Saturday, December 03, 2005

Celebrating Pensacola

We can't let the week close without acknowledging Troy Moon's contribution to Friday's Pensacola News Journal. He reported that local historians David Dodson and R. Wayne Childers have zoned in on what they believe to be the location of the first attempted European settlement in the continental United States of America.

"We've got it down to a 16-acre area" in downtown Pensacola, Dodson told Moon. "Hopefully, with support, we could have the settlement pinpointed and under excavation in 2009."

What's so special about 2009? It will be the 450th anniversary year of the landing of a Spanish expedition of would-be colonists led by Tristan de Luna y Arellano.

As Steve Pinson of the Pensacola Archeology Lab describes it on the web:
The force consisted of fifteen hundred soldiers and settlers, under six captains of cavalry and six of infantry... .

The colonists... sailed from Vera Cruz on June 11th, 1559... . Although [previous explorer Guido de] Lasbazares had recommended Filipina Bay, Tristan de Luna seems to have been induced by his pilots to give the preference to the Bay of Ochuse; and he sailed west in search of it, but passed it, and entered Filipina Bay. Finding that he had gone too far, Luna sailed back ten leagues east to Ochuse.

Here he anchored his fleet, and dispatched the factor Luis Daza, with a galleon, to Vera Cruz to announce his safe arrival.
What happened after this maladroit dithering was a bit of bad luck -- made worse by more of De Luna's dithering.
Before Luna had unloaded his vessels, they were struck, during the night of September 19th by a terrible hurricane, which lasted twenty-four hours, destroying five ships, a galleon and a bark, and carrying one caravel and its cargo into a grove some distance on land.

* * *
Many of the people perished, and most of the stores intended for the maintenance of the colony were ruined or lost.
We've never seen a credible explanation for why De Luna still had not "unloaded his vessels" -- some two months after arriving in Pensacola Bay. To those of us who live in the South, a relaxed work ethic is quite plausible. As a visiting friend from the North once observed, "Well, sure! There weren't any Yankees on the expedition to do the hard work."

As always, the hurricane story gets more heart-rending as you follow the aftermath. It's another study in rank incompetence, unnecessary suffering, death, hooliganism, thievery, armed insurrection, mutiny, and political leaders gone insane.

Sounds just like FEMA, doesn't it?

To survive, the remaining Spanish colonists apparently didn't think of fishing for food, wouldn't hunt, and didn't try growing their own food. Instead, nearing starvation, they marauded through the countryside, stole grain from what few Indian villages they could find, shot up other native villages, sent repeated calls for help back home to government headquarters, and eventually fell to fighting among themselves.

"Tristan de Luna was reluctant to abandon the projected settlement, and wished to proceed... with all the survivors of his force." However, we're told with some circumvention, he became ill. "His sickness ... left him so capricious and severe that he seemed actually insane."

Led by George Ceron, the camp master, virtually all of the settlers ignored De Luna's orders to continue slogging on and booked passage back to Cuba as fast as they could. Thus ended the first attempt to settle our part of the New World -- and, consequently, any hope of Pensacola might have of becoming the "the oldest continually populated settlement in what is now the United States."

You might think we'd have the grace to let this miserable chapter of Pensacola history fade quietly away, but noooo. These days, we name condominiums, office buildings, main streets, and probably, somewhere, even a school or two after the blundering, inept, and deranged Tristan de Luna. If this doesn't strike you as perverse, consider some future New Orleans boulevard called "Michael Brown Way."

(In yet another jape of history, nothing around here seems to have been named for the rebellious George Ceron, the one man who probably saved everyone's hide by his mutiny.)

Troy Moon reports that the local Chamber of Commerce has appointed a committee "to ensure that the 450th anniversary is celebrated in style" in 2009. Ironically, he adds, "Hurricane Ivan scuttled much of the planning over the last year, but the group will begin working in earnest early next year."

The Chamber shouldn't get its hopes up too high. Apparently, the committee is following Tristan De Luna's playbook.

"Right now," Moon reports, the committee has no clue "what the celebration will entail, how long it will last, when it will be or who might visit."

That can't please local businesses who are always hoping to attract hordes of well-heeled tourists. On the other hand, maybe things will work out. We just might be seeing seeds sown for a 450th Anniversary celebration of the floundering founding of Pensacola that will be very historically accurate.

Now that would be entertaining to watch!

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