Once again, hurricane season is upon us. As a yearly ritual, residents along the Gulf Coast use this current time of calm for preparation…and a little history.
Some of the most famous storms in the chronicles of hurricane history made landfall in Florida. The Sunshine State — and notably, the Gulf Coast — is certainly not alone in suffering from tropical weather; Katrina, Opal, Ivan, and Camille immediately come to mind.
We remember the devastation from these great storms and many others, but what about the lesser known hurricanes in our history?
One such storm — and the lasting impacts it would have on the future of Western civilization — cannot be overlooked.
In the summer of 1559, a devastating hurricane struck the Gulf Coast. While normally such a storm would have had little impact along the 16th century coastline, its path tragically coincided with efforts to conquer the New World, derailing and dooming Spanish attempts to establish the first European colony in America.
On June 11, 1559, 1,500 colonists, soldiers, slaves, and Aztec warriors under the command of Tristán de Luna y Arellano left Veracruz, Mexico bound for the northern Gulf coast in a quest to establish a colony at one of the sheltered harbors along the coast.
Luna’s colonial venture was a carefully-planned expedition. It would have been a launching-point for overland expeditions to the Atlantic coast and would have established a firm foothold for Spain in North America.
Luna was confident in his new settlement. Based on his initial reports back to the Spanish Empire, the Viceroy of New Spain believed Pensacola Bay to be completely safe for Spanish ships, claiming extravagantly that “the port is so secure that no wind can do them any damage.”
But on the night of September 19, 1559 — less than a month after arriving at Pensacola Bay — Luna’s beliefs were put to the test. When the winds began to blow during the dark of night, the 1,500 settlers were caught completely by surprise. The coast was struck by a violent hurricane which raged incessantly for the next 24 hours.
What made this hurricane different from all previous storms was the presence of Luna’s fleet of 10 Spanish sailing vessels anchored alongside the Pensacola coastline. During the course of the storm, most of the largest ships broke loose from their anchors and floated free, ultimately grounding or sinking to the bottom of Pensacola Bay. The contents of the vessels, many of which apparently broke apart, were inundated and scattered in the storm waters. One vessel was pushed inland by the storm surge and deposited intact in a dense grove of trees. Surviving colonists and sailors scavenged the shores for days, but the loss of the fleet ultimately proved to be a fatal blow for the Luna expedition.
After the storm, only 3 ships were still afloat. Though Luna’s colonists scavenged whatever they could from the remnants of the fleet, the damage was done, and news of the calamity was sent to Mexico on one of the remaining ships.
When news of the devastation finally arrived in Veracruz on October 5, the Luna expedition was instantly transformed from a bold colonial venture into a rescue operation, and all subsequent ship traffic between Veracruz and Pensacola focused on sending food and other supplies to the hapless colonists. The colonists ultimately became so hungry that they moved inland to the nearest large Indian town along the Alabama River, and were ultimately forced to send a detachment of soldiers hundreds of miles upriver to the edge of the Appalachian summit in northwest Georgia, trading whatever they owned in exchange for corn and other food supplies.
Ultimately, their efforts failed and the project was abandoned within two years of de Luna’s initial landing at Pensacola Bay. The Spanish would not return to the area until 1698, when they reestablished a settlement that persists today as the American city of Pensacola.
Over the course of the next decades and centuries, the wrecks of Luna’s seven ships dissolved quietly into the sand and mud of Pensacola Bay, hidden from the modern world. But within these ships remained a moment in time, captured and preserved as a result of the hurricane of 1559, waiting only for the light of modern technology and research to rediscover the history of America’s First Settlement.
The Florida Public Archaeology Network and State of Florida archives contributed to this article.