Bimini and the Fountain of Youth
by Thomas Wentworth
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.
Parkman says expressly that "Ponce de Léon found the Island of Bimini,"
but it is generally mentioned as having been imaginary, and is not clearly
identified among the three thousand islands and rocks of the Bahamas.
Peter Martyr placed the Fountain of Youth in Florida, which he may have
easily supposed to be an island. Some of the features of my description
are taken from the strange voyage of Cabeza da Vaca, which may be read in
Buckingham Smith's translation of his narrative (Washington, D.C., 1851),
or in a more condensed form in Henry Kingsley's "Tales of Old Travel," or
in my own "Book of American Explorers" (N.Y., Longmans, 1894).