Tuesday, April 2, 2013

The Fountain of Youth?

Down in St. Augustine, they are celebrating the 500th Anniversary of Ponce de Leon landing in Florida this week. According to the St. Augustine Record, events during the week-long celebration will include the unveiling of a new statue to the Spanish explorer where historians now believe he landed, a reenactment of said landing, and a wreath laying ceremony at the existing statue of Juan Ponce de Leon in town.

We all learned about Ponce de Leon when we were kids. He was a Conquistador. He "discovered" what is now Florida in 1513. He was looking for the Fountain of Youth, right? Wrong. The waters that reversed aging was a legend, both in Leon's time and in ours. Ponce de Leon was tied to it by his contemporaries and later by our own Washington Irving, probably one of the first of a long line of American writers of fanciful historical fiction. The real story is that most explorers knew where Florida was. Ponce de Leon was the first to claim it for Spain and attempt to explore its interior. He was, of course, looking for gold or certainly some other commodity to exploit. Juan was trying to keep up with his fellow conquistadors who were gaining fame overthrowing Central and South American native societies. On his second trip to Florida, with the intent of setting up a colony, he was wounded in a fight with the locals. He later died of his wounds.

I read the true story of Ponce de Leon in Tony Horwitz' book "A Voyage Long and Strange." I mentioned reading this book back in December 2008. (It was such a good book that I think it's about time to get a copy of it and read it again.) Horwitz describes how we celebrate different groups that "discovered" America, including Vikings in Canada, and explains that what we are celebrating or what we think we know about these groups and events is usually just mythology created by popular culture.

T.D. Allman reminds us of the mythology surrounding the Ponce de Leon story on this benchmark anniversary in an opinion piece in the New York Times (which is also really worth reading). Allman is the author of "Finding Florida: The True History of the Sunshine State." I haven't read his book yet, but I put it on my wishlist, simply based on this op-ed in the NYT. I enjoyed Allman's straightforward language and I assume we also share a frustration with the influence of popular culture.  Allman writes that "If we took the trouble to understand the past, we might stop building our lives on top of sinkholes." In other words, if we don't tell the truth, and we don't take away any lessons, we're going to keep making mistakes. If that is the case, and we're just going to listen to the people making up stories, why do we pay historians to try to find out the truth? And besides, in my opinion the true story is just as exciting, and often more so, than the myth.

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