The history of De Leon Springs begins with its first inhabitants. It is believed that the springs were first occupied as early as 8,000 BC by local people (Cohn). Observing Florida’s pre-contact indigenous populations, there were two primary groups in this region. The Timucua were the people to the North and the Ais controlled lands to the south of Cape Canaveral. (General Information on Timucua 3). Estimates show that there were around 50,000 Timucua by the time Europeans arrived in Florida (Boas).
In support of this information, there were two dugout-style canoes, approximately 6,000 and 15,000 years old, which were found within De Leon Springs (Houser 1). The canoes, sourced from local tree species, were unfortunately destroyed during the recovery process (Sitler 2). Divers have also found other various items throughout the area suggesting this was an early settlement and not solely a recreation area (Sitler 3-4).
Just south of the springs, there was another significant archaeological find at Hontoon Island. In 1955, a man by the name of Victor Roepke found a giant wooden carving of an owl. While it was once believed to be the work of the Timucua, recent research suggests that the Mayaca people were actually responsible for this incredible carving. What this means for De Leon Springs, is that even though the Timucua presence was so vast and expansive, it was actually the Mayaca who most likely inhabited this region. (Williamson).
In the time between the 1700s and the 1800s, Native populations were rapidly changing and converging. Many were forced to move south in response to American settlers, and this collective eventually became known as the Seminole tribe (Boas). By 1804, William Williams, a loyalist from North Carolina, purchased the land surrounding the springs. This 2,020-acre land became known as “Spring Garden”, a plantation where corn, sugar, and cotton were produced using African slaves (Sitler 8-9).
This location played a role in what would become known as the Seminole Wars. By 1835, Natives took control of the plantation, and burned the sugar mill, while releasing slaves in an effort to undermine the plantation’s success (Sitler 12). The sugar mill was destroyed again in 1864, in an attack for control of the Spring Garden plantation (Sitler 13).
Over time as Florida developed, the springs became associated with the myth of The Fountain of Youth and Ponce de León (Cohn). While there is currently no evidence that connects the explorer to the spring, many people buy into this colorful tourist gimmick. The connection was formed around the time Spring Garden became known as De Leon Springs. This changed sometime after 1886 brought railways to Florida. However, remnants of the area’s former name are still present when viewing a map today.
By the 1900s, De Leon Springs became a tourist attraction. To the east side of the spring, there was an entertainment pavilion which was built on the remains of the ancient burial mound. The 50s brought entertainment like “Sunshine Sally” and “Queenie” who were two water-skiing elephants. Finally, in 1982 the area became an official state park (Sitler 14-15).
Today, De Leon Springs features a wealth of activities for its visitors - from swimming in the spring to fishing or canoeing along the creek, the recreational options are endless. There are a number of trails for hiking throughout the park. On one of these trails, visitors may even find an interesting 500-year old tree named “Old Methuselah” (Houser 3).
Most notably, De Leon Springs is known for The Old Spanish Sugar Mill restaurant. This unique restaurant allows its patrons an opportunity to prepare their own pancakes on individual griddles at their table. Like most state parks, there is also a wonderful visitor center which provides guests a deeper connection to the park with its vast historic information.
Throughout this area’s vast history, one theme holds true. This natural land formation has served as an important resource for the people who come to visit. De Leon Springs was important during Florida’s pre-contact time period, it was essential during the development of modern Florida, and it has become a cherished place for families to spend time together in today’s world.