PENSACOLA, Fla. — About 400 years after storms sent a Spanish fleet to a watery grave, historians are taking a step that could lead to finding the ships that brought some of the first European settlers to North America.
Although time has taken its toll on the ships, some archeologists believe that the fleet could be in fairly good shape.
And finding any remnants would be a boon to learning more about a period of time that left little physical evidence behind.
For Pensacola, it would up the ante in a friendly battle with St. Augustine, on the Atlantic coast, over which city has the most right to a "first."
And it could finally settle a long debate over the precise site where the ill-fated settlers came ashore.
St. Augustine is recognized as the oldest city in the United States. But six years before it was founded, the Spanish government tried to set up a colony at "Puerto de Anchusi" in the northern Gulf of Mexico, near what is now Pensacola.
In August, 1559, Spaniard Don Tristan DeLuna led 1,500 soldiers and sailors on seven to 13 ships into Pensacola Bay.
Within a month, a storm devastated the newcomers.
One survivor later recalled that the storm was so violent a ship was tossed into the woods "like a shot from an arquebus, " an old-fashioned gun.
All but three ships were destroyed, along with cattle, horses and tools.
One ship went for help while settlers went inland--as far as present-day Montgomery, Ala.--in search of Indian camps. They resorted to boiling leather for soup and eating acorns. Several hundred survivors were rescued in 1561, and DeLuna returned to Spain for an inquest.
Four years later, Pedro Menendez de Aviles led five ships and 600 people to Florida's east coast and founded the settlement of St. Augustine. It has been inhabited ever since.
Another attempt to settle Pensacola would not be made until 1698, but that too failed. A third try in 1722 on a nearby barrier island succeeded, and the settlers later moved to present-day downtown Pensacola.
Today, St. Augustine has the recognition; Pensacola is a footnote.
Such treatment has angered more than one civic leader. In a recent column, newspaper editor J. Earl Bowden fumed over the two sentences about the city in a National Geographic story about New World explorations of the 1500s.
Bowden, writing that he had hoped that Pensacola would be prominently mentioned in the article, recounted the story of DeLuna's landing and ended his column with "so there."
Pensacola may eventually end up with a bit of history St. Augustine does not have: remnants of a Spanish fleet that never returned home.
For nearly 429 years DeLuna's ships and their supplies have rested on the seabed. The area has since claimed other vessels and planes, and limited surveys have recorded underwater "anomalies." To underwater researchers it's a gold mine.
"There has been a longstanding public preoccupation with Spanish treasure galleons in Florida that has overshadowed the vast amount of maritime shipping and history that went on in this part of the world," said Roger Smith, state underwater archeologist, who sees Pensacola as rich in underwater data.
"It's one of the areas in Florida where there are a number of ships lost," Smith said. "It is a place where a good deal of the maritime history of Florida is centered."
On Saturday, an underwater archeological conference will be held in Pensacola. The entire spectrum of the bay's maritime history and projects that could be done in area waters will be discussed, Smith said.
But he said it would be misleading to say the state is focusing on the DeLuna fleet. The 1559 shipwrecks are simply a small part of the overall history of the bay, albeit an important part, he said.
"I think it's premature to say exactly what the plans that our offices here have for the DeLuna fleet. There is a tremendous interest, and professionally that's the period of time that I know most about," he said.
Norm Simons of the Pensacola Preservation Board said historical accounts suggest that the ships had not yet been unloaded when the hurricane hit. And if the ships went down in the bay, the relatively calm waters provide some chance that remnants might survive on the floor of the bay.
Simons said items of gold, glass, ceramic, copper, brass and other materials survive well after shipwrecks.
"The potential for the preservation of ship remains in Pensacola, as compared to many other regions in Florida, is quite good because it has rivers that come into it, and there is a lot of mud and silt and a lot of sand as opposed to other parts of Florida where you have an exposed coast and high-energy wave action and reefs and so forth," Smith said.
Other shipwrecks from the same period have been found elsewhere. Three ships that sunk in 1554 were found near Padre Island, Tex. Two other wreck sites in the Caribbean date to the early 16th Century and are "the oldest ones that we've been able to find in the Western hemisphere."
"On all three of these sites there were wooden hull remains to one degree or another," Smith said.
"And in an area like Pensacola where you have rapid deposition of silt and sand and mud, as opposed to offshore on a reef, the potential for wooden hull remains are quite good," he said.
Artifacts have already been found in the Pensacola waters that may have been brought by the 1559 settlers. A coin and a soup bowl were found in the past three years in Pensacola Bay and Santa Rosa Sound.
"One day, somebody is going to go ahead and discover either the area (where) they had the settlement or the remains of one of DeLuna's vessels," Simons said.
"There are a lot of us that are looking, doing something about it."