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By John E. Worth (Professor, University of West Florida)
In August 1559, a fleet of Spanish ships sailed into Pensacola Bay on a mission to achieve what previous expeditions had failed to do: establish the first European colony in Florida. The expedition’s leader don Tristán de Luna y Arellano had been directed by the Viceroy of New Spain to construct the first port settlement on Pensacola Bay, and from there to launch an expedition to establish an overland route across the Appalachian mountains and east to the Atlantic Ocean, where another colony would be established at Santa Elena on the modern South Carolina coast. Launched from present-day Veracruz, Mexico, the Luna expedition--had it succeeded--would ultimately have extended the reach of New Spain across the northern Gulf of Mexico to encompass the Florida peninsula and the lower Atlantic coast, and would have changed the course of history.
After selecting an elevated terrace overlooking the center of the bay, with easy access to the interior and a view of the bay’s mouth, the ships disembarked some 500 soldiers and another 1,000 colonists, including families, servants, slaves, and even a contingent of some 200 Aztec Indians accompanying the expedition. Spending the next few weeks offloading equipment and beginning the process of clearing the town site and constructing houses and other structures at the new settlement, expedition members could hardly have imagined that a massive hurricane would strike on September 19, devastating the fleet at anchor. Only three ships remained afloat following the storm, leaving six vessels wrecked in view of the settlement, and a seventh pushed up on land nearby. Worst of all, nearly all the expedition’s food had been stored on the ships awaiting the completion of a warehouse on land, leaving the hundreds of colonists and surviving sailors at serious risk of starvation.
The story of the Luna expedition ultimately became one of a struggle to survive, involving not just the Viceroy’s attempts in Mexico to organize relief fleets to bring food and supplies to the starving colonists, but also the colonists’ attempts first to establish contact with Native American groups who might be able to provide surplus food. Despite moving most of the colonists a hundred miles inland to a more populated agricultural area early in 1560, just four months later the colonists returned to their Pensacola Bay settlement, throughout the period supplementing relief supplies with fishing, hunting, gathering, and even scavenging abandoned Native villages despite increasing resistance. A detachment of 200 men even spent three months in the Native chiefdom of Coosa in northwest Georgia before rejoining the expedition in Pensacola. However, even though the last colonists were finally withdrawn by August of 1561, the Luna expedition nonetheless stands as the first multi-year European settlement in what would later become the continental United States. The failure of the Luna set the stage for St. Augustine’s successful establishment just four years later, charting a different course for Florida’s history.
Visitors to Pensacola can learn about the Luna expedition at several area locations. While the archaeological site of Luna’s settlement is located on private land in a residential neighborhood, visitors can take in the impressive view overlooking the locations of the Emanuel Point shipwrecks at a historical marker next to the Pensacola Visitor’s Information Center at the base of Three Mile Bridge. In downtown Pensacola, Plaza de Luna is located right on the bay at the end of Palafox Pier, and features a statue of Tristán de Luna himself. For more detail, museum exhibits including displays and artifacts from the Luna expedition are located at the T. T. Wentworth Jr. Florida State Museum on Plaza Ferdinand and at the Florida Public Archaeology Network on Main Street next to the Fish House. Another exhibit is located a few miles north at the University of West Florida Archaeology Institute, located just to the right of the main entrance to campus. And as UWF archaeologists continue to explore the traces of the Luna expedition on land and underwater, new details continue to be revealed about this important episode in our nation’s history.