It was nearly a year ago that the location of Tristan de Luna’s 1559 Settlement was discovered. Since then, University of West Florida archaeologists have ramped up their research of the Spanish colony that was doomed by a hurricane that struck on this day, September 19, 457 years ago.
During the past year, there’s been a lot of activity at the site, including the 2016 UWF Archaeology Summer Field School.
Dr. John Worth, UWF archaeologist and principal investigator of the Luna Settlement Project, says they conducted excavations along the edge of the settlement, and the team spent a few additional weeks back in the initially-discovered core area.
“One of the most intriguing discoveries we made is that we found and confirmed that we do indeed have intact, undisturbed pit features from the Luna Settlement, mid-16th century,” Worth said. “And one of those in particular is a large pit that was back-filled with trash, and I mean substantial amounts of trash.”
The pit included quite a bit of food remains, including shellfish, conch, oysters and scallops. At the bottom of the pit, there was an almost intact deer antler, which Worth says is evidence of hunting by Luna’s men.
“We’ve got a half-dozen or more iron straps or hoop fragments, which we think are from the barrels that the Spaniards carried all their food and supplies in on the ships and they may have been breaking them up and using them to re-forge nails or maybe even trade goods for the local Native Americans to trade for food.”
Dr. Worth has traveled to Spain to read historical documents related to Luna, his 1559 expedition and colonization attempt; and he’s spent decades studying them. Now, the archaeology is providing physical evidence of the settlement.
“Everything is coming together, actually, amazingly well in terms of reconciling the historic record, which describes aspects of the settlement, the people and where they lived, and kind of how they did daily life on the settlement,” said Worth.
According to Dr. Worth, the results of their excavation in the core area of the site have confirmed that they have a super dense distribution of mid-16th century Spanish debris, such as broken pottery and nails.
But, he says they also have horizontal deposits, basically floors and surfaces, containing the remnants of large liquid containers known as olive jars that have been broken up and left as garbage. There’s also structural evidence, with post molds representing structures that were built by the Luna settlers, something that Worth says matches accounts in the historical records.
“We have this large trash pit, which definitely indicates something about the number of people there, the amount of garbage they generated, the fact that they buried it, as opposed to just sort of leaving it around on the surface,” Worth said. “So, what we’re seeing is clear evidence of a two-year span of time, in which this particular corner of the site, which we think is the heart of the site, was the residence for a number of Spaniards of different social levels.’
For example, in one area containing a dense concentration of artifacts, they also found a balance scale weight, made out of a copper alloy, likely used in measuring pay for soldiers. Worth says there’s only one person in the expedition, the treasurer, who was in charge of that and, therefore, would have owned a set.
“The finding of that one scale weight in that particular spot, next to a post hole, may mean that we have found the house, the residence, of the treasurer of the Luna Expedition, Alonso (Velazquez) Rodriguez,” said Worth, noting that they also have a lot of documentary accounts by this same guy about what happened during the expedition.
Worth suggests a greater level of interest to have the words of Rodriquez along with some of his possessions, “so, to dig through his house floor, or his warehouse, or his, you know, yard and get the artifacts that he handled and he used, even like, for example, a brass pin that was found in that same unit.”
A brass pin in the 16th century would have been used as a paperclip of sorts, and Worth says it’s an item that the treasurer Rodriguez might have been using this item to hold papers together in his office at the Luna settlement. “We’re finding traces of those activities, and, the documents that I've read in Spain may actually have been written by him in that spot.”
Given the visual of the treasurer’s office, Worth gives us more of a picture of what the Luna Settlement might have looked like or what they wanted it to look like, after they landed in late August, 1559.
“That original plan had 140 house lots, which would have had intervening streets. And, we know from other documents that it would have been four house lots in a block with streets in between,” said Worth, suggesting a rectangular layout, with streets of five by seven blocks.
The Luna settlers also would have started to clear forests and clear undergrowth, maybe some of the palmettos, opening areas up so they could have a plaza in the middle.
“They would start to build public structures, a warehouse, a church, and a governor’s house; those kinds of public officials’ buildings. And, they got maybe five weeks into the initial set up of that layout when the hurricane hit,” Worth said.
At this point, the UWF research team is looking to the archaeology to tell them what actually happened after the hurricane.
But, that brings us to this date, September 19, 1559, when the hurricane actually struck just one month after Luna sailed into Pensacola Bay with a contingent of 1500 settlers. It destroyed the majority of his fleet of well-stocked ships and changed the course of history for this city, and beyond.
“(The hurricane) may have even changed the entire history of the continent, by altering what could have been a successful Luna Expedition, and which would never have led to St. Augustine and never have led to the southeast becoming dominated by the English. It could have entirely changed American history, we’ll never know. But, it’s a very, very important event, and something absolutely worth studying,” said Worth.
And, that 1559 hurricane ultimately ruined the career of Tristan de Luna, who died in 1573, essentially in poverty.
“Poor Luna; I feel quite a bit of compassion for Tristan de Luna. He did not get his loans forgiven. He did not essentially get any new posts of importance,” Worth said of Luna, who ended up living in the house of a friend in Mexico City and couldn’t even pay for his own burial.
“I can’t help but imagine that Luna must have died a very discouraged and sad man, because he had started his career with great success, great potential – the reason for which he was chosen – but the Luna expedition must have broken him.”
Today, Luna’s significant contribution to Pensacola’s history is celebrated. And, thanks to UWF Archaeology, we’re learning more about his brief time here.