Native people known as the Mayaca lived here for at least 6,000 years. Pedro Menendez, the founder of St. Augustine in 1565, first described the Mayaca after an encounter with them several miles north near Lake George in 1566. In the late 1500s, Spanish missions were established in the area.
England took possession of Florida from 1763 to 1783, but did not occupy this area. Spain regained control in 1783, and land grants were given to U.S. citizens, starting with William Williams, who had 2,020 acres here, along with the first enslaved Africans. He named his property Spring Garden Plantation.
Subsequent owners further developed the plantation, planting cotton and sugarcane. John James Audubon visited the plantation in 1832, exploring the waterways and painting the limpkin.
The first water-powered sugar mill in Florida was built here in 1832 - some of the brickwork and machinery is preserved behind the restaurant. In 1835, Seminole Indians attacked the plantation, destroying the mill and stealing slaves and cattle. Troops under the command of General Zachary Taylor finally drove the Seminoles out two years later. The mill was rebuilt in 1849 and continued to produce cotton and sugar, with up to 100 slaves performing the work.
During the Civil War, in April 1864, Union troops, upon hearing the owner was providing supplies to the Confederate Army, destroyed the plantation. This was known as Birney's Raid.
By the late 1800s, Spring Garden became a tourist destination with a steamboat and the railroad providing transportation to the area. To attract tourists, local residents changed the name from Spring Garden to Ponce de Leon Springs and referred to the spring as the Fountain of Youth.
The Ponce de Leon Springs Hotel and Casino was built in 1925 (casino refers to a large room for events and dining, not gambling). With only 14 rooms, it catered to wealthier Northern visitors. The property became one of over 100 roadside attractions in the state when it opened as Ponce de Leon Springs in 1953. It featured tropical gardens, a jungle cruise, tram tour and a water skiing elephant! Interstate highways and air travel combined to cause the attraction to close after about 16 years.
The property was then operated as a private recreational park until 1982, when the state of Florida and Volusia County purchased 55 acres that became De Leon Springs State Park. Additional land purchased to protect the spring resulted in the park's current size of 625 acres.