 1587.”

The village around the first Christian mission church grew until the mid-1600s when an outbreak forced the burning of the encampment. It was then relocated to its present site. A historically correct model of the mission church of 1587 was restored on the grounds.

The Fountain of Youth is a living postcard with 500 years of rich and detailed history. It’s the site of many firsts and guests can now take their first steps together in the new 3,000-square-foot pavilion available for weddings and other events up to 500 guests.  (829-3168, www.fountainofyouthflorida.com)

About Liza Mitchell