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The Public Record 5/12/11

by MAXWELL CHASE

Dear Maxwell,
I would like to know about some of the shipwrecks that have been found around Pensacola.
-Paul W.

The Florida Bureau of Archeological Research has identified over 40 shipwrecks in Pensacola Bay that range from schooners and steamships to modern barges and powerboats. The most important discovery, however, came in 1992, when a team of archeologists detected a magnetic anomaly on the ocean floor. It turned out to be a piece of what they had always been searching for: Don Tristan de Luna’s sunken fleet. Until that point, no remains from the Spanish colonial period had ever been discovered, even though scholars maintained that Pensacola’s founding history lay buried beneath the sea.

The source of the magnetic signature was a large, wrought-iron anchor that was buried in 12 feet of water just off of Emanuel Point in Pensacola Bay. Upon inspection, archeologists found the well-preserved lower hull of a large sailing ship buried beneath a low mound of ballast stones. The structure was protected by a dense layer of oyster, clam and mussel shells bound in compacted silt. Generations of sea-life surviving on the ship’s remains created a protective barrier that helped preserve the site. After months of exploration and artifact analysis, it was determined that the ship was one of the larger vessels in Luna’s fleet that was decimated by a hurricane shortly after his expedition arrived in 1559. The
discovery was dubbed the Emanuel Point Shipwreck. The 16th- century galleon is the oldest vessel found in Florida, and the second oldest in the United States.

The University of West Florida led two excavations of the site in 1994 and 1997. To date, divers have brought more than 5,000 artifacts to the surface. The primary cargo items such as food, tools and personal items were missing from the wreck, which led archeologists to believe that Luna’s men salvaged the goods following the hurricane. However, the items that were recovered represent a broad range of material culture. Among them are: cannonballs, light artillery, an iron breastplate, Aztec pottery, and a copper pitcher and cooking cauldron. One especially important discovery was a Spanish coin called a blanca. Members of the American Numismatic Society identified the coin and determined that it was minted between 1471 and 1474. Blancas were one of the primary methods of exchange among the first Europeans in the New World, thus reinforcing the ship’s time period. Divers also found mercury among the rubble that the colonists brought to extract silver and gold from ore.

Archeologists paid special attention to the bilge, which acted as a time capsule of garbage. It allowed them to surmise much about the sailor’s diet and lifestyle. The bilge revealed animal bones, fruits, nuts and even cockroach eggs.
In the summer of 2006, following a churning of the ocean floor by Hurricane Ivan, UWF archeologists made a second discovery—a second Luna ship. Although much smaller, the second ship was discovered about 1,300 feet away from the first. It was called the Emanuel Pass II. Today, in between funding lulls, researchers continue to unlock Pensacola’s past one piece at a time.

Do you have a local history question for The Public Record?
Email it to thepublicrecord@inweekly.net & we’ll see what we can dig up.