Can one man overcome 500 years of distorted Florida history?

TWO MEN ON A QUEST: J. Michael Francis’ career is framed by his search for the truth about Ponce de León. Francis, the Hough Family Chair of Florida Studies at USF St. Petersburg, takes students to Spain to unlock centuries-old texts, seen here in a double-exposure photograph.
TWO MEN ON A QUEST: J. Michael Francis’ career is framed by his search for the truth about Ponce de León. Francis, the Hough Family Chair of Florida Studies at USF St. Petersburg, takes students to Spain to unlock centuries-old texts, seen here in a double-exposure photograph.
Published March 4, 2013

Nobody has ever needed to find the Fountain of Youth more than J. Michael Francis. Okay, Ponce de León's famous fountain is probably nothing but bushwa. That said, he needs to fill his wineskin from those make-believe waters just in case.

Francis, 45, is a blond-haired, blue-eyed, baby-faced historian at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. His specialty is what happened when the Spanish arrived in the New World. He knows a whole lot. He also wonders if he has only scratched the surface, and whether he needs to live forever to learn what he needs to know.

He spends summers in Spain perusing fragile old documents, including some that have never been opened before. Many have never been read by the right pair of eyes, namely his. Like mold spore, he's at home among ancient manuscripts.

Perhaps one day he will locate what some scholars consider the Holy Grail — Juan Ponce's famous travelogue. Shakespeare was alive last time anybody claimed to have seen it.

But that quest will have to wait for a bit. April 3 will mark the 500th anniversary of Señor Ponce's arrival on the shores of what the bearded one named La Florida. For Francis, perhaps our state's most prominent Spanish-Florida historian, it's showtime. During most of his career, he has performed only in the classroom. But now he has been handed the public microphone. At this moment in his own fascinating history he's the man.

Everybody wants to hear what he has to say about Ponce de León — in Spain, in New York, in Washington and, of course, in Florida. He's on the radio, TV and in auditoriums crowded with folks who want to know exactly where Ponce landed in Florida, how he interacted with native people but mostly about the Fountain of Youth.

It's not easy to tell everyone at a time like this that the historical record boasts holes big enough to swallow a Spanish galleon.

Fountain of Youth myths go back 400 years before the birth of Christ. When Ponce was growing up, he might have heard them.

In Florida we're enamored with Ponce and his fountain. We name springs, parks, streets and town squares after the icons. At the Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park in St. Augustine, paying tourists line up for a cup of sulfur-flavored water. On U.S. 19 recently, Francis executed a double take upon noticing the "Fountain of Youth Institute,'' a plastic surgery clinic in Palm Harbor. The professor's office is two blocks from St. Petersburg's own Fountain of Youth, which is behind the rightfield fence of the waterfront baseball stadium.

"The Fountain of Youth myth is part of our history,'' Francis says. "In Florida we have a lot of fun with it. But the truth is Ponce was never searching for a Fountain of Youth. There, I've said it.''

Is anyone listening?

Let's try it again. Everything most of us learned about Ponce in elementary school is wrong.

"Ponce,'' Francis tells surprised audiences, "didn't discover Florida — the natives were here first. He named it.''

What some of us automatically proclaim as fact turns out to be dubious history.

"We don't know where Ponce landed,'' he tells disappointed chamber of commerce leaders in St. Augustine and in Melbourne Beach, cities that both claim to be the site of his landing and want his blessing.

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Some Floridians, of course, simply don't care.

The Florida Lottery just announced a "scratch-off game" in honor of Ponce. It includes a goofy map that looks like something drawn by a right-handed cartographer practicing with his left. When asked about it, Francis' eyes begin to glaze. Nice effort. But . . .

In a state where most of us come from somewhere else, where a radio shock jock known as Bubba the Love Sponge is frequent front-page news, a serious historian has his work cut out for him.

Francis can talk about history in perfect Spanish, of course. He can provide the spelling and accent marks. But he could hire a skywriting plane or put up billboards on the interstate and the truth about Ponce and the fountain might not make a difference.

"If you want to learn about early Florida history,'' Francis advises his students, "you have to leave Florida. You have to have a passport."

In Spain sometimes he finds potentially valuable documents in private homes and museums. But mostly he hunts them down in Seville at the General Archives of the Indies. Almost a fortress, the grand building collects five centuries' worth of musty material relating to the Spanish conquest of the New World.

He wakes early, sips a cafe latte and swallows a Zyrtec. Without an antihistamine his eyes weep and his nose drips. Years ago ancient mildew in the archives gave Francis an infection that burst his eardrum. But after antibiotics and cotton balls, he was good to go.

Six miles of shelves support 43,000 volumes and approximately 80 million pages of material. Ponce explored for gold; Francis digs for the gem of historic significance, something he might bring home to set the record straight.

Born in the frozen Canadian province of Alberta, he was a neighborhood hockey player who dreamed of the stage. His dad, Gary, sold insurance, but it was his ballet-dancer mother, Carole, who passed on her artistic leanings. In high school he directed plays.

