It was 457 years ago. William Shakespeare had yet to be born. The world had yet to adopt the Gregorian calendar, and only a few years earlier, Michelangelo had completed the legendary paintings of the Sistine Chapel.
It was also the year the settlement of Pensacola would be established — the earliest known multi-year European settlement in the United States.
It was on August 14, 1559 that a Spanish expedition, consisting of eleven ships under the command of Spanish Conquistador Don Tristan de Luna y Arellano, landed on the red bluff shores of Pensacola Bay.
Make no mistake. The expedition carried out by Luna was, in part, of military motive. It was also largely a religious expedition, as the Spanish sought to manifest their religious teachings onto the New World — many times by indefensible force.
As noted by scholars, Luna was a God-fearing explorer. He was specifically chosen for his devout faith in God to lead the expedition that would eventually establish the settlement of present-day Pensacola.
Luís de Velasco, Viceroy of New Spain — now modern-day Mexico — ordered Luna and his fleet of ships on a mission to “occupy a Gulf port as a base from which to proceed overland and fortify.”
In his writings to the Spanish King, the Viceroy stated the new settlement was to be built to hold the Gulf safe “as far as the Azores.”
In that expedition, there were more than 500 soldiers and 1,000 settlers, among them, “artisans, farmers, women, children, negroes, and Indians,” as described by Luna. Also on the expedition from Veracruz, Mexico were five Dominican Friars and a lay Brother whose mission was to spread the word of God throughout the New World.
When the Spanish sailed into the Port of Ochuse — now Pensacola Bay — they not only brought with them the supplies and rations needed to establish and sustain their New World settlement, but they armed themselves with their religion upon their hearts and their swords.
Arriving upon Pensacola Bay after the long voyage from Mexico, Luna described the harbor as “the best port yet discovered in the Indies.”
According to The Luna Papers, which translated the writings of the Spanish explorer during his 1559 expedition, the departure of the fleet onto the shores of Pensacola occurred “on the eve of the Assumption of Mary, August 14, 1559.”
With the first settlers finally on dry land, the Catholic Dominican friars that travelled with the expedition celebrated the Assumption with what they must have known was a historic event — the first Catholic Mass in the New World. The Spanish were on a spiritual conquest to rule the New World, and Pensacola was only their front door.
Upon reaching the shores of their eventual settlement, the landfall of the fleet was marked by a reddish bluff, with Luna stating that “no storm could damage the ships at such a safe anchorage. There was a scant population, with only a few fishermen’s huts and no resistance.”
Upon their arrival at Pensacola Bay, the expeditionaries busied themselves for a time with enjoyment of the seashore. But soon the realities of their expedition were undertaken.
Two of the fleet’s ships were prepared to be sent back to Spain with the accounts of their successful arrival. One of these ships was to carry the lay brother Fray Bartolome Mateos, who was to enlist friars for service back to the settlement.
Despite the blessing of their settlement and prayers for their historic expedition, soon after their landfall, swift disaster had fallen onto the new colony.
During the night of September 19 —only a month after the arrival of the fleet — a fierce north wind broke over the harbor which Luna had so lavishly praised. It blew from all directions for more than twenty-four hours, snapping the moorings of the ships, breaking them up, sinking them, and running them aground.
Mexican Dominican Agustín Dávila Padilla provided an account of the devastating hurricane in his historical account of the Luna expedition, published in 1596. Padilla gravely testified in his writings that the water from the bay could not have carried the ships so far inland, and “it must have been the work of demons, for they were seen in the air during the storm.”
Over the course of nearly two years, the colony ultimately succumbed to failure, with Luna — its founder — being deemed incapable and “insane” by fellow expeditioners and the Spanish monarchy. The settlement was abandoned for more than a century.
While the fate of the settlement at Pensacola was doomed for failure by the wrath of Mother Nature, the expedition was a testament to the arduous faith and perseverance displayed by all those who served under Luna.
Today, a 10-foot cross stands atop a dune on Santa Rosa Island as a landmark to the historic event nearly five centuries ago. Visibly unchanged since it was commemorated, it serves as a reminder of an era when discovery, exploration, and an unwavering faith in God were irrevocably intertwined.