Lesser Known Florida Hurricanes: Pensacola Bay (1559)

The Atlantic hurricane season is once again upon us. It’s time for preparation… and a little history.

Some of the most famous storms in the annals of hurricane history made landfall in Florida. The Sunshine State is certainly not alone in suffering from tropical weather; Hugo, Gilbert, Katrina, Mitch, and Sandy immediately come to mind.

We remember the devastation from Andrew, Charley, Donna, Jeanne, Francis and many others, but what about the lesser known hurricanes in Florida history? This series of blog posts takes a look back at lesser known hurricanes and other tidbits concerning tropical weather in Florida history.

Today, we look back at the storm that derailed Spanish attempts to establish a colony at Pensacola Bay in 1559.

"Plan de la Baye de Pansacola" by Jacques Nicolas Bellin (1744)

“Plan de la Baye de Pansacola” by Jacques Nicolas Bellin (1744)

On June 11, 1559, 1,500 colonists and soldiers under the command of Tristán de Luna y Arellano (1519–1571) left Mexico bound for the northern Gulf coast. They intended to establish a colony at one of the sheltered harbors along the coast and use the settlement as a base of operations for expanding Spain’s reach into the interior southeast.

On September 19, just five days after arriving at Pensacola Bay, a violent hurricane pounded the nascent settlement. De Luna later wrote to the King of Spain about the storm:

“…there came up from the north a fierce tempest, which, blowing for twenty-four hours from all directions…without stopping but increasingly continuously, did irreparable damage to the ships of the fleet…great loss by seamen and passengers, both of their lives as well as of their property. All the ships which were in this port went aground (although it is one of the best ports there are in these Indies), save only one caravel and two barks, which escaped. This has reduced us to such extremity that unless I provide soon for the need in which it left us…I do not know how I can maintain the people…”

Following the storm, de Luna sent a portion of the settlers and soldiers inland in search of provisions. Ultimately, their efforts to extort crops from Native American tribes failed and the project was abandoned within two years of de Luna’s initial landing at Pensacola Bay. The Spanish would not return to the area until 1698, when they reestablished a settlement that persists today as the American city of Pensacola.

To learn more, see Herbert Ingram Priestley, The Luna Papers, 1559-1561 (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2010); Roger C. Smith et al., The Emanuel Point Ship: Archaeological Investigations, 1992-1995, Preliminary Report (Tallahassee: Division of Historical Resources, Bureau of Archaeological Research, 1995); Roger C. Smith et al., The Emanuel Point Ship: Archaeological Investigations, 1997-1998 (Pensacola: University of West Florida, 1998). Copies of documents related to the failed colony are available at the State Archives of Florida, Tallahassee, in Series 1632: Historic Pensacola Preservation Board, Don Tristán de Luna y Arellano.

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