- Historic Sites
Shipwrecked History: Spanish Ships Found In Pensacola Harbor
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
Summer 2009 | Volume 59, Issue 2
Over the latter part of the 20th century, numerous investigators attempted to locate Luna’s ill- fated ships within the 125-square-mile waters of Pensacola Bay. Success eluded them until the early 1990s, when the Florida Bureau of Archaeological Research organized and funded a comprehensive plan for examining the seafloor. In 1991 underwater archaeologist Roger C. Smith led a team that began a meticulous survey using a grid system. They first marked out grid rows with anchored milk jugs. Motoring back and forth in the bay’s shallow water, they watched a primitive magnetometer for any anomalies, which would register on a tiny LED screen and a paper prinout. When a member of Smith’s team yelled out, a second member would throw over- board a brick tied to a toilet-bowl float. Diver Charles Hughson then dropped overboard to investigate.
On one of their first dives, in 13 feet of water off Emanuel Point near the old town center, the team found a ballast heap, a pile of stones carried inside a hull to control a ship’s stability. The fluke of a 10-foot-long wrought-iron anchor stuck out from the sandy seafloor nearby, a promising find when archaeologists dated it to the 16th century. Soon divers found a largely intact copper pitcher, stone cannon balls, a jar containing olive pits from a type of tree investigators would later determine were grown east of Seville, and the gudgeon straps from an ancient rudder that had steered the would-be colonists across the Gulf of Mexico. The archaeologists named the wreck Emanuel Point I .
Teams of students and professors from the University of West Florida (UWF) Archaeology Institute joined the search and have pulled and analyzed thousands of artifacts from the wreck. The institute has continued its examination of the bay, eventually exchanging its primitive equipment for Global Positioning System tools, state-of-the-art magnetometers, and side-scanning sonar technology loaned on occasion from the federal Minerals Management Service in New Orleans.
On August 2, 2006, during the last week of the field season, UWF students Kendra Kennedy and Maija Glasier-Lawson conducted a routine diving circle in low-visibility waters only 400 yards from the site of the Luna wreck. To their amazement, they discovered several ballast stones. Further dives at the site in the summer of 2007 revealed the outline of a wooden hull buried under a protective cap of ballast stones. Dives over the past three seasons have uncovered more than 2,000 artifacts, including Spanish ceramic fragments and strips of lead hull sheathing, which indicates that the vessel, now crustation using a CAT scan at Pensacola’s Sacred Heart Hospital and found that no original iron remained. Subsequent X-ray images, however, revealed a mold of the object that included cracks, fractures, and details of its design. Working with British expert Ian Eaves, a former keeper of armour for the Tower of London, the state team determined that the breastplate had been named Emanuel Point II , belonged to the Luna expedition.
The archaeologists worked topside with the challenging task of preserving artifacts long immersed in seawater. Most iron artifacts, for instance, were completely encased in a heavy coating of mineral deposits. Divers pulled one such heavily encrusted object from Emanuel Point I , determining that it was an iron breastplate, known in Spanish as a peto, and worn by one of Luna’s soldiers. Archaeologists analyzed the en¬ made in Italy or Spain in about 1510. The institute team then worked with another London-based armor expert, David Brown, to create an epoxy cast of the plate by turning the cleaned concretion into a mold.
To date, the survey teams have found and inventoried more than 50 submerged objects, including shipwrecks, abandoned schooners and barges, ballast piles, wharfs, and the remnants of a marine railway. Four or five of the remaining wrecked Luna ships await discovery.
While the Luna expedition’s failure thwarted early Spanish ambitions to establish a major colonial presence in what is now the southern United States, 450 years later the long-lost traces of that expedition are now expanding our understanding of what—save for a wrathful storm— would otherwise have become the first permanent European settlement in North America.