Pensacola, Florida
Tuesday November 20th 2018


Two Years Later

Looking Back at Tom Garner’s Historic Discovery of the Don Tristan De Luna Site
by C.S. Satterwhite

In the fall of 2015, Tom Garner made history while coming back from a lunch break. After seeing a cleared space in a Pensacola neighborhood, Garner walked over to the property and found, sitting in the dirt, evidence of one of the oldest attempts at a non-indigenous settlement in what we now call the United States. Lost to historians and archaeologists since the middle of the 16th century, the local historian and gardening educator put his hands in the soil and found what eluded so many for years, thus changing his life and the way in which Pensacola can now see itself.

The 1559 expedition, sponsored by the King of Spain and led by Don Tristan de Luna, left Mexico with roughly 1,500 Europeans, Aztec Indians, Mestizos, and Africans. Their final destination was what we now call Pensacola, and the intention was to stay. Unfortunately for Luna, a massive hurricane took out his ships and most of his supplies shortly after arrival, ultimately dooming the success of the mission. He left the area two years later, and for the most part, few, if any knew of where this incredibly large and historic settlement existed…that is until Garner’s fateful lunch break that fall day.

Since Garner’s 2015 discovery, the site was recently confirmed to be the largest archaeological site of 16th century Spanish colonial era in the southeast region of the United States.

Garner was gracious enough to take the time out of his busy schedule to sit with me in my backyard, all the while pointing out places where I should put a garden, as I asked him about discovering arguably the most significant archaeological find in recent history.

SATTERWHITE: Can you go back to the moment of the discovery? Walk me through it. How did you find the Tristan de Luna site, an archaeological and historical enigma that eluded so many people for years? How did this happen?
GARNER: Well, you know I stopped to get something to eat for lunch. Maybe that’s a little anticlimactic, but I stopped to get something for lunch, and I went back through this neighborhood. I saw where [builders] had cleared [one particular] lot. This is happening a lot through the older sections of Pensacola, and they tear down an older house to build something larger. I saw some recently disturbed ground, and I thought I should have a look at that. I stopped and had a look at it, and there were 16th century Spanish artifacts on the surface of the ground. That’s how the discovery was made.

SATTERWHITE: Now wait. You said that you saw 16th century Spanish artifacts on the ground, so clearly you knew what you were looking for.
GARNER: Well, yeah. I knew what the artifacts were.

SATTERWHITE: I only say that because I wouldn’t know what any of those things were.
GARNER: Yeah, the average person wouldn’t know what those artifacts were. The thing about this site is that people have been finding these things for years. They just didn’t know what they were. You find this piece of plain brown pottery in your yard, and you throw it in the trash. One guy said he was throwing broken pottery sherds into the bushes when he’d find them because he didn’t see it as anything important. Those of us who are in archaeology know what these bits and pieces are and recognize them, so it’s a different thing.

SATTERWHITE: But how does the pottery bring us to Don Tristan de Luna?
GARNER: I’d known of the Luna expedition for thirty-plus years, and we’d always speculated where it was. It was really odd that it hadn’t been discovered because it was a big deal. It should’ve been a big archaeological site, maybe not super heavy in density, in terms of artifacts, because they’d only been there for two years. But still a pretty big site with some significant artifacts, but it had never been found. We knew a little bit about the physical setting of where it should be. There’s a line in one of the documents that says the place where the settlement is [sits] on a high point of land that slopes down to where the ships come to anchor, but that could also describe a number of other places in Pensacola. Gulf Breeze. The Pensacola Naval Air Station. Some parts of downtown or the mouth of Bayou Chico. All the way up and down Scenic Highway, so it narrowed the logical place where the settlement might be. It certainly didn’t make it easy. It was still kind of a needle in a haystack, but the place where I found the artifacts did fit that description. It also happened to be close by where the shipwrecks were found. We already had two shipwrecks from the Luna period, and they’ve recently discovered a third.

SATTERWHITE: In the ‘90s, right?
GARNER: Yeah, one was in the ‘90s, and another was found in the mid-2000s. So I knew the shipwrecks were nearby, and I knew this was the right geographical setting potentially because it fit the description, like a lot of places do. I thought, I need to stop and look at this lot. Then I thought, “No. I’ve got stuff to do.” And then I thought, “No, you’ve got to go look at this lot.” So I made myself stop and look at the lot. Within thirty seconds I found the first artifact, and it was a very distinctive Spanish artifact.

