Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

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Ill-Fated Galleon Volume 51 Number 1, January/February 1998
by Roger C. Smith

From Emanuel Point, a low bluff overlooking Pensacola Bay on the Gulf of Mexico, one can look out toward the final resting places of dozens of ships dating from colonial to modern times. Electronic probes of portions of the bay, conducted by the Florida Bureau of Archaeological Research, have yielded the remains of more than 40 watercraft, including early sloops and schooners, steamships and freighters, as well as modern barges and powerboats. Until 1992, however, no remains from the Spanish colonial period had been found, though scholars were well aware that the bay had been a landing site for Spanish colonists during the sixteenth century. Then in late October 1992 my teammates James Spirek, Della Ireton, and Chuck Hughson detected a magnetic anomaly that led to the discovery of a low mound of ballast stones lying on a sandbar. Encrusted with oysters, the partially buried pile appeared to have been incorporated into the bottom over a long period of time, providing an artificial reef for generations of shellfish.

The source of the magnetic anomaly was a large wrought-iron anchor, buried fluke-down at the shoreward edge of the ballast mound. The shank of the anchor had been twisted and broken off just below the lugs that would have held its wooden stock in place. Test units in the center of the mound revealed that the well-preserved lower hull of a large sailing ship lay beneath the stones. The shape of the anchor and the architectural features of the mainmast step assembly and bilge pumps gave us the first indications of the ship's origin and antiquity. Months of exploration and artifact analysis led us to conclude that the wreck had been one of the larger vessels in a Spanish fleet led by Tristán de Luna y Arellano, one that in 1559 brought some of the first European immigrants to the Southeast in an attempt to colonize La Florida.

As a vessel of colonization, the Emanuel Point Ship offers a first look at Hispanic immigration and settlement patterns from a maritime perspective. The few other known sixteenth-century shipwrecks in the Americas have given us insights into the nature of early Iberian maritime exploration, transatlantic fishing, and mercantile fleets. The ships of the Luna expedition, on the other hand, were maritime moving vans transporting people and their belongings from one colony to another. The Emanuel Point Ship is providing us with tantalizing clues to this early seaborne migration.

Roger C. Smith is the state underwater archaeologist for the Florida Division of Historical Resources.

* Click here for the Emanuel Point Ship site.

© 1998 by the Archaeological Institute of America