Friday, July 1, 2016

What do the documents say about where Luna’s settlement was situated?

Despite the fact that Luna’s settlement was occupied continuously for a full two years between August, 1559 and August, 1561, only a few direct documentary references to its precise location on Pensacola Bay have survived.  In part for this very reason, the location of the settlement has long remained a mystery, despite considerable research and many archaeological surveys in recent decades.  Nevertheless, the few textual clues that have always been available narrow down the list of potential locations considerably, and have always included the location where the site was finally identified last fall.

As for the location of Santa María de Ochuse on Pensacola Bay itself, textual references in the Luna documents make it clear that the bay where Luna ultimately established his first settlement was some 20 leagues east of Mobile Bay (the actual distance is about 47 modern miles), where scout ships under Guido de Lavazaris had provided a detailed and remarkably accurate description from their visit in 1558, naming it Bahía Filipina, in honor of King Phillip (Felipe).  Furthermore, the bay known as Ochuse (also Achuse, Ychuse), christened Santa María Filipina in recognition of the feast of the Anunciation of Mary (August 15), was described as being one of the best in the Indies, with a deep entrance and spacious interior, and with a red bluff on the eastern side as the bay opened up upon entering it.  A winding river (the modern Escambia) drained into the bay from the interior to the north, and farther to the north by land was the same river (the modern Alabama River) that drained into Mobile Bay (Bahía Filipina), where at 40 leagues distance Luna’s men found the native town called Nanipacana, which was simultaneously downriver from the province of Coosa (Coça) in modern northwest Georgia and upriver from Mobile Bay.  All of these locations are situated along the vast watersheds of the Mobile-Alabama-Coosa-Oostanaula-Coosawattee Rivers, stretching from Mobile Bay to the edge of the Appalachian Mountains at Carters Lake in northwest Georgia.  All these geographic clues, especially when combined with earlier evidence from the 1540 route of the Hernando de Soto expedition through the same region (see especially Hudson et al. 1989), make it abundantly clear that Pensacola Bay is identical with Luna’s Ochuse.

Details about precisely where Luna established his port settlement on the bay are much more ambiguous.  Luna himself wrote that “it is a point of high land that overlooks the bay where the ships arrive to anchor,” and in estate papers for a deceased drummer it was described “Santa Maria de Ochuze of the bay upon the point, of these provinces of Florida.”  Both these descriptions suggest that the settlement was on high ground that formed a point overlooking the bay.  Beyond this, the viceroy wrote that “it is a very spacious port, which has three leagues in width in front of where the Spaniards are now,” indicating that the settlement had a broad view of the main bay, probably encompassing as much as 7-10 miles wide directly in front of the settlement.  In addition, based on Luna’s initial glowing report the viceroy noted regarding the bay that “the naos [cargo ships] can be anchored in 4 or 5 fathoms at one crossbow-shot from land,” which would indicate that deeper waters (about 6.7-8.3 meters, or 22-27 feet) reached as close as perhaps 150-250 meters from land (which is seems to be a good approximation of what sixteenth-century Spaniards believed a crossbow shot distance to be based on my own research).  Unfortunately, the viceroy’s letter is not clear as to whether Luna was providing simply a general measure of how close large ships could anchor at one or more places in the bay, or if he was specifically stating that this was the exact distance and depth from the settlement itself.  Moreover, since Luna’s report was designed to emphasize the successes and prospects of the newly-arrived expedition to the Spanish crown, his distances and depths could also have been somewhat exaggerated, either unconsciously or intentionally.

A few other clues come from the narrative of Dominican priest Domingo de la Anunciación, who was likely the source of the Luna account in Agustín Dávila Padilla’s 1596 publication about the history of the Dominican order in New Spain.  Describing a vessel that had somehow been pushed inland near Luna’s port settlement, he noted that “...they found in a dense grove of trees, which was one arquebus-shot from the port, an intact caravel, without lacking even one thing that was in it, and everyone went to see it as a prodigious thing, and each person recovered whatever had their sign and mark, without lacking even the smallest needle.  The grove was surrounded by very dense trees, and even if they failed to detain or break that ship, it should have been in the grove itself, where it seemed that it had been placed by hand, in order to hide it.  It is unbelievable that the waves had carried it, because they did not reach the grove, nor would they have left it so well-placed if they had carried it…”  Presuming that this vessel was actually brought in by storm surge over low-lying trees and vegetation, this means that Luna’s settlement was located perhaps 450-800 meters (based on my research into Spanish perceptions of arquebus shot distance) from a low area that would accommodate a small ship floating in to land intact within a grove of trees.  Finally, this same account made reference to surviving colonists collecting “...some cargo which had washed up on the shore (rivera/ribera) after the storm, although most of it had been lost in the water,” which only serves to reinforce the fact that the port settlement was indeed along a shoreline where debris from the wrecked ships accumulated after the September 19-20 hurricane.

