Pensacola’s Forgotten Spanish Colony

Although it’s known that the first permanent European settlement in the United States was in St. Augustine, Florida, it wasn’t the first attempt.  In August of 1559, six years before St. Augustine was settled, Don Tristán de Luna y Arellano founded the colony Santa Maria de Ochuse near what is now Pensacola Bay.  Despite a devastating hurricane just five weeks after their arrival, the colony was able to survive for two more years, far outlasting earlier attempts at colonization in the US, none of which had lasted more than a few weeks.  Ye now, after a local historian turned up a shard of 16th-century Spanish pottery on the site of a bulldozed house, archaeologists have confirmed the location of this ill-fated settlement in downtown Pensacola.

Conquistadors in Florida

In 1539, some 20 years before this settlement was established, Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto led an expedition into Florida, shown here, although it was ultimately ill-fated.

Early in October, local historian Tom Garner passed by a construction site in downtown Pensacola.  Having read the translated version of Luna’s papers and identified the neighborhood as a potential site for Santa Maria de Ochuse.  After Garner walked over to site, he found a shard of pottery that he identified as the rim of an olive jar from the mid-16th century.  He then contacted archaeologists at UWF about the discovery, and they were able to get permission from the property owner to investigate further.  Garner’s collections turned up plenty of pottery fragments, stunning archaeologists who examined these findings.

According to one of the archaeologists, the findings were extremely specific to mid-16th century Spanish colonial period artifacts.  Property owners granted a five-day window in early November so that the university team could excavate about half an acre of land before construction began on their new home, during which time archaeologists turned up many more fragments of Spanish, Aztec and Indian pottery at the site, such as nails and glass trade beads.

Santa Maria de Ochuse had a population of about 1,500, believed to have been stretched over many blocks of what is now downtown Pensacola.  The university isn’t revealing the exact location of these artifacts, to protect the neighborhood, although they did say it was in an urban downtown area within view of two shipwreck sites in Pensacola Bay.  The colony was founded by a group of 550 Spanish soldiers, 200 Aztecs and an unknown number of African slaves, and was tasked with forming a settlement on the coast before moving inland.  Just five weeks after landing, they were struck with a hurricane that destroyed half of the fleet, but the colony endured.  There’s evidence that some of the settlers moved inland to Alabama for about 6 months before returning to the coast due to lack of food.  The entire colony was abandoned in 1561, although the reasons for this remain unclear.

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