Juan Ponce de León was born in Spain in 1460. He traveled to the New World with Christopher Columbus and was appointed Governor of Hispaniola. He heard tales of an island called Borinquen with plentiful stores of gold, and in 1508 he was given permission to explore Puerto Rico by King Ferdinand. He was named governor of the island around 1509.
Around 1513, that position was taken over by Diego, one of the sons of Christopher Columbus, and Ponce de Leon set out to search for another fabled island, which the King of Spain offered to him instead of Puerto Rico. This one, Bimini, was said to have a fountain of magical waters that conferred youth on those who drank from it. Ponce de Leon landed in Florida, where he was killed by a member of the Calusa tribe in 1521. His remains were taken to Puerto Rico, where they still lie.
True or false?
Ponce de Leon is best known as the explorer who searched for the Fountain of Youth. The story says that he heard a Taino legend about an island called Bimini where there was a magical fountain that gave eternal youth to everyone who drank its water or even bathed in it. But Ponce de Leon never wrote about this fountain or asked the Spanish crown to fund a search for it.
In 1535, 14 years after the death of Ponce de Leon, Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés was the first to write about the supposed search for the Fountain of Youth. Oviedo was an important Spanish historian — but he was also known to write celebrity gossip, and contemporaries accused him of making things up. At the very least, he did not have the devotion to factual information that modern readers expect in works on history.
Another source of the story of Ponce de Leon’s search for the Fountain of Youth was a member of the Columbus family, who wrote 35 years after Ponce de Leon’s death. There was rivalry between Ponce de Leon and Christopher Columbus, as seen in the fact that Ponce de Leon had to give up the governorship of Puerto Rico to one of Colombus’s sons.
So did Juan Ponce de León lose his life in a failed effort to find the mythical magic fountain, or not? Use this question to work with your class on critical thinking and digital literacy.
Lesson Part I: The Facts
Have students read background information on Ponce de Leon and the article on The Myth of Ponce de Leon and the Fountain of Youth at History.com. Go over the texts together to the extent needed to ensure understanding. If your students are able to do so, have them do some online research to find other sources and help them decide which sources are trustworthy.
Then set up two whiteboards, sheets of chart paper, or sections on your classroom projector, one for evidence suggesting that Ponce de León searched for the Fountain of Youth, and one for evidence that he did not.
Remind students that evidence should be composed of facts. Agree to include expert opinions but not feelings. The History.com article includes a quote from Dr. J. Michael Francis, a professor of history in Florida who specializes in Florida Studies. Discuss why that quote could be considered evidence, while, “Everybody says Ponce de Leon was searching for the Fountain of Youth” would not.
Other evidence that Ponce de Leon wasn’t searching for the Fountain of Youth might include these points:
- He never wrote that he was looking for the Fountain of Youth.
- Writers from his own time never said he was looking for the Fountain of Youth; that claim didn’t come up until long after his death.
- There are reasons to mistrust the writers who made that claim.
- Rather than going to Bimini, which was the supposed location of the Fountain of Youth, he went to Florida.
- He died at the age of 47, perhaps too young to be very focused on a Fountain of Youth.
Facts showing that Ponce de Leon was searching for the Fountain of Youth might include the following:
- There apparently were stories about a Fountain of Youth on Bimini, and Ponce de Leon intended to explore Bimini.
- It is not known why or how he ended up in Florida; it might not have been a choice not to go to Bimini.
- A reputedly health-giving stream was found in Florida, which is now the home of the Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park.
- European explorers in the 1500s found many remarkable things that must have been surprising.
- Not all letters and contracts from the 16th century are still in existence now; there might have been correspondence about the Fountain of Youth that no longer exists.
Lesson Part 2: The Debate
Divide the class into two teams, one for each side of the question. Hold a debate according to your school’s customary rules for debates, or use the suggestions below:
- Each team will have a set amount of time to present their arguments and counter-arguments.
- Assign a timekeeper to keep track of the speaking time.
- Students must use appropriate language and respect their opponents’ views during the debate.
- Encourage students to use facts and evidence to support their arguments.
- Allow time for questions and rebuttals.
Consider presenting the debate for another class and allowing the other class to judge which side is more persuasive.
Lesson Part 3: An Essay
Following the debate, have students write an essay answering the question, “Was Juan Ponce de León searching for the Fountain of Youth?” Remind students that they should present evidence for their opinion, and have them cite their sources according to your school’s system for documenting sources.