NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Friday, August 17th. Good morning! This is The World and Everything in It from member-supported WORLD Radio. I’m Nick Eicher.
MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Before it was the United States or Canada—and even before it was the British colonies—the North American continent was called by another name: La Florida.
On April 2, 1513, Ponce de Leon, a contemporary of Christopher Columbus, landed on the northeastern shores of today’s Florida. He came looking for spices, slaves, and land to conquer.
EICHER: It was here in St. Augustine that legend has it that the explorer found the fabled Fountain of Youth. The magic is dubious, but those freshwater springs still bubble today at the Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park.
WORLD’s Maria Baer recently visited the park with her family. She filed this report as part of our occasional Destinations series.
MARIA BAER, REPORTER: My family and I arrive at the Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park on a hot, humid morning. Cicadas serenade us as we made our way inside, where a gaggle of wild peacocks are squawking around the grounds. My 2-year-old is instantly smitten.
St. Augustine is mostly a sleepy beach town, but it boasts some amazing bragging rights: the oldest European settlement in the North America. It’s by far the oldest city in the U.S.—453 years and counting.
AUDIO: When Juan Ponce got here in April, he had been in a bad storm, ok, he actually anchored up north from here about 9 miles…
A park historian, Christina, explains that when Ponce de Leon ran aground here, he saw smoke in the distance and followed it to its source: an ancient Tumucuan village. It was a Native American settlement going back nearly 2,500 years before the birth of Jesus.
Today, under a man-made concrete dome, Christina shows us a horizontal cross in the ground. It’s made of coquina stones.
AUDIO: This cross here is 15 stones going down and 13 stones going across. Signifies the year 1513. That’s when Juan Ponce de Leon got here.
Farmers discovered the cross in 1934 while planting an orange grove. Christina insists it’s situated in such a way that the sun rises and sets precisely along the cross’s length.
As she talks, we hear an intriguing bubbling sound coming from just a few yards away.
AUDIO: The water used to bubble up naturally where you are right there.
We make our way over to the crude little stone fountain. This is the site of Ponce de Leon’s fabled discovery all those centuries ago: the Fountain of Youth.
AUDIO: [Sound of drinking]
The water smells a little sulfuric, but it’s sweet and satisfying on this muggy morning.
AUDIO: A lot of people say, ‘Well, how much younger am I going to get if I drink this?’ You don’t get any younger, you just stay the same age. You just never die.
Christina says the legend of the Fountain of Youth started like a rumor borne of a game of telephone. The average European at the time of Ponce de Leon’s discovery lived to be about 37 years old. They had poor nutrition and sanitation. But the Tumucuan natives he met were living into their 80s and 90s. When Ponce de Leon spread the news about a civilization that seemed to live forever—a legend was born.
A few hundred yards from the fountain is a football field-sized archaeological dig. This is where researchers discovered the 1565 Spanish settlement of explorer Pedro Menendez de Aviles. That’s the year of the official founding of St. Augustine. It became the capital of Florida.
It was also here in 1934 when those same orange tree-planters made another astonishing discovery.
AUDIO: Welcome. You are standing in the first Christian Indian burial ground in the United States.
The property owners immediately contacted the Smithsonian to verify what they were seeing. And it was true—this was the first-ever Christian burial ground for Native American people in the U.S.
Archaeologists uncovered 47 Tumucuans buried in the traditional Catholic style—with their arms crossed and heads facing East. That means it’s likely they were some of the first Christian converts during the Franciscan mission established at the settlement. After meticulously studying the skeletons, officials held a Catholic mass and re-burial of the bodies in 1991.
AUDIO: [Globe presentation]
There’s still more to see. A small auditorium holds a fully rotating two-story globe, lit with blacklights and complete with an other-worldly soundtrack and narrator. We watch the paths of the explorers as they land in St. Augustine and then spread West to discover more of the New World.
AUDIO: [Sound from planetarium]
In a nearby Planetarium, another colorful narrator throws us back in time.
AUDIO: As the sun slowly sets here in the West, and the daylight fades away, let’s turn our thoughts back in time to the year 1492.
The explorers used celestial navigation to cross the ocean. Using the same measurements, the narrator is able to show us precisely what the stars looked like the night of April 2, 1513, when Ponce de Leon came ashore at St. Augustine.
I can almost picture the courageous sailor, peering through his spyglass to discover the beautiful white-sand beaches under the light of the moon.
AUDIO: [Cicadas and music]
For WORLD Radio, I’m Maria Baer, reporting from St. Augustine, Florida.