SATTERWHITE: Did you know what you found when you picked it up?
GARNER: I suspected what I found with that, but that particular type of pottery has a specific date range from the mid-1500s all the way up to the 1800s, so I knew it could be later Spanish as well. But given the location, given the proximity of the shipwrecks, I had an idea that this could be De Luna. I contacted my friends at the University [of West Florida] and asked them if they could come and take a look at this. There are Spanish artifacts here. My reaction initially was caution. You know, it could’ve been something from a later expedition.

SATTERWHITE: But soon it was becoming clear that it wasn’t from a later expedition. When you realized this, you didn’t get butterflies in your stomach?
GARNER: No. I look back, and I feel that it’s kind of odd that I had this type of reaction. But you know, it wasn’t a sure thing. As it turns out this particular jar, an olive jar they used for various food stuff, has a particular fat rim that changes shape throughout the years. This particular rim form, as it turns out, is a distinctive 16th century rim form, similar to the type that was being found on the shipwrecks. But I didn’t know that because I wasn’t familiar with 16th century Spanish because… where are you going to see that stuff? It’s really rare, right? But when I showed it to Dr. John Worth, from the University of West Florida and an authority of Tristan de Luna, he confirmed that it was a 16th century olive jar.

SATTERWHITE: So what did you do then?
GARNER: I continued to look for artifacts on the property, and I found one piece of pottery that archaeologists have named Columbia Plain, that’s a type of plate that the Spaniards used, which is non-descript. I recognized it as 16th century. There was no question that the Columbia Plain was 16th century. When I found that, I called my friend at the university and said, “Look. I’m holding Columbia Plain in my hand,” and she understood exactly what I was talking about. At that point, I knew it was Tristan de Luna.

SATTERWHITE: What was their reaction at the university?
GARNER: They played it low-key, but apparently they were all about to have heart attacks [laughter]. It was also a possibility that the artifacts were from something else. There was an earlier expedition twenty years earlier led by a fellow named [Alonso de Castillo] Maldonado, that was associated with Hernando de Soto, and it could’ve potentially been associated with that. It could’ve been a smaller offshoot of the Luna Expedition. Archaeologists are cautious about making conclusions.

SATTERWHITE: Even if it wasn’t Tristan de Luna, but some other Spanish explorer, it still would’ve been significant, right?
GARNER: Yeah, it would’ve been significant, but it might not have been the actual settlement. But then I brought in a tray full of artifacts, 16th century artifacts, to John [Worth]. There were maybe fifty Spanish pieces and maybe fifty Native American pieces. He said this was the largest collection of 16th century Spanish [artifacts] outside of St. Augustine or Santa Elena, two 16th century Spanish settlements on the Atlantic coast. So it was probably going to end up being Tristan de Luna. His reaction, after looking at the artifacts for a while, was “Holy Moly!” That’s when I knew it was the real deal. That’s when I knew it was significant.

SATTERWHITE: Once you figured it out, what was the next step?
GARNER: The next step, from the university, was to get permission. This was private property.

SATTERWHITE: Was this before you made the public announcement?
GARNER: Yes, definitely before we made the public announcement. John contacted the owners of the property who were about to build a house, so we could get permission to do an excavation. There were numerous other artifacts, 16th century Spanish. We identified features which are things like postholes, trash pits, foundations… we don’t know what these particular features were used for, but we know they were Spanish due to the artifacts. So it was a pretty strong indication, more evidence, that this was probably the settlement.

SATTERWHITE: What about the homeowners?
GARNER: This was sort of an emergency situation because they were about ready to build a house, and we didn’t want to hold them up. Once that settled down, construction began on that house. The next step is to try to figure out how big is this site, where exactly is it located, what are the dimensions, what is the shape of it. You do that by digging shovel tests, which are 18 inches by 18 inches square, about three feet deep. You do these every thirty feet or so. It’s really simple. If you find artifacts, it’s an archaeological site. If you don’t find artifacts, it’s not the archaeological site. By doing these shovel tests across the neighborhood, and we did close to a thousand, once we did this it allowed us to draw a line around where we found Spanish artifacts, that’s the boundary of your archaeological site.

