PONCE DE LEON was a brave Spanish soldier who came over with Columbus on his second voyage. He was so fine a soldier that he was made governor of a part of Hispaniola. One day he stood on a high hill, and saw the fair shores of Porto Rico. "I will conquer that island," said he, and forthwith sailed across the waters, annexing it as one of his possessions and establishing himself as governor.
Like all the early Spaniards he was cruel to the Indians and greedy for gold. He made the poor natives work hard, and slew them for the slightest offenses. In consequence, De Leon was hated as were all the Spanish oppressors of that period.
De Leon was getting old; his hair was white, his strength was waning, and he longed for the vigor and fire of youth. One time he complained to an Indian of his coming age. The cunning savage replied: "Across the sea, only a few days' sail from here, there is a beautiful land full of flowers and fruit and game. It is the most beautiful place in the world, far more lovely than this island. Somewhere yonder there is a fountain of magic water, in which, if one bathes, his hair will become black and his limbs will become strong. He then can carry his sword without fatigue, and conquer his enemies with his strong arm. He will again be a young man!"
De Leon listened gladly to the story of this wily savage who was merely trying to get him and his men to leave Porto Rico. He resolved to find the beautiful country, so that he might bathe in the Fountain of Youth. He called his men to him at once and told them about the wonderful water. In a few days he set sail on his quest, full of foolish hope and pride.
It was in the early spring; the breeze was soft and the air was mild. In a short while the ship came to land, and De Leon named it Florida. He anchored his ship, and his men rowed him to shore. The spot where they landed was near the mouth of the St. John River, not far from where St. Augustine now stands. They were the first white men to set foot on the soil of the mainland of North America, since the days of the Northmen, five hundred years before.
Now began the vain search for the Fountain of Youth. Deep into the forests the soldiers plunged, wondering at the gorgeous flowers, the abundant fruit, and the plentiful game. The Indians scurried away at the approach of the strange white faces. De Leon and his men were bent on other things than Indians and flowers; they were hunting for their lost youth! In every stream, brook, river, and creek they bathed. Up and down the coast they wandered, trying the waters everywhere. They had never bathed as much before in all their lives, but it was all in vain!
No matter where or how often he bathed, Ponce de Leon's hair remained white, his skin was dried and his limbs were bent with age and fatigue. In vain he tried a hundred places, and at last exclaimed, "There is no such fountain here; we must return to Porto Rico."
Accordingly, he set sail for the island from whence he had departed, just as old, just as white haired, and just as foolish in his belief as when he had started out on his fruitless mission. If De Leon did not find his Fountain of Youth, he at least did discover a beautiful country, and give a name to one of the future states of our Union.
For nearly a year afterwards, De Leon and his men wandered up and down the coast of Florida. Perhaps they were still seeking the Fountain of Youth. One day, they were attacked by the Indians, and De Leon was wounded by an arrow. His followers put him on board ship and sailed away to Cuba. Here De Leon died of his wounds, with all his hopes unfulfilled.