The park is believed by some to be the location of the 1513 Florida landing of Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon, although no hard evidence exists to support this claim, according to the current owner of the park, John Fraser, in an interview with the Florida Union Times:
“There’s no absolute proof he landed here, except for one account and some circumstantial evidence.”
The park contains a well that some claim to be the freshwater source mentioned by Antonio de Herrera y Tordesillas in his Historia general de los hechos de los castellanos en las Islas y Tierra Firme del mar Oceano which was reportedly sought by Ponce de Leon.
The park also contains the Timucuan burial site, which is a burial ground for Christian Native Americans dating back to the 16th century, the Menendez settlement from 1565 and numerous historical exhibits.
The list of current exhibits at the park include:
- The Spring House: a 60-year old coquina building that houses a well said to be the Fountain of Youth
- Navigators Planetarium: a planetarium offering hourly shows about how explorers used the stars to navigate during their expeditions
- Discovery Globe: a large globe that portrays the routes took to and from the New World and the settlements they founded
- Blacksmith Exhibit: an open-air working blacksmith shop where visitors learn how iron goods were made
- Timucuan Burials: a historic Native-American burial ground of the Timucua people
- Timucuan Village: a replica of the village of Seloy where the Timucua people lived
- Nombre De Dios Mission: a replica of the Mission of Nombre de Dios on the exact site where the mission was first built in 1587
- 1565 Menendez Settlement: the site of Pedro Menendez de Aviles settlement from 1565
- Spanish Lookout: a replica of one of the many historic watchtowers of St. Augustine where guards would be on the lookout for ships on the horizon
- Canon Firing: a live demonstration of the firing of a replica of one of the six-pounder cannons that Pedro Menedez de Aviles used to guard the settlement of St. Augustine.
- Chalupa Boathouse: an exhibit where park staff are rebuilding a historically-accurate chulpa boat
- Founders Riverwalk: a 600-foot-long walkway with views of the Matanzas Bay
- Menendez State/Park: a pocket park constructed around a full-scale statue of Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, founder of St. Augustine.
The park was first occupied when paleoindians settled on the land more than 2,500 years ago during the Late Archaic period. Starting around A.D. 950, it was occupied by the Eastern Timucua people who established a village there, or possibly nearby, which they named Seloy.
In 1565, Pedro Menendez and his troops arrived in St. Augustine, during a Spanish expedition to Florida to remove a nearby settlement of French Huguenots, and established a settlement at the park. It is believed that the village of Seloy either relocated elsewhere after Menendez arrived or it is possible the village was located near but not on the exact site of the park.
The Menendez settlement was short lived though and by 1566 it had relocated to a more defensible location due to deteriorating relations with the local Timucua indians.
In 1587, the park became the site of the Mission Nombre de Dios when Franciscan friars settled there. Christians Indians in the area attended mass at the mission and were also buried in the mission’s cemetery.
In 1654-55, a smallpox epidemic virtually wiped out the population of the mission and the surviving members relocated to the nearby site of the Shrine of Nuestra Señora de la Leche y Buen Parto on what is now San Marco Avenue.
During the British period in St. Augustine (1764 – 1780), the park became a small 4-acre farm owned by Governor James Grant and was used for experimental farming of vegetables, provision crops and exotic plants.
After 1786, the farm was divided into small tracts and sub-let to various farmers who farmed the land well in to the mid 19th century.
The site first became a tourist attraction in 1868 when florist Henry Williams purchased the land from Paul Arnau for $2,500 for the commercial cultivation of fruits and flowers, which he called the Paradise Grove and Rose Garden, and later began allowing visitors to the freshwater springs on the property in 1874, which makes the park the oldest attraction in Florida.
In 1875, Williams dug a well on the property and began advertising it as the fabled Fountain of Youth. This well is still the main attraction at the park and is still marketed as a historic spring allegedly visited by Ponce de Leon.
In 1904, Williams sold the park to Dr. Luella Day McConnell who called the attraction Neptune Park and opened a small museum on the property that displayed historical artifacts.
In 1909, McConnell changed the focus of the park to the well and began advertising it as the Fountain of Youth, charging admission to the attraction and selling post cards and water from the well.
That same year, after a tree near the well was uprooted during a storm, McConnell claimed she found a crucifix made out of coquina in the hole along with a silver casque containing documents written by Ponce de Leon stating that he drank from the Fountain of Youth when visiting the site in 1513.
After McConnell died in a car accident on June 23, 1927, Walter B. Fraser purchased the park from Edward McConnell for $100,000 on August 15, 1927 and formally developed it into the popular Florida attraction that it is today. Fraser also later purchased the Oldest Orange Grove and the Oldest School House in St. Augustine.
