Skip to comments.Rare Artifacts Shed New Light On Spanish Outpost On (Florida) Panhandle
Posted on 07/11/2004 12:47:14 PM PDT by blam
Rare artifacts shed new light on Spanish outpost in Panhandle
By BILL KACZOR
Published Sunday, July 11, 2004
Associated Press Writer
SANTA ROSA ISLAND, Fla.
A flood of rare artifacts and the rotted remains of wooden buildings offer surprising insights into life at a Spanish presidio, or military outpost, that vanished under the shifting sands of this barrier island 250 years ago.
University of West Florida archaeologists and students, aided by public volunteers, last year recovered more than 40,000 artifacts, and they are digging up more this summer.
What they've found shows Presidio Isla de Santa Rosa was more than a typical military and penal colony. Family life also thrived there.
"The numbers are incredible," said Judy Bense, director of West Florida's Archaeology Institute. "Not only that, what we're finding are things that we don't usually find."
Most are personal items, many typically associated with women. They include pieces of figurines, earrings, bracelets, cufflinks, keys, colorful pottery and rosary beads. Guns, bullets and other military artifacts common at other presidios have been found to a lesser extent here.
The Santa Rosa presidio lasted 30 years through 1752. It was hidden by sand, scrub oak and palmetto until discovered four decades ago at Gulf Islands National Seashore near Fort Pickens, a Civil War-era structure at the island's western tip.
Archaeologists were intrigued by the results of a much smaller dig in 1964, but Bense is overseeing the first excavation since then. Financed with a $233,000 state grant, it is a three-summer public archaeology project that combines research and hands-on student training with tours for park visitors.
Santa Rosa is the third of four Spanish colonial sites in the Pensacola area.
The first Spanish settlement in what now is the United States was founded at Pensacola in 1559 but abandoned after only two years. The location is a mystery, but archaeologists have found the wreck of a galleon sunk by a hurricane in Pensacola Bay after bringing colonists from Mexico.
The Spanish did not return until more than a century later in 1698 at Presidio Santa Maria de Galve, now Pensacola Naval Air Station. The French captured and burned it in 1719 but handed Pensacola back to Spain three years later.
Santa Maria, on the mainland, was vulnerable to Indian attack, so when the Spanish returned in 1722 they built a fort, more than 50 buildings and dozens of fences on the island site, surrounded by water on three sides and a swamp on the fourth.
The attacks stopped, but the Spanish had another problem. A series of hurricanes forced them to repeatedly rebuild or repair.
"We've got architectural remains everyplace we put a shovel in the ground," Bense said.
When yet another hurricane battered the island in 1752, the Spanish established their fourth site, Presidio San Miguel de Panzacola, which is now downtown Pensacola. In doing so, they left behind a treasure-trove of artifacts on Santa Rosa.
Bense likens the site to Pompeii, a Roman city preserved in time when a volcano covered it with lava in 79 A.D.
"When people are running for their lives, they're not worried about if they are taking their shoes, if they've got their little treasure of jewelry, if they've got their kitchen dishes," she said. "They're worried about getting out."
The island's soft white sand is another reason for the wealth of artifacts. Drop a coin and it soon will vanish.
"The sand is an artifact trap," Bense said.
That's what may have happened to a cloak button inscribed "Royal Martyr" and picturing King Charles I of England, one of the rarest items yet found.
The king, married to a Roman Catholic, was beheaded in 1649 during a civil war, giving rise to a cult that carried on his effort to restore Catholic rituals to the Church of England.
There are several possible explanations for how the button got to Santa Rosa. The Catholic Spaniards may have been sympathetic to Charles or obtained it in trade from Indians allied with the British, said project director Norma Harris, an instructor at West Florida.
The site also contains artifacts from Mexico, France, Holland and China. Some may have come through Port Dauphin, part of the French colony at Mobile, Ala.
"It was wide open," Bense said. "Any ship from any port would sell to anybody with money."
The Santa Rosa colonists relied on their French enemies for food and other consumables because the Spanish viceroy in Mexico City never sent enough, Bense said.
The island site also is intriguing for archaeologists because it has been undisturbed for so long. "That is a huge advantage," Bense said. "Almost everywhere else they kept reoccupying the same spot."
Development has overtaken parts of the island, which stretches more than 50 miles from Pensacola to Destin, but the presidio site is protected because it is in the National Seashore. That means the National Park Service owns all artifacts although they can be loaned to the university and other entities for study and display.
The site may get an additional layer of protection if a bid to make it a National Historic Landmark is approved, said Nina Kelson, the park's deputy superintendent.
With such a complex project, care must be taken to prevent sand excavations from collapsing while a high water table requires pumps and a network of pipes to keep the holes dry.
The late local historian Norman Simons, who lived on the island, spent years searching for the site before finding telltale artifacts in 1962. Two years later, Florida State University anthropologist Hale Smith conducted the first dig that turned up items such as keys for music and jewelry boxes and colorful pottery. That was the first indication of the presidio's feminine side.
"We were mystified by all these weird artifacts," said Bense, who's had her eye on the site since 1978 but held off until she had enough experience and money. "Everyone wondered if it was really real. Me, too. It was. It is."
I have some 7,000 year old wood from an old forest that was dredged from the Santa Rosa Sound.
University of West Florida archaeologists and students, aided by public volunteers, last year recovered more than 40,000 artifacts, and they are digging up more this summer."
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What could have happened? Perhaps some North African Islamicists managed to sneak into Spain and blow up a wagon train, so the Spaniards at this New World outpost got scared and went scurrying back home with their tails between their legs?
Sounds wonderful. Wish I could see it.
Ahem, the wood or the sand?
While roaming the sand, I guess I was around 13, I found an old corroded brass button about the size of a quarter. I figured it was from the Civil War.
I never told anyone about it and kept it in a box for as long as I can remember. Haven't seen it in maybe 20 years. I don't think I will be able to find it again but am going to make an effort.
Just wonder after seeing that thing about the button they found.
Pensacola is beautiful as is all of the gulf coast - now if they can keep people out of the area, it might stay that way.
Really super good diving around there as well - super vis and plenty to look at - sunken ships and all.
I could never get stationed there but was able to swing a lot of TDY - esp over the weekend type so as to get in some diving....
"The Santa Rosa colonists relied on their French enemies for food and other consumables because the Spanish viceroy in Mexico City never sent enough, Bense said. "
French merchants selling goods to their country's enemies? Boy times have changed...
after their 3rd hurricane in 1752 the presidio was abandoned and they moved the settlement to the mainland
the French in Mobile and the Spanish in Pensacola weren't always at war..... that is 'sworn enemies'
the trade between the two was mutually beneficial, and only stopped when the parent nation's tempers flared... or they felt their territory was threatened
one could say the Mobilians and Pensacolans had more in common with each other than their parent nations... having to suffer the same hardships...
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Very very interesting. I live in St. Augustine, where some of the expeditions that established missions and settlements in the Panhandle set out from. St. Augustine also underwent incredible hardship, but survived, although just barely at times. The European settlement of Florida was amazingly difficult.
bump for tomorrow