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Shipwrecked History: Spanish Ships Found In Pensacola Harbor

May 2024
6min read

A hurricane sank a fleet in Pensacola Bay 450 years ago, dooming the first major European attempt to colonize North America, a story that archaeologists are just now fleshing out

On August 15, 1559, the bay now known as Pensacola slowly filled with a curious fleet of 11 Spanish vessels, their decks crammed with an odd mix of colonists and holds filled to bursting with supplies and ceramic jars of olive oil and wine from Cadiz. Aboard the 570-ton flagship Jesus stood the wealthy and ambitious Don Tristan de Luna y Arellano, with direct orders from the king of Spain to establish a permanent colony in La Florida. The rest of the fleet included two galleons, beamy cargo ships known as naos , small barques, and a caravel.

North America had never before seen anything like it on this scale.

The 1,500 sea-weary passengers eyed the sandy shores and began to disembark, a diverse group of 540 soldiers with armor, plus craftsmen, farmers, Africans, Mexican Indians, about 100 Aztec warriors, a handful of Dominican missionaries, and women and children. Luna’s careful planning and financing by the Spanish crown had seemingly left nothing to chance: the colonists took all the equipment, supplies, armament, and food necessary to create the first major colony in what is now the United States.

Whereas previous expeditions, such as Hernando de Soto’s, had failed in part owing to their reliance on local food stores either bartered or taken from neighboring native communities, the Luna expedition carried more than enough food for all the colonists to sustain themselves until a town was built and crops were planted and harvested. Four southeastern Indian women, originally captured during the De Soto expedition, whom Luna had brought on the expedition as advisors and interpreters, had given them this valuable advice. Among the usual complement of shipboard food, such as hardtack, dried and salted meat and fish, cheese, beans, vinegar, and water, the holds contained the sweet smell of Caribbean persimmons, papaya, and sapote. They also carried dried and preserved plums and cherries. (In comparison, the British colonists at Jamestown almost 40 years later would mount their colonial efforts with only a tenth of the people and an even smaller fraction of resources.)

By the 1550s, 60 years after Columbus had first come upon the New World, North America had exerted a strong pull on Europeans, but the costs and risks of mounting explorations had left the continent relatively untouched. Groups of tough Spanish conquistadors had penetrated the Mexican interior and conquered the peoples of Mexico and Peru, but only a few expeditions had entered the lands to the north.

Stories of extraordinary riches of gold and silver prompted other countries to establish bases from which to attack the heavily laden treasure galleons returning to Spain. In order to control La Florida, the broad southeastern corner of the continent, Spain’s King Philip II directed the viceroy of New Spain, Don Luis de Velasco, to fortify Santa Elena (known today as Parris Island, South Carolina) on the Atlantic coast, a strategy that was to be accomplished by first establishing a settlement on the northern Gulf of Mexico, followed by an overland expedition to Santa Elena.

In 1558 a small fleet of reconnaissance craft scouted potential settlement locations along the northern gulf coast and returned with news of a safe haven in what would become Pensacola. The Luna expedition sailed in June 1559.

The colonists first unloaded their equipment, supplies, and weapons, a process that took place over five weeks. Two exploratory expeditions marched inland to reconnoiter the countryside. Luna ordered the ever critical food stores left aboard until carpenters could finish a secure warehouse. He sent the galleon San Juan de Ulua off to Veracruz with word of the successful landing.

Based on Luna’s initial reports, the viceroy reported to the king that Pensacola Bay was completely safe for Spanish ships, claiming extravagantly that “the port is so secure that no wind can do them any damage.” But on September 19 the winds freshened, then started blowing hard, developing into a storm the Caribbean Indians called a hurakan.

“During the night,” wrote Luna, “there came up from the north a fierce tempest, which, blowing for twenty-four hours from all directions . . . without stopping but increasing continuously, did irreparable damage to the ships of the fleet.” Most of the largest ships broke loose from their moorings and ground ashore or sank with considerable loss of life. Master Diego Lopez and his crew of 50 aboard the Jesus drowned as their ship sank. Also lost in the hurricane was the 4921/2-ton San Andres, with an estimated crew of 33 under its master, Alonso Moralio, as well as five other ships. One vessel was pushed inland by the storm surge and deposited intact in a dense grove of trees. Many of the ships broke apart, scattering the colony’s valuable food resources.

