For centuries, the exact location of Tristán de Luna y Arellano’s 1559 settlement in Pensacola — the first multi-year European settlement in the United States — has been a mystery.
Archaeologists from the University of West Florida announced on Thursday the discovery of one of the most significant historical sites in the nation: the archaeological site of the de Luna settlement, hidden just beneath the surface in the city’s East Pensacola Heights neighborhood.
“Our archaeological team has discovered and can support the statement that the land settlement site of Tristan de Luna has been located within the city limits of Pensacola, Florida,” said Dr. Judy Bense, the university’s current president and founder of its archaeology program. “And we are telling the world today.”
In October, Pensacola native Tom Garner discovered Spanish colonial and Native American artifacts at a privately owned residential lot within view of two previously discovered shipwrecks in Pensacola Bay. The so-called “Emmanuel Point shipwrecks,” located in 1992 and 2006, have also been linked to the de Luna expedition.
The artifacts Garner discovered are definitive evidence of de Luna’s settlement, which lasted from 1559 to 1561 — the earliest multi-year European colonial settlement ever archaeologically identified in the United States. De Luna’s Pensacola settlement predates the Spanish settlement in St. Augustine, Fla. by six years, and the English settlement in Jamestown, Va. by 48 years.
After collecting several artifacts, Garner brought them to the UWF archaeology lab on October 30. Dr. John Worth, associate professor of historical archaeology, is an archaeology and ethnohistory expert and focuses on the Spanish colonial era in the southeastern United States.
“What we saw in front of us in the lab that day was an amazing assemblage of mid-16th century Spanish colonial period artifacts,” said Worth. “These items were very specific to this time period. The University conducted fieldwork at this site in the mid-1980s, as have others since then, but no one had ever found diagnostics of the sort that Tom found on the surface. People have looked for this site for a long time.”
With the cooperation and support of residents and property owners, UWF began test excavations at the site was able to recover other artifacts. Archaeologists recovered numerous shards of broken 16th century Spanish ceramics found undisturbed beneath the ground’s surface. They are believed to be pieces of assorted cookware and tableware, including liquid storage containers called olive jars. Small personal and household items were also among the findings — a lead fishing line weight, a copper lacing aglet, and wrought iron nail and spike fragments. Additionally, the team recovered beads known to have been traded with Native Americans. These items are consistent with materials previously identified in the shipwrecks offshore in Pensacola Bay.
The artifacts were linked to the Spanish expedition led by de Luna, who brought 1,500 soldiers, colonists, slaves, and Aztec Indians in 11 ships from Veracruz, Mexico, to Pensacola to begin the Spanish colonization of the northern Gulf Coast in 1559. One month after they arrived, the colony was struck by a hurricane, sinking many of their ships and devastating their food supplies. After two years, the remnants of the colony were rescued by Spanish ships and returned to Mexico.
“If the Luna expedition hadn’t been devastated by a massive hurricane and had instead achieved its original goal, the reasons and circumstances surrounding the 1565 establishment of St. Augustine might never have happened,” explained Worth. “If Florida had grown as an extension of New Spain through Pensacola on the Gulf Coast to Santa Elena on the Atlantic, the history of the United States itself could have evolved quite differently.”
The winter encampment of Hernando de Soto’s Spanish exploratory expedition to Tallahassee, Florida, from 1539 to 1540, is the only earlier European habitation site positively identified by archaeologists in the southeastern United States. Two earlier Spanish colonial settlements have yet to be found — those of Juan Ponce de León near Fort Myers, Fla., in 1521 and of Lucas Vázquez de Ayllón near Brunswick, Ga., in 1526. However, neither settlement lasted more than a few weeks.
The discoveries made at the site of the Luna settlement signify that the two shipwrecks previously discovered in Pensacola Bay were wrecked at the anchorage for the entire de Luna fleet. The first shipwreck was discovered by the Florida Bureau of Archaeological Research, and the second was found by UWF. The second shipwreck is currently being excavated by UWF with the assistance of a Florida Division of Historical Resources Special Category Grant. This new information about the location of the settlement may help UWF archaeologists narrow the field of search for the remaining shipwrecks.
With the continued cooperation of residents and property owners, UWF archaeologists will continue to examine the neighborhood to determine the extent and organization of the site.
“The shipwrecks have provided a tremendous insight into the nature of the machinery that brought Spain to the New World and how they operated this entire vast empire,” explained Worth. “In terms of understanding who they were after coming to the New World, this kind of archaeology at the terrestrial site will provide us that window.”
“It’s hard to believe that this opportunity is finally here,” said Worth. “Not only do we know where the site is, but now we get to explore it.”
In order to protect the neighborhood and the integrity of the site, the UWF archaeology program does not plan to disclose the exact location of the Luna settlement. For more information, visit uwf.edu/luna.