As an exchange student in Peru, though, he learned Spanish and became fascinated by the sad history of the Incas and their cruel conqueror, Francisco Pizarro. In graduate school at the University of Alberta, a mentor warned him away from the 16th century. "You'll have to learn how to decipher those old Spanish documents. Study 18th century history instead. The documents are easier to read.''

He still remembers the traumatic day in Colombia when he slouched humiliated for hours, certain that librarians were grinning at his hubris as he stared at what might as well have been hieroglyphics. Eventually he found a medieval Latin scholar who helped. It took a long time, but he learned to read ancient text as easily as the morning newspaper. In England, at Cambridge, his doctoral dissertation about ancient Colombians was called The Muisca Indians Under Spanish Rule, 1537-1636.

Then he hit the jackpot for a Spanish-Florida scholar. He got a job teaching history and paleography — the art of reading ancient writing — for a dozen years at the University of North Florida, a short drive from St. Augustine, America's oldest city and one alleged landing site of Ponce.

Sometimes he led field trips in South and Central America to explore Mayan and Inca ruins in deep jungles where dangers included weeping homesick students, irate revolutionaries and the occasional fer-de-lance. He usually wore armored leggings to protect his tender flesh against the hollow fangs of the viper alleged to kill a victim within nine steps.

He met Annie Martin 15 years ago. An art historian, she was beautiful like a young Lauren Bacall and a master southern cook. During their courtship she introduced him to grits and cornbread; he read to her The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. They watched his favorite movie, Aguirre, the Wrath of God, Werner Herzog's art film about an obsessed conquistador's search for El Dorado, the mythical city of gold. Aguirre reminded Annie of a certain history professor.

"Michael is a real adventurer,'' she says. "When he's researching, he begins to feel he is living in the past.''

Last August he was named the Hough Family Chair of Florida Studies at USF. He teaches history, paleography and in summer takes his best students to Spain to hunt documents. If he dies before unlocking the secrets of Ponce, perhaps the next generation will succeed.

He never knows what they will find.

On his best day among the musty documents in the archives he discovered the name Pablos Juan.

"He was a soldier in St. Augustine under Gov. Pedro Menendez," Francis begins. "After Pedro died in 1574, his son-in-law took over. By 1577, King Philip II in Spain was unhappy with the new management of his Florida colony — there were allegations of incompetence and corruption. So he sent an inspector to hear testimony.

"Pablos Juan raised his hand. He had something to say: 'The new governor has stolen my honor. He needs to be punished and punished harshly.' "

Warning: Indelicate 16th century punishment described ahead.

"Pablos Juan told the inspector that the new governor had poked him in the chest with a pike and ordered him to kneel and kiss the butt of his bull mastiff — not once but three times. Pablos Juan answered that 'The mouth that had received the body of Christ in Communion was not going to kiss the a-- of a dog.'

Patience apparently was not among the governor's qualities.

"He grabbed Pablos Juan by what he called the 'little heads' — the testicles — to force Pablos Juan to his knees. His soldiers then lifted the tail of the mastiff. Pablos Juan kissed the butt of the dog.

"The king's administrator wanted to know the reason for the unusual punishment. It turned out Pablos Juan had teased that dog. The conquistadors put great value on their mastiffs, which were commonly used to intimidate Indians, so the administrator thought Pablos Juan's cruelty to the governor's dog was a graver offense than his own personal affront.''

A bizarre incident, certainly. But historically earth-shaking?

"So Pablos Juan disappears from the record. For 11 years. Then I'm looking through documents a few years later and his name pops up again. It's 1588 and he's in Spain. This time the crown is investigating the burning and looting of St. Augustine by the Englishman Sir Francis Drake. The administrator wants to know how that could have possibly happened.

"Pablos Juan steps forward to testify against the same governor who had humiliated him with the dogs. 'During the fire,' he tells the crown, 'it was the governor who stole money from the Royal Treasury, not Drake.'

"Now that's interesting. I'd love to go to England and read old documents and learn what Sir Francis Drake had to say. What if Pablos Juan was telling the truth?''

Kissing dog butts?

Perhaps fans of Bubba the Love Sponge might be induced to read some history after all.

In the archives, he keeps his eyes open for anything regarding Ponce, of course. We know that Ponce was a wealthy man's son born about 1474. We know he somehow escaped a rural upbringing to become a soldier. In 1493, he was picked to accompany Columbus on his second voyage to the New World.

In the Caribbean, Ponce was known as a ferocious conquistador. When native slaves rebelled over their harsh treatment, he came down with heavy hand. As a reward he was made governor of Puerto Rico in 1509.

Two years later he was deposed by the envious son of Christopher Columbus, a man with deep political connections. Ponce asked King Ferdinand II in Spain to intercede. Ferdinand refused, but suggested that his old governor might do some exploring on his own. He could share what he found with the crown.

