A golden Easter day was that of the far-away year 1513, when a small fleet of Spanish ships, sailing westward from the green Bahamas, first came in sight of a flower-lined shore, rising above the blue Atlantic waves, and seeming to smile a welcome as the mariners gazed with eyes of joy and hope on the inviting arcades of its verdant forest depths. Never had the eyes of white men beheld this land of beauty before. English ships had sailed along the coast to the north, finding much of it bleak and uninviting. The caravels of Columbus had threaded the glowing line of tropic isles, and later ships had borne settlers to these lands of promise. But the rich southlands of the continent had never before been seen, and well was this unknown realm of beauty named Florida by the Spanish chief, whether by this name he meant to call it the "land of flowers" or referred to the Spanish name for Easter, Pascua Florida. However that be, he was the first of the discoverers to set foot on the soil of the great coming republic of the United States, and it is of interest that this was done within the domain of the sunny South.
The weight of half a century of years lay upon the shoulders of Juan Ponce de Leon, the discoverer, but warm hope burned in his heart, that of winning renewed boyhood and youthful strength, for it was a magic vision that drew him to these new shores, in whose depths he felt sure the realm of enchantment lay. Somewhere amid those green copses or along those liquid streams, he had been told, a living fountain sprang up clear and sparkling from the earth, its waters of such a marvelous quality that whoever should bathe in them would feel new life coursing through his veins and the vigor of youth bounding along his limbs. It was the Fountain of Youth he sought, that fabled fountain of which men had dreamed for centuries, and which was thought to lie somewhere in eastern Asia. Might not its waters upspring in this new land, whose discovery was the great marvel of the age, and which men looked upon as the unknown east of Asia? Such was the newcomer's dream.
Ponce de Leon was a soldier and cavalier of Spain in those days when Spain stood first among the nations of Europe, first in strength and enterprise and daring. Brave as the bravest, he had fought with distinguished courage against the Moors of Granada at the time when Columbus was setting out on his famous voyage over the unknown seas of the West. Drawn by the fame of the discovery of the New World, De Leon sailed with Columbus in his second voyage, and proved himself a gallant soldier in the wars for the conquest of Hispaniola, of whose eastern half he was made governor.
To the eastward lay another island, the fair tropic land ever since known as Porto Rico. De Leon could see from the high hills of Hispaniola the far green shores of this island, which he invaded and finally subdued in 1509, making himself its governor. A stern oppressor of the natives, he won great wealth from his possessions here and in Hispaniola. But, like many men in his position, his heart was sore from the loss of the youthful vigor which would have enabled him to enjoy to the full his new-found wealth.
Could he but discover the wondrous fountain of youth and plunge in its life-giving waters! Was not this the region in which it was said to lie? He eagerly questioned the Indians about it, and was told by them that they had often heard of such a fountain somewhere not far to the north. It is probable enough that the Indians were ready to tell anything, false or true, that would rid them of the unwelcome Spaniards; but it may be that among their many fables they believed that such a fountain existed. However that may be, De Leon gladly heard their story, and lost no time in going forth like a knight errant in quest of the magic fount. On March 3, 1513, he sailed with three ships from Porto Rico, and, after threading the fair Bahama Islands, landing on those of rarest tropic charm, he came on Easter Sunday, March 27, in sight of the beautiful land to which he gave the name of Florida.
Bad weather kept him for a time from the shore, and it was not until April 9 that he was able to land. It was near the mouth of the St. John River, not far from where St. Augustine now stands, that he set foot on shore, the first white man's foot to tread the soil of the coming United States since the days of the Northmen, five centuries before. He called his place of landing the Bay of the Cross, and took possession of the land for the king of Spain, setting up a stone cross as a sign of Spain's jurisdiction.
And now the eager cavalier began the search for that famous fount which was to give him perpetual youth. It is not likely he was alone in this, probably most of his followers being as eager as he, for in those days magic was firmly believed in by half of mankind, and many wild fancies were current which no one now accepts. Deep into the dense woodland they plunged, wandering through verdant miles, bathing in every spring and stream they met, led on and on by the hope that some one of these might hold the waters of youth. Doubtless they fancied that the fountain sought would have some special marks, something to distinguish it from the host of common springs. But this might not be the case. The most precious things may lie concealed under the plainest aspect, like the fabled jewel in the toad's forehead, and it was certainly wisest to let no waters pass untried.
Along the coast of Florida.
Months passed on. Southward along the coast they sailed, landing here and there and penetrating inland, still hopeful of finding the enchanted spring. But wherever it might lie hidden, they found it not, for the marks of age which nature had brought clung to them still, and a bitterly disappointed man was Juan Ponce de Leon when he turned the prows of his ships away from the new-found shores and sailed back to Porto Rico.
The Will-o'-the-wisp he sought had baffled him, yet something of worth remained, for he had made a discovery of importance, the "Island of Florida," as he called it and thought it to be. To Spain he went with the news of his voyage, and told the story of his discovery to King Ferdinand, to whom Columbus had told his wonderful tale some twenty years before. The king at once appointed him governor of Florida, and gave him full permission to plant a colony in the new land—continent or island as it might prove to be.
De Leon may still have nourished hopes in his heart of finding the fabled fountain when, in 1521, he returned to plant the colony granted by the king. But the natives of Florida had seen enough of the Spaniards in their former visit, and now met them with arrows instead of flowers and smiles. Fierce fights ensued, and their efforts to establish themselves on the new shores proved in vain. In the end their leader received so severe an arrow wound that he withdrew and left to the victorious Indians the ownership of their land. The arrow was poisoned, and his wound proved mortal. In a short time after reaching Cuba he died, having found death instead of youth in the land of flowers.
We may quote the words of the historian Robertson in support of the fancy which led De Leon in the path of discovery: "The Spaniards, at that period, were engaged in a career of activity which gave a romantic turn to their imagination and daily presented to them strange and marvelous objects. A new world was opened to their view. They visited islands and continents of whose existence mankind in former ages had no conception. In those delightful countries nature seemed to assume another form; every tree and plant and animal was different from those of the ancient hemisphere. They seemed to be transported into enchanted ground; and, after the wonders which they had seen, nothing, in the warmth and novelty of their imagination, appeared to them so extraordinary as to be beyond belief. If the rapid succession of new and striking scenes made such impression on the sound understanding of Columbus that he boasted of having found the seat of Paradise, it will not appear strange that Ponce de Leon should dream of discovering the fountain of youth."
All we need say farther is that the first attempt to colonize the shores of the great republic of the future years ended in disaster and death. Yet De Leon's hope was not fully amiss, for in our own day many seek that flowery land in quest of youthful strength. They do not now hope to find it by bathing in any magic fountain, but it comes to them by breathing its health-giving atmosphere and basking in its magic clime.