Winter 16: By Tamara J. Stewart.
Spanish nobleman don Tristán de Luna y Arellano set out from San Juan de Ulua, Veracruz, in 1559 to establish the first permanent European colony in what is now Pensacola, Florida. Having earlier traveled with the legendary Spanish explorer Coronado, Luna was familiar with the challenges ahead. The eleven ships that comprised his fleet were supplied with more than a million pounds of food and 240 horses. Luna intended to establish the Santa María de Ochuse colony, replete with a plaza, royal warehouse, church, and private residences. But just five weeks after he and his crew of 1,500 settlers, sailors, and Aztec warriors arrived from Mexico, a massive hurricane destroyed their fleet, which was anchored in the bay and still full of supplies.
The “Luna Colony” settlers struggled to survive, unsuccessfully appealing for help from the natives around Pensacola Bay and further inland. Desperate and starving, Luna was said to have gone crazy. He was replaced and allowed to return to Spain in 1561. Some fifty remaining colonists were also picked up that year by Spanish ships and were returned to Mexico. The Luna colony’s failure ended Spain’s plans to settle the Gulf Coast of Florida for the next 137 years, and archaeologists have searched for the settlement and shipwrecks for decades.
In October 2015, former University of West Florida (UWF) archaeology student Tom Garner was walking around a Pensacola neighborhood when he recognized Spanish Colonial and Native American ceramic sherds sticking out of the dirt on a recently cleared lot. The styles of these items are known to date to the sixteenth century, and their location and abundance suggested they might be associated with the Luna Colony settlement. Garner notified UWF’s archaeology lab director Jan Lloyd, who then showed the collection to her colleague John Worth, a Spanish Colonial specialist. “Holy Moly!” Worth said when he saw the artifacts.
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