First settlement not easily found

Published August 28, 2006

PENSACOLA - Six years before Spanish explorers landed at St. Augustine, Don Tristan de Luna y Arellano founded Florida's initial European settlement at present-day Pensacola in 1559. Two years later the Spanish settlement was gone, besieged by a hurricane and other problems.

Centuries have erased all traces of the land settlement, but 14 years ago divers found one of the sunken ships.

As the 450th anniversary approaches of de Luna's ill-fated voyage to the city that touts itself as "America's First Settlement," unearthing de Luna artifacts and solving the mystery of the original settlement's exact location remains an obsession for professional and amateur archaeologists alike.

"We don't call them de Lunatics for nothing," joked April Holmes, a University of West Florida archaeology graduate student spending her summer excavating a 1750s Spanish fort in downtown Pensacola.

Researchers plan to return to the water this fall to search for another ship in de Luna's fleet. They believe their underwater work could provide clues about the location of the elusive settlement.

"If we find another ship in the same area as the first ship, it could say something about the location of the land settlement," said John Bratten, a professional archaeologist who specializes in underwater research at UWF.

David Dotson, an amateur archaeologist and Pensacola native whose efforts to find the de Luna settlement have taken him to France and Spain, agreed. The sporting goods store owner says he and his partners have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on their de Luna search. They plan a book on the search, which they have narrowed to a 20-acre undisclosed site by searching through hundreds of French, Spanish and Mexican historical maps and other documents.

"I take offense at people who call Luna theorists De-Lunatics. What's wrong with having a quest for Pensacola's history?" he said.

"There is a sign on the bay front that says 'America's First Settlement' and the No. 1 question all of the tourists always ask is 'What the hell does that mean? The Luna site can be found if people want to find it," he said.

As part of its long-standing policy of allowing the public to participate in its archaeology projects, UWF will let certified divers who pass a physical and undergo some onsite training join the search.

Non-divers can help above water by screening items brought up by divers and in other ways, said Judith Bense, director of the university's archaeology program. She said the extra help will likely expedite search efforts.

"If we find another 1559 ship, I'll flip," she said.

Cargo from the ship discovered in 1992 had been transported onto land, but Bratten said Spanish archives show some of de Luna's other ships had not been unloaded.

"Our goal is to find one of those ships that the documents talk about, and to discover what the potential colonists were bringing with them," he said.

A $203,000 grant from Florida's Division of Historical Resources is funding the research, which is timed to coincide with the 450th anniversary, Bense said.

But she said people in this de Luna-crazy city, where the main beach drag is named Via deLuna and the bowling alley is DeLuna Lanes, could be disappointed in their hopes to find de Luna's land settlement.

"It's something people have wanted to find forever and we just haven't yet. I suspect it has been eroded. We have looked in the most promising places," she said. "Apparently it has either been destroyed or very well disguised with modern-day Pensacola on top of it."

Retiree and amateur archaeologist Ken Alderman, 80, spent his summer working with the university archaeologists at the downtown dig site where they unearthed the commanding officer's headquarters of a 1754 Spanish fort.

Alderman, whose hobby is digital photography, was most excited about photographing a 1700s Spanish coin and a button researchers believe was worn by a soldier in Andrew Jackson's artillery corps. Both items were unearthed at the dig site.

The longtime volunteer said working on sites like the fort provide enough excitement for him, regardless of whether the de Luna site is found.

"I don't think they will ever find that. It wasn't here long enough and in a permanent form," he said.