In 1932, Fraser petitioned politician Senator Duncan Fletcher to introduce a bill to Congress to establish a National Monument to Ponce de Leon in St. Augustine and offered to donate an acre of land at the Fountain of Youth Park to the Federal government for the monument. The bill passed the senate but failed in the House of Representatives.
In 1934, the National Park Service rejected a proposal from Senator Fletcher to establish a marker to Ponce de Leon in St. Augustine due to the fact that it is uncertain where exactly he landed in Florida.
After the bill failed, Fraser’s next plan was to build a historical marker at his park at his own expense but have the wording authorized by the National Park Service.
Around this same time, the St. Augustine Historical Society sued Fraser to have him remove the St. Augustine Historical Society’s name from the signs and tablets at his park (Ballou 12.)
Also in 1934, workers discovered a skeleton in the southern area of the park. The University of Florida and the Smithsonian Institute later excavated the site and discovered it contained a burial site of the Timucua Indians who worshiped at the mission, which is the earliest known burial ground for Christianized Native Americans in the United States.
In 1935, Fraser asked the United States Department of the Interior to designate the Fountain of Youth Park a National Monument to Ponce de Leon.
National Park Service official, Roger Toll, visited the park on January 1, 1935 to evaluate it and advised the NPS against establishing any marker or monument at the Fountain of Youth Park in his report, citing a lack of supporting evidence:
“The claim that the actual site of the landing has been definitely established at the Fountain of Youth Park seems unsupported by any satisfactory evidence. The Fountain of Youth seems to be a well, not a spring, and to be without authenticated historical importance. One gets the impression that an effort is made to give the tourists their money’s worth and to popularize history with such revisions as will best serve the gate receipts, and that in so doing historical accuracy has suffered. It is recommended that this project be disapproved and dropped from the list of proposed national monuments. ” (Ballou 16.)
The NPS ultimately rejected the request due to the fact that the park is located on private property, not federal land, and there is no evidence that Ponce de Leon ever visited St. Augustine or the grounds of the park.
In 1951, the University of Florida conducted more archaeological digs at the park.
Walter B. Fraser died in 1972 but the park passed down to his son, John R. Fraser, who put his own son, John Walter Fraser, in charge of management of the park that year. John Walter Fraser and his siblings still own and operate the park today.
In 1975, Dr. Kathy Deagan and her archaeological team from the University of Florida began excavating the park and later found the 1565 settlement site of Pedro Menendez de Aviles.
In 1985, the team discovered a Spanish well on the property that was filled with 16th century artifacts during an excavation and two years later they discover a series of long trenches that revealed foundations to some of the first Spanish structures in Florida.
In 1991, Spanish buildings and a burial of a pet dog were discovered on the site and it was determined that they date back to prehistoric times, about 500 years before the Spanish arrived.
Between 2000-2011, more archaeological work took place at the site during which a second barrel well was discovered which contained a jar of olive oil from the 16th century, a candle holder and a scoop made from a conch.
The park was added to the National Register of Historical Places in 2016.
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Reynolds, Charles B. Fact Versus Fiction for the new Historical St. Augustine. Published by the Author, 1937, web.archive.org/web/20171020081748/http://ufdc.ufl.edu/USACH00124/00001/1j
Deagan, Kathleen. Historical Archaeology at the Fountain of Yourth Park (8-SJ-31) ST. Augustine, Florida 1934-2007. University of Florida, 1 July. 2008, flagler.edu/media/documents/campus-community/historic-st-augustine-research-institute/funded-research/2002-Deagan-FOY-report-reduced.pdf
Chaney, Edward. “Report on the 1985 Excavations at the Fountain of Youth Park Site (8-SJ-31), St. Augustine, Florida.” University of Florida, 1987, floridamuseum.ufl.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/69/2017/09/1987_Chaney_FOY_FieldReport.pdf
Ballou, Harold and Roger W. Toll. “Proposed Fountain of Youth National Monument to the 72nd Congress.” United States Department of the Interior National Park Service, npshistory.com/publications/proposed-parks/fl-fountain-of-youth-nm.pdf
Hitchner, Emelia. “Meet the Family Behind St. Augustine’s Fountain of Youth.” Florida Times Union – Jacksonville FL, 13 Mar. 2017, jacksonville.com/news/metro/2017-03-13/meet-family-behind-st-augustine-s-fountain-youth
“History.” Fountain of Youth Florida, fountainofyouthflorida.com/history/
“Timucauan Burials.” Fountain of Youth Florida, fountainofyouthflorida.com/exhibits/timucuan-burials/
“Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park.” NPS.gov, National Park Service, nps.gov/nr/feature/places/16000361.htm
“Menendez Fort and Camp.” Historical Archaeology, Florida Museum, floridamuseum.ufl.edu/histarch/research/st-augustine/menendez/
“Mr. John Fraser.” UF Historic St. Augustine, University of Florida, staugustine.ufl.edu/board/fraser.html