SATTERWHITE: Can you tell me a little about your background? I mean, I knew you before this as a local historian and a community gardener. To see you in the New Yorker and the New York Times as having found maybe the most significant historic find in this region, arguably in America, is still hard to wrap my mind around. For Pensacola and for the nation, this really is pretty important.
GARNER: Well, it’s one of the earliest European archaeological sites in the entire United States. It’s very, very significant. I’ll give you that. Honestly, I kind of laugh at myself. I don’t understand the attention that I get from this. I understand that it’s not primarily about me, but it’s about Tristan de Luna, it’s about what the site is. I’ve found lots of other archaeological sites over the years. I mean a lot, but nobody jumped up and down because I found Peter Chester’s villa from the late 1700s except the other archaeology folks. I mean, it’s really the site that has drawn the attention. It’s not so much me. I want to give credit to the real heroes in this story, and I want to give credit to those folks. The real heroes in this story are the people who live in the neighborhood because they’ve been so helpful and so supportive and so generous in allowing us access to this archaeological site. I mean we’re asking permission to come into their private space to do a lot of work, and if you think of what we’re doing, we’re not just sitting on the patio drinking tea. We’re digging big holes in their yard, very neat holes that are very carefully dug, but they are big holes in the front lawn. People have been tremendously gracious about that. When [UWF] Field School happens in the summer, it’s a big production. There are a couple of dozen students, there’s their supervisors, archaeologists. There are people visiting the site, dignitaries, media, so it ends up being a big production. I wonder sometimes if I’d want that going on in my front yard, but everyone’s been wonderful.  They’ve been very supportive, and without them, this project wouldn’t be possible. They’re definitely equal participants in this project. Equal team members.

SATTERWHITE: How did you talk to them about this? I mean, these are people that are building homes, living in the neighborhood, and you’re telling them you’ve found a very significant historic archaeological find in the same spot they might want to build a pool. On property that they own. These must’ve been awkward conversations.
GARNER: Well, John had the initial conversation with the initial property owners, so I can’t speak to that, but basically it’s just a matter of going door-to-door. I’ve spent a lot of time in the neighborhood, walking the neighborhood on any Saturday or Sunday in the afternoon. They’re in their yard, and you come up to them and say, “Hey, have you heard about this thing that we found?” We held a couple of neighborhood meetings where people were invited to hear about it. It’s just a matter of talking to people, letting them know what was going on, explaining the situation. My role in the project is to do that, to tell people what we’re doing and get permissions to excavate; follow-up with people to make sure we’re doing what we’re supposed to be. Being respectful to folks. I’m the community liaison.

SATTERWHITE: Is that your official title?
GARNER: Yeah, I’m the community liaison. It sounds fancy, and I wish I chose a different name for it.

SATTERWHITE: You chose the name?
GARNER: Yeah, I chose the name. I didn’t really think about it, but we’re actually neighbors in the neighborhood now. We [UWF] rented a small blockhouse that’s our field headquarters, which has been very handy. We store equipment there. It’s nice to have a bathroom and a kitchen on-site. We just try to be good neighbors. We consider them friends now, so that’s how that process works. I’m not an archaeologist. I took an archaeological field school thirty-plus years ago under Dr. Judy Bense, who’s now retired as the president of UWF. So I’m trained in archaeological methods, field methods, and I worked for Dr. Bense doing archaeology for a number of years, but I’m not an archaeologist. I don’t have a degree in it. I understand how it works. I can do the work under supervision, but these actual archaeologists have much more depth of training and experience than I do. And they’re the other heroes in this thing. I get all the attention, having found the site, but honestly without the archeologists, what would you do with the site? An archeological site is like a book that has to be read, and they can go in and excavate in such a way that we can extract the information. It’s not just the artifacts. The artifacts are important, but the context in which they’re found, features like postholes, trash pits, and foundations, if you just went in there and dug willy-nilly, you wouldn’t see those. And they’re just as important as the artifacts. They can tell you the locations of structures. They can tell you activity areas, and those folks are trained to do that, and that’s not my training.

