Pensacola, Florida
Monday August 20th 2018

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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.

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