After the storm, only two small barques and the expedition’s only caravel remained afloat. On September 29 one of the barques sailed south to Veracruz with news of the calamity. In short order the Luna expedition had transformed from a bold colonial venture into a rescue operation; all subsequent ship traffic between Veracruz and Pensacola focused on sending food and other supplies.

Between February and June 1560, the bulk of the starving colonists moved inland to central Alabama, and in April Luna dispatched soldiers to the Indian town of Coosa in northwest Georgia in search of food. They remained there through the fall. By the end of 1561, all members of the colony had either died or returned to New Spain.

During the next four centuries, as the details of the failed Luna expedition became lost to history, the wrecks of Luna’s seven ships lay quietly in the sand and mud of Pensacola Bay.

Over the latter part of the 20th century, numerous investigators attempted to locate Luna’s ill- fated ships within the 125-square-mile waters of Pensacola Bay. Success eluded them until the early 1990s, when the Florida Bureau of Archaeological Research organized and funded a comprehensive plan for examining the seafloor. In 1991 underwater archaeologist Roger C. Smith led a team that began a meticulous survey using a grid system. They first marked out grid rows with anchored milk jugs. Motoring back and forth in the bay’s shallow water, they watched a primitive magnetometer for any anomalies, which would register on a tiny LED screen and a paper prinout. When a member of Smith’s team yelled out, a second member would throw over- board a brick tied to a toilet-bowl float. Diver Charles Hughson then dropped overboard to investigate.

On one of their first dives, in 13 feet of water off Emanuel Point near the old town center, the team found a ballast heap, a pile of stones carried inside a hull to control a ship’s stability. The fluke of a 10-foot-long wrought-iron anchor stuck out from the sandy seafloor nearby, a promising find when archaeologists dated it to the 16th century. Soon divers found a largely intact copper pitcher, stone cannon balls, a jar containing olive pits from a type of tree investigators would later determine were grown east of Seville, and the gudgeon straps from an ancient rudder that had steered the would-be colonists across the Gulf of Mexico. The archaeologists named the wreck Emanuel Point I.

Teams of students and professors from the University of West Florida (UWF) Archaeology Institute joined the search and have pulled and analyzed thousands of artifacts from the wreck. The institute has continued its examination of the bay, eventually exchanging its primitive equipment for Global Positioning System tools, state-of-the-art magnetometers, and side-scanning sonar technology loaned on occasion from the federal Minerals Management Service in New Orleans.

On August 2, 2006, during the last week of the field season, UWF students Kendra Kennedy and Maija Glasier-Lawson conducted a routine diving circle in low-visibility waters only 400 yards from the site of the Luna wreck. To their amazement, they discovered several ballast stones. Further dives at the site in the summer of 2007 revealed the outline of a wooden hull buried under a protective cap of ballast stones. Dives over the past three seasons have uncovered more than 2,000 artifacts, including Spanish ceramic fragments and strips of lead hull sheathing, which indicates that the vessel, now crustation using a CAT scan at Pensacola’s Sacred Heart Hospital and found that no original iron remained. Subsequent X-ray images, however, revealed a mold of the object that included cracks, fractures, and details of its design. Working with British expert Ian Eaves, a former keeper of armour for the Tower of London, the state team determined that the breastplate had been named Emanuel Point II , belonged to the Luna expedition.

The archaeologists worked topside with the challenging task of preserving artifacts long immersed in seawater. Most iron artifacts, for instance, were completely encased in a heavy coating of mineral deposits. Divers pulled one such heavily encrusted object from Emanuel Point I , determining that it was an iron breastplate, known in Spanish as a peto, and worn by one of Luna’s soldiers. Archaeologists analyzed the en¬ made in Italy or Spain in about 1510. The institute team then worked with another London-based armor expert, David Brown, to create an epoxy cast of the plate by turning the cleaned concretion into a mold.

To date, the survey teams have found and inventoried more than 50 submerged objects, including shipwrecks, abandoned schooners and barges, ballast piles, wharfs, and the remnants of a marine railway. Four or five of the remaining wrecked Luna ships await discovery.

While the Luna expedition’s failure thwarted early Spanish ambitions to establish a major colonial presence in what is now the southern United States, 450 years later the long-lost traces of that expedition are now expanding our understanding of what—save for a wrathful storm— would otherwise have become the first permanent European settlement in North America.


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