The territory known as La Florida, on the northern rim of the Gulf of Mexico, began to be charted by early 16th-century Spanish navigators soon after their discovery of America. Although expeditions into the unknown peninsula, led by Ponce de León (1513, 1521), Pánfilo de Narváez (1528), and Hernando de Soto (1539), failed to realize mythical riches of the region, the Spanish were determined to conquer and to pacify the northern frontier of New Spain. Colonial strategy required the establishment of military settlements, both on the Gulf and in the Atlantic, to prevent intrusions by other European powers and to make the peninsula secure for Spanish navigation. The deep and sheltered harbor known today as Pensacola Bay was visited by members of the Narváez and Soto expeditions and by later Spanish pilots, who called the bay Polonza, or Ochuse. This 16th-century map, from Cornelius Wytfliets Descriptiones Ptolemaicae Augmentum, shows the territory of La Florida and includes Pensacola Bay.
Pensacola was chosen by New Spain Viceroy Luis de Velasco as the place to begin the conquest and colonization of Florida in 1559. Command of the enterprise was given to Don Tristán de Luna y Arellano, who had first come to Mexico in company with its famous conqueror, Hernán Cortes, and had served as maestre de campo for Francisco Vásquez de Coronado on the march for Cibola. He was given detailed instructions to construct regular Spanish towns, and to appoint councilmen, judges, and bailiffs. The first settlement at Ochuse (Pensacola) was to have a fortress large enough to contain 100 colonists, and was to include storehouses, jails, inns, and slaughterhouses. The Luna expedition assembled at the Mexican port of Veracruz, where eleven ships were loaded with supplies of corn, hardtack biscuit, bacon, dried beef, cheese, oil, vinegar, wine, and live cattle, as well as arms, armor, and tools for construction and for agriculture. When the armada departed for Florida, it carried 540 soldiers, 240 horses, and more than 1,000 colonists, including women and children, black servants, and Aztecs and Tlaxcalans.
On August 15, 1559, the fleet came to anchor in the sheltered waters of Pensacola Bay, and the colonists went ashore to pick a suitable place to build a town. Luna ordered scouting parties to look for food, since the fleets supplies were calculated to last only eighty days. One went up the Escambia River, finding only a small native village before returning to the anchorage after twenty days. There they learned of a calamitous event that had occurred during their absence. On September 19, a hurricane had struck the armada at anchor destroying all but three of the vessels, some of which had not yet been unloaded. Many people lost their lives, and supplies on shore had been damaged by heavy rains. Although four relief voyages were attempted from Mexico and Cuba, the fledgling Florida colony was doomed by the disaster; Luna fell ill, and discontent among the hungry immigrants began to turn to mutiny. Although the viceroy replaced Luna with another governor, Angel de Villafañe, the enterprise was beyond salvation, and its survivors trickled back to Mexico.
After the failure of the Luna colony, the Gulf coast of Florida was forgotten by the Spanish for over a century. In 1693, a scientific expedition, led by Captain Andres de Pez, conducted a reconnaissance of Pensacola Bay. Pez was accompanied by the Creole scientist Carlos Sigüenza y Gongora, whose map of the bay shows details of water depth, landmarks, and sites of native villages encountered by the survey party. A fleet arrived in 1698 to establish a presidio garrisoned by soldiers, and Pensacola became a formal Spanish colony. This earliest known map of Pensacola Bay, drawn by Sigüenza, depicts modern-day Emanuel Point as Pta. de Vibero (Viper Point).
Many historians who write about the European discovery and settlement of what is now the United States are unfamiliar with the expedition of Tristán de Luna, which was the first attempt to colonize Florida in 1559. The story is not well known, probably because the settlement at Pensacola failed to flourish after a hurricane destroyed most of the colonys ships and provisions. Until recently, what little we know of this forgotten chapter of Florida history comes from a collection of documents transcribed and translated by Herbert Ingram Priestly, who was Librarian of the Bancroft Library at the University of California. Entitled The Luna Papers, and published by the Florida Historical Society in 1928, this two-volume series of letters and testimonials that record the disastrous events that befell the Luna colony now is out-of-print and difficult to find.
With the discovery of the Emanuel Point Ship and its telltale 16th-century features and artifacts, interest in the Tristán de Luna expedition was rekindled. In 1995, the City of Pensacola decided to sponsor a research campaign to search for additional archival documents pertaining to the Luna colony. Directed by archival researcher Denise Lakey, the year-long project has turned up numerous pieces of correspondence, legal briefs, accounts, and audits, many of which are previously unstudied. This document, for instance, is a deposition of personal effects which belonged to Diego López, captain of the flagship of Lunas fleet. López, the document explains, was drowned when the ship El Jesus wrecked on a sandbar in Pensacola Bay. Most of the documents were found in the Archive of the Indies in Seville, Spain. Copies of these new materials are now available to students and scholars at the libraries of the University of West Florida and the University of Florida, and at the Florida State Archives.