Almost four hundred years ago (1512) one who loved life far more than he feared death, crossed a stormy sea and faced the dangers that lurked in the unexplored forests of a newly discovered continent, in search of the fountain of perpetual youth. Ponce de Leon represented in himself the sole desire for eternal life and youth in the body. He differed from the mass of his fellows, not in his desire for eternal life, but in that he had the faith in the possibility of its attainment, which they lacked, and in the possession of the courage to proclaim his belief and to act upon it. He failed in finding that which he sought, and perished in the attempt; yet because he dared hope to conquer the archenemy of mankind and to strive for such conquest, has his name and fame been perpetuated through all succeeding' generations.
Half a century after de Leon, the French Huguenots, under Riboult and Laudonniere came seeking fortune and freedom from religious persecution in the new world; and a little later the Spanish expeditions under Menendoz arrived. The former fixed upon a location on the banks of the River May, now known as the St. Johns. The latter landed at St. Augustine, near the inlet to Matanzas River, and opposite Anastasia Island. Although Spain and France were at peace at home, yet in the new world the most cruel and fanatical war arose between the French and Spanish colonists. Cruel as a tiger by nature, to a bitter hatred of the French Menendez added that of a fanatical Catholic towards those whom he considered "heretics and traitors to the church. With the cunning of the fox and the courage of the lion, he trapped and massacred the greater portion of the French, surprising some and slaying them without mercy; he secured the surrender of others under pledge of honorable treatment, only to order them executed the moment they had laid down their arms.
D'Erlach alone, with a few followers, escaped the massacre, which took place near the head of Matanzas River, a day's march below St. Augustine. He fled southward, and at a point possibly twelve miles above the spot on which the new college building is to be erected, found friendly Indians of a more civilized character, and less warlike than those living farther north; and these, having a fear of the Spaniards, united with the fleeing French, made a stand upon the peninsula opposite to their village on the mainland and defeated the Spaniards, who had marched down the beach in eager pursuit. There is not a foot of this coast from the mouth of the St. Johns River to the Everglades, that has not at some time since the discovery of the continent been witness to scenes of battle and adventure and romance, worthy of the pen of the novelist or historian, and the brush of the painter. This more than any other section of our country is historical ground. But of the events which go so largely to the making of written history, much the greater portion occurred so long ago as to give in the reading a feeling that one is dealing with ancient, rather than with modern events.
The author of this work is acquainted with an old lady, whose grandfather was brought to this country either from Greece or the island of Minorca, more than a hundred years ago; yet he knew nothing, and knew of no one who knew anything—of the ruins of buildings existing near New Smyrna, twenty miles below the spot selected for the college. The rude vats in which was cured the indigo plant raised by these same Minoreans and Greeks a hundred years ago, are still easily pointed out in the midst of the forests of oak and palmetto and bay, where once was grown corn and sugar cane and the indigo plant. A new pleasure yacht, named the Princess Issena (after the Indian princess of the tribe that supported the French at the battle above referred to, and who married D'Erlach's young brother, Ernest, and went with him to France, when at last they managed to leave the country) has just been placed in the waters of the Halifax, at Ormond, only a few miles below the point at which the Indian princess and her French lover met, and where he was wounded in battle and sought out by her, where he lay bleeding and insensible in the thicket where he fell.
What have these tales of old-time wars and adventures and loves to do with a belief in man's ability to overcome death, or in the endowment of a college for investigations regarding the law of life?
Not a thing.
Only that it seems appropriate that here, where in the New World first began the search for eternal life, the search should again be taken up after four hundred years have passed. What might not have been done to advance the race of men in a knowledge of themselves and of the infinite, out of which all things come to be, if only there had been liberty of thought, and institutions for investigation such as we are founding here on this east coast of Florida? Does anyone dare attempt an estimate of the advance the race would have made in the past four hundred years, if just such institutions as we propose, and have founded, had been in existence during that time? Religious fanaticism, race antagonisms and opposing interests spread death and desolation in the fair land where de Leon hoped to find the elixir of life—just as in the centuries which have followed, religious fanaticism and a conservatism, which feared everything new in the realm of thought, have choked off investigation and research, and held each succeeding generation to the grooves in which it had its birth; until now, at last, it has broken its leading strings and started out upon the sea of investigation and newer thought, alike fearless of the future and regardless of the anathemas of those who would bind the living present to the dead past.
More from Helen Wilmans
- Born in 1831 and died in 1907
- Studied under Emma Curtis Hopkins
- Was a journalist and author
- Was active in the Mental Science Movement
- Was charged with postal fraud for healing through mail. Fighting this charged caused her lose most of her fortune.