On March 3, 1513, Ponce's expedition, which included three ships, sailed from Anasco Bay in western Puerto Rico. Creeping northwest, sailors sighted what they believed was an enormous island on April 2.

Ponce waded ashore the next day. The land was lushly verdant. It was Easter week, the feast of the flowers, so he named the island La Florida and claimed it for the crown.

Here it is important to talk again about Ponce's famous missing log. If we had it, we might be able to say what happened during the expedition with more confidence. But what we have are secondhand accounts of questionable value.

Decades after Ponce's death, a historian named Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés, a confidant of Christopher Columbus' heirs and thus a sworn enemy of Ponce's relatives, wrote that only someone as stupid as Ponce would have gone looking for something so clearly a legend as the Fountain of Youth.

Think about it: Nowhere in King Ferdinand II's extremely detailed marching orders to Ponce in 1511 was the "Fountain of Youth" ever mentioned. It's as if Oviedo concocted the whole fountain business to make Ponce look like a superstitious idiot.

Now let's move forward about a half century, when another prominent though allegedly lazy historian picks up his quill. In 1601 Antonio de Herrera y Tordesillas, known for his affection for the limelight, publishes another history. He repeats the dubious claims about Ponce and the Fountain of Youth.

He also claims to have found Ponce's missing log.

The missing log. A monumental find.

So why not print the important historic document word for word? That question has puzzled Francis and other historians over the centuries. It makes them wonder if Herrera really had the log or whether his claim was a publicity stunt.

Herrera places Ponce's landing site as a little north of St. Augustine. Even if he had the log, the landing site could be way off given that Ponce's navigation tools were crude at best. A re-enactment of Ponce's voyage's two decades ago had him landing more than 100 miles south.

Whatever. Ponce lands. He stays in the area six days. Herrera provides no details about what happened. We have no idea whether Ponce encountered any natives or whether he drank from a spring.

Eventually, Ponce's expedition heads south along the coast, constantly bucking the northerly current of the Gulf Stream. From time to time the ships head for shore. Twice on the east coast they encounter hostile natives who shoo them back to sea.

The Ponce expedition continues south and skirts the Keys. According to Herrera's account — and again remember he might have Ponce's log — Ponce thinks the forlorn islands resemble martyrs because "viewed from afar the rocks as they rose up seemed like men who are suffering.''

Passing the Keys, Ponce turns north along Florida's gulf coast and lands most likely in the vicinity of today's Fort Myers. The fierce natives known as Calusa paddle out in huge canoes and fire arrows from stout bows. Ponce retreats.

Turning back south, he lands among a collection of islands that unfortunately lack fresh drinking water but provide many tasty sea turtles to eat. He calls the islands near today's Key West the "Dry Tortugas," their name today.

Ponce stops in Cuba, then heads home to Puerto Rico. Eight years later he returns to La Florida with another expedition. This time he intends to establish a settlement. Alas, a poisoned Calusa arrow pierces his thigh. The wound festers. A ship takes him to Cuba. He dies.

So much for eternal youth.

It was November. Dry and cold. In a windswept medieval village in northern Spain the USF professor walked in the footsteps of Ponce de León. He was born here.

I was on the tour Francis was leading for the Florida Humanities Council. Santervás de Campos, population 65, stands on a hill amidst the wilderness of northern Spain. In the distance we saw the snow-capped, Cantabrian mountains where brown bears still roam and wolves still howl. A vulture I couldn't recognize floated above the village before vanishing over majestic plains that extended into the distance.

"I've never been here before,'' Francis said. "I'm thrilled."

Ponce's log couldn't possibly be here. If it exists, it may be in the archives in Seville hidden among the millions of other documents. Still, it was easy for Francis to imagine a 15th century boy waving a wooden sword and dreaming of the sea. What went through his mind? Children don't need a Fountain of Youth. They already are immortal.

Santervás de Campos, isolated in the Spanish wilderness, is not a tourist mecca. But it would like to be, starting this year, for Americans and Floridians who want to investigate its history. Workmen recently put up a statue in Ponce's honor. It guards his baptismal church, Iglesia de San Gervasio, where Mass has been celebrated for more than eight centuries.

Outside the Romanesque building a gray-haired parishioner introduced himself as Felix Agundez Ponce, a farmer who grows sunflowers and happens to be the direct heir of the man who named La Florida and was killed by Calusa Indians. "How many generations has it been?'' I asked. Francis interpreted for me: "I don't know, señor. Five hundred years is a long time.''

Inside the church, Mayor Santiago Baeza Benavides stood beaming at the altar to welcome the visitors. His wife smiled and his three rambunctious sons played in the pews as the boy Ponce might have once.

"We are steeped in the history of Ponce de León from birth,'' the mayor said. "When I was a child my father told me all about him. I tell my sons what my father told me.''

I asked what that could be.

"Ponce de León, who was born in this village, was a brave and great man who went out in search of adventure. He went out in search of the Fountain of Youth but never found it.''

Then what happened?

"He died.''

Michael Francis nodded. Then he smiled until his eyes disappeared.

Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at