Shipwrecked History: 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

By Bratten, John R.; Worth, John E. | American Heritage, Summer 2009 | Go to article overview

Shipwrecked History: 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


Bratten, John R., Worth, John E., American Heritage


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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.

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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.

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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. …

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