The unexpected discovery of a breast plate at the Emanuel Point Ship offers an unusual opportunity to study one of the few surviving examples of metal body armor to be found in the Americas. Laboratory casts from the armor’s remains hopefully will allow detection of any decorations, or armorer’s or proof marks, should they exist. Undoubtedly, the breast plate holds a few secrets that can be interpreted by scholars. However, comparative examples of breast plates that are housed in European museums tend to represent the finest of the armorer’s art, owned by royalty or nobility, but rarely used in combat. Nonetheless, this relic of the Spanish imperial entrada into Florida, may provide clues to the identity and station of its original owner.
By the mid-16th century, metal body armor had generally been discarded by the Spaniards in America in favor of padded cloth armor. Made of canvas and stuffed with cotton, escaupiles, as the padded garments were called, were patterned after those worn by Aztecs, who, the Spaniards noted, were well protected from arrows. The men of Narváez had seen their armor repeatedly pierced by Florida arrows, and by the time Soto’s army arrived on the peninsula, they were equipped with quilted armor. Practical, lightweight and inexpensive, padded armor became in the 1570s a standard issue for soldiers at Santa Elena and St. Augustine (Peterson 1956:125).