PENSACOLA, Florida – In the year 1559, a Spanish expedition established in Pensacola, Florida, the first settlement of Europeans in what is today the United States of America, but a hurricane ended their dream of expanding the kingdom of Philip II of Spain to the southeastern part of the country, and so changed the course of history.
On August 15 of that year, the Spanish explorer Tristan de Luna y Arrellano went ashore with 1,500 men at Pensacola Bay and founded the settlement of Santa Maria de Ochuse – but just a month later a hurricane shattered their new home and sank much of their 12-vessel fleet.
Their intention was to establish a route between the Gulf of Mexico and the colony of Punta Santa Elena in South Carolina, which preceded that of Pensacola, but of which no remains have ever been found.
“I suspect that if the settlement of Tristan de Luna hadn’t been wiped out by the hurricane, it would have been the start of a permanent Spanish presence in the area and maybe we wouldn’t be speaking English now,” John Worth, professor of the Anthropology Department at the University of West Florida, told EFE.
Worth directs the excavation of the archaeological site of the Spanish settlement at Pensacola, discovered in 2015 and where such objects as ceramics, jugs of oil, arrowheads, decorations, nails and the vestiges of buildings have been found.
The colony, calculated to have covered an area 350 by 250 meters (820 by 1,150 feet), had 140 building plots, a main plaza, a church and a storehouse for keeping tools and some of their food supplies, though most of what they had were on the ships sunk in the hurricane.
The close to 13 hectares (32 acres) of the settlement made it the largest and most populated of those established by Spaniards in the southeastern US, much larger than Santa Elena and St. Augustine, now considered the most ancient city in the country.
The reason why Philip II financed this ambitious project was to halt French colonization here and strengthen Spain’s hold on this land discovered on March 27, 1513, by Juan Ponce de Leon. But the hurricane demolished his plans.
According to the archaeologist and anthropologist, the hurricane “at the very least changed the history of North America” by leaving the pioneers without ships to make their escape or enough food for the hundreds of settlers who survived the hurricane.
If the settlement hadn’t been hit by the hurricane, which had previously devastated Puerto Rico and slammed through Florida all the way to Pensacola, Spanish troops would have built forts in northern Florida and have been in a better position to defeat the English who reached the continent 50 years later.
Tristan de Luna’s settlement, still standing after the hurricane until 1561, was founded six years before the foundation of St. Augustine, and it wasn’t until 1607 that the first English colonists reached Jamestown farther north and began to expand their area of influence southwards.
They would have stayed up north if Tristan de Luna’s settlement had been a success, said the expert, who speaks Spanish and has often visited Seville to review documents in the General Archive of the Indies.
“It’s incredible how the weather and accidental occurrences can change the course of human events,” he said about the destiny of an expedition that sailed from Veracruz, Mexico, and was made up of 500 soldiers and their families, Dominican friars, Aztecs and Africans, both slaves and freemen.
Worth’s greatest interest is in the “incredible effort” of the Spaniards and the beginning of the “European colonial era in the United States.”
This was a multiethnic colonial society that he wishes to portray so people better understand the culture of the Spaniards who came from New Spain, today’s Mexico, 40 years after the conquest by Hernan Cortes, and their interaction and assimilation in their new surroundings.
The archaeological site was discovered in 2015 by local historian Tom Garner, who told EFE that, as a native of Pensacola, he was aware of the history of Tristan de Luna and knew that the description of the settlement said that it was on high ground close to the bay where his ships were sunk.
“I was going around some open ground there, I stopped and found some ceramic remains on the surface,” said the expert currently working as the contact between the archaeologists and the residents of this small district of Pensacola, most of whom quite happily allow the scientists to dig on their land in search of new evidence of its origins.
Garner said the discovery of Tristan de Luna’s settlement means going back to the beginning of the “European culture” in today’s United States, though an unexpected hurricane left it in hands of the English and not the Spaniards.