SATTERWHITE: For the layperson seeing the archeological site, it doesn’t look terribly significant. In fact, it looks like a lot of neighborhoods in Pensacola. While I recognize the significance of what you’ve found, it’s hard to imagine what the colony might’ve looked like, for most people, with small sherds of pottery and postholes. From the best of your ability, with what you’ve found so far and what you expect to find, can you describe what the colony looked like?
GARNER: The answer is we don’t know yet. Although we’ve got quite a number of documents from the Luna settlement, they don’t focus specifically on what the settlement looked like. So they’ll refer to things, and there will be an inference, a reference to a structure or an activity or whatever, but that wasn’t the purpose of these documents. The purpose of these documents was to take care of business. So we don’t have very detailed descriptions of the settlement. They just don’t exist, or at least we haven’t found them yet. As for the archaeology of the site, we’re too much at the beginning of this to be able to answer those questions. There’s no way we could answer those questions. We’ve done the shovel testing survey, which tells us the dimensions and the size of the site, but it doesn’t answer questions as to what did it look like specifically. We have found evidence over the summer, during the summer Field School, of what we think is a post—a burned post with a nail in it. Possibly a post associated with a structure, but until we do more excavation from that area, we’re not going to know for sure. There’s good reason to believe that we’re going to find evidence of structures. If you do archaeology right, and it’s not been disturbed and churned up—for instance where the street and the sewer have churned up the site, we’ll never see postholes there. There might be artifacts and all that, but we’ll never see postholes or evidence of structures. But outside of disturbed areas, you should be able to peel back the layers and map out what the settlement looked like, but it’s way too early for that.

SATTERWHITE: On a personal level, can I ask what it was like when you picked up the first sherds? Not to get too spiritual on you, but did you feel a connection with the people of the colony when you picked up the sherds, knowing you were the first person to pick this up in over 400 years, knowing where you were. Did you feel any connections to De Luna and the people of the colony?
GARNER: That’s a very natural reaction. It’s something that’s always affected me very deeply. In archaeology and anthropology, it’s not about the artifacts but what the artifacts can tell you about the past. That’s what the goal is, but there’s also something about holding an artifact in your hand and thinking about someone holding this 450 plus years ago. Or if it’s a Native American stone spear point, knowing someone held this 8,000 years ago—what were they like or what were their people like. It’s an incredible feeling. I’ve always been deeply affected by that over the years. It’s something I don’t ever lose, so I understand that.

SATTERWHITE: So what was it like? What was it like to hold this history in your hands?
GARNER: It’s interesting, because when I first held it in my hand, when I initially suspected what it was. I knew what it was, the piece of Columbia Plain. There’s a cautious part of me that held off getting excited about this until I knew for sure what we’re looking at. Then when I took it out and John confirmed what it was; now that was a cool feeling. That was a very, very cool feeling. To me it’s a very personal thing. I was taught about the Luna expedition, I was taught how to identify artifacts by a fellow named Norman Simons who was the curator of the Pensacola Historical Museum when it was at Old Christ Church. He passed away in 1989, so he never saw any of this. I can’t tell you how many times we talked about the Luna settlement, where it might be, how we’d probably find the shipwrecks first and all that. But he missed that. So it’s a bittersweet thing to me. It’s very exciting thing to find it, and know where it is now. It’s a very cool thing, but it’s also kind of sad because Norman didn’t get to see it.

SATTERWHITE: How has this changed your life?
GARNER: It changed my life because I wasn’t working for the university at the time, and then I went to work for the university doing this very particular job of interacting with the neighborhood, and I enjoy it. I like that aspect of the job. That changed my life in that way. Otherwise, I’m just me. You know? I get a lot of pats on the back. In some sense, it’s sort of a local celebrity kind of thing, which is beyond me why, but again I attribute it being the Luna site and nothing particularly to do with me. Other than that, I’m just me. I’m a local historian, and I know old Pensacola history in-depth, so in that way it’s neat to be the guy who actually found the site, but I’ve known for years that it was out there somewhere. It’s neat, but it’s also neat for the community. Tristan de Luna is kind of a mythological figure. He’s woven through the fabric of the community. You’ve got the landings on the beach, the De Luna bowling lanes. There’s a local restaurant downtown that’ll sell you De Luna pasta, and there’s parades and a statue on the waterfront downtown. I mean De Luna’s been a big deal in Pensacola for a long time, so to actually find the site and know the spot has meaning. It’s almost like it makes this mythological thing real. It was real the whole time, but until you know where, it’s not as real. With a land-based settlement, you can actually walk in these guys’ footsteps, and it makes it that much more real.  But as far as me? No, it hasn’t changed me.

SATTERWHITE: So, you’re still the same old Tom Garner?
GARNER: Yeah, same old Tom. I still stop and look at old disturbed ground to see what’s there.

Discovering History with Tom Garner
WHAT: A lecture marking the two-year anniversary of the De Luna site discovery
WHEN: 7 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 11
WHERE: Open Books, 1040 N. Guillemard St.
COST: Free