Another clue to the location of the settlement is provided by textual accounts that confirm that Luna’s fleet was destroyed while at anchor, presumably very near the terrestrial settlement itself.  One soldier’s testimony after the expedition noted that “there struck a hurricane, which was a very great storm, with which were lost all the ships that were anchored in the aforementioned port, except for two barks and one caravel and a frigate which escaped in the said port,” and the Dávila Padilla narrative also detailed that “As if the cables were strands of thread, and the anchors were not made of iron, thus they surrendered to the force of the air.  The ships came loose, and were broken into small pieces.”  And Luna himself used the verb barar [varar] (to run aground) when he wrote about the hurricane “grounding all the ships that were within this port,” indicating that they likely were driven to shallower water and wrecked near the shore close to the anchorage zone in deeper water.

An additional clue is provided by the fact that Luna’s primary goal was to use his Pensacola Bay settlement as a launching point from which to push inland and northward to the fabled native province of Coosa, and that he sent multiple expeditions inland and upriver along the Escambia River drainage, and finally overland to the central Alabama River along a freshly-cut road, suggesting that his port settlement would most likely not be located on the eastern side of the bay, or on the barrier islands at the mouth of the bay or even on the Gulf Breeze peninsula, because all those locations would have made it considerably more difficult for Luna’s cavalry and infantry companies to travel so readily inland toward their primary objective.  And beyond this, Luna’s fleet initially offloaded the surviving horses at Mobile Bay before sailing back east to enter Pensacola Bay in mid-August of 1559, and it would make little sense to have done so if he intended to settle on a barrier island near the mouth of the bay.

Finally, Luna’s settlement would naturally have to have been established on a broad, level landform that could have accommodated a new pueblo with an anticipated 100 permanent resident families spread across a 5 by 7 configuration of 4-lot blocks with an intervening grid of streets.

All of these documentary clues indicate that the Luna settlement should be located on the mainland on the western side of the Pensacola Bay system, on a broad and level terrace on high ground on a geographic feature that could be described as a point overlooking the bay, that it should overlook a wide part of the bay encompassing 7-10 miles of waterscape, that it should be reasonably close to a deep-water anchorage area (whether just 200 meters or more is unclear), and that it should be near or adjacent to a shallow-water zone near that anchorage where as many as 6 ships were grounded and wrecked.  It should furthermore have a low-lying area within about 600 meters that could have allowed a 7th ship to float over the trees to settle intact within a grove.

Using all these characteristics and qualifications, there are very few topographic locations along the bay that fit the textual accounts exactly.  The most obvious of these, however, is the Emanuel Point peninsula, which happens to overlook the two known wrecks of Luna’s fleet.  Though it has long been suspected to be a prime candidate for Luna’s settlement, the recent discovery of a substantial and areally-extensive assemblage of sixteenth-century Spanish residential debris in this area provides abundant confirmation of the historical accounts detailed above, and provides archaeologists and historians with an amazing opportunity to explore the surviving traces of the first multi-year European settlement in the continental United States.

Selected References

Dávila Padilla, Augustín
1596 Historia de la Fundación y Discurso de la Provincia de Santiago de México de la Orden de Predicadores, por las vidas de sus varones insignes y casos Notables de Nueva España (pp. 189-229 for the Luna section).  Online Here

Hudson, Charles, Marvin T. Smith, Chester B. DePratter, and Emilia Kelley
1989 The Tristán de Luna Expedition, 1559-1561. Southeastern Archaeology 8(1):31-45.  Online Here

Priestly, Herbert Ingram
1928 The Luna Papers: Documents Relating to the Expedition of Don Tristán de Luna y Arellano for the Conquest of La Florida in 1559-1561.  DeLand: Florida State Historical Society.  Volume I online  Volume II online 

John E. Worth
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