A Campsite of Tristan de Luna

on Mobile Bay?

                                                     by:  Caleb Curren




The recent discovery of a Spanish map dating to the 1500s may shed light on one of the longest-lived mysteries in the archeology of the Southeast.  The map has led to the development of a testable hypothesis concerning a possible campsite on Mobile Bay of the 1559 Tristan de Luna expedition to the northern Gulf Coast.  The following article first tells the story of the events leading up to the camp, then the story of the historic map itself, and finally to the artifacts that could possibly be from the Luna expedition.  A detailed method of testing the hypothesis is also presented.  The hypothesis may or may not be accurate. 

The testing has begun. 


The Campsite


During the mid-1500s the Spanish Crown was concerned that European enemies would usurp lands claimed by Spain in la Florida along the coasts of the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean.  Spanish fleets of ships laden with gold were also being attacked along the coastlines.  Consequently, a fortune was spent to organize and supply a Spanish fleet of approximately 13 ships and 1500 people led by veteran conquistador Tristan de Luna to establish several colonies on the Gulf Coast and the interior.  The writings left us by these people are invaluable in piecing together the story of the expedition.  The following information is based on these writings (Priestley 1928 a-b, 1936;  Childers and Dodson n.d.).


The fleet probably landed in what is today Pensacola Bay (Ochuse Bay).  The colonists managed to establish a crude colony site on the bay shore and eventually, after a horrific hurricane, moved inland in two groups via water and trails to the riverside native village of Nanipacana, probably on the current lower Alabama River.  After staying at Nanipacana during a portion of the spring and early summer of 1560, the starving colonists moved down the river to Mobile Bay (Filipina Bay) where they established a temporary campsite.




Figure 1: Spanish Expedition Landing in the New World, Public Domain Postcards, Dixie Cards, Pensacola, Fla, Color by Mike Roberts


The stay in the campsite on Filipina Bay was short lived.  The specific time spent there is vague, at least a week and possibly longer.  This is not much time for artifacts to accumulate, but still, with about 1,000 people camped on the bay shore for a week or more could result in detectable archeological remains.  This possible scenario  may have been enhanced by the arrival of supply ships from Mexico approximately a week after the establishment of the Filipina campsite.  Off-loading large amounts of supplies at the campsite would almost certainly have resulted in cast-off or lost materials.


The “Horsehide Map”


In 2005, while searching through archival collections in Paris, two Pensacola historians, David Dodson and Wayne Childers, came across an important map of the New World.  Detailed photographs were taken and returned to the U.S.A. (Childers and Dodson n.d.). 


The map was drawn by an unknown cartographer during the second half of the 1500s, probably soon after the Luna expedition left la Florida in 1561.  The mariners map was drawn on parchment and mounted on the hide of a horse.  It provides considerable detail of the coastline of the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean.  Part of that detail includes the names of the bays of the Luna expedition, Ochuse and Filipina.  The names of these bays on maps of the period are very rare and are apparently included on the horsehide map to indicate that in the mid-1500s  Mobile Bay was named Filipina Bay and Pensacola Bay was named Ochuse Bay.  The primary colony site of the Luna expedition was established on Ochuse Bay, but a temporary campsite for some 1,000 Spanish was also established on Filipina Bay according to documents of the expedition.  


Drawn on the horsehide map are “lines of navigation” that cross in areas of both Mobile Bay and Pensacola  Bay.  The crossing lines on the map seem to indicate a Spanish settlement near the mouth of the Mobile Delta as well as one on Pensacola Bay.  The crossing lines on Mobile Bay led me to remember a report written in the 1970s concerning excavations at an important aboriginal site (1Ba196) at the mouth of the delta (figs. 2-3). The site also contained European artifacts that were suggested as French but never conclusively identified (DeJarnette et al. 1976) (table 1). 



I re-read the report of excavations and compared the European artifacts (table 1) found at the Mobile Bay site to those found at a 16th Century Spanish colony site on the Atlantic coast known as Santa Elena (1566-87).  A comprehensive report of Spanish artifacts from the Santa Elena site was completed in 1988 (South, Skowronek, and Johnson 1988).  The artifacts from the Mobile Bay site appear similar to a few of the many artifacts from Santa Elena. 

These artifact comparisons are not yet conclusive.  The Mobile Bay artifacts may or may not be 16th Century Spanish in origin.  This article is presented as a hypothesis proposing that the Mobile Bay artifacts could be 16th Century Spanish and could even be from the Luna campsite on Filipina Bay.  Plans are made to test the hypothesis and determine the actual dates of the items.




Figure 3: Shell Midden at site 1Ba196 during the 1970's.  The lower zone of the site is Terminal-Woodland-Early Mississippian (Tensaw Lake Phase/Plaquemine/Moundville I-like/Early Pensacola) and the upper zone is late Mississippian (Bear Point). Portions of the site appear churned by storms (per Com. Ned Jenkins 2006).




Site 1Ba196


A large shell midden (1Ba196) was discovered in the 1970s on the shore of Mobile Bay during an archeological survey funded by the Archaeological Research Association of Alabama (Curren and Stowe 1971: pg. 21).   Later, excavations were conducted prior to the building of Interstate 10 across Mobile Bay (DeJarnette et. al. 1976).  A sample of approximately 33 European artifacts were found mostly in the lowest occupational zones of the site. 

At the time, none of the artifacts appeared particularly diagnostic of the Spanish, French, or British occupations of the area; hence, the origin of the artifacts was not conclusively determined in the report of findings.   

Much research into the 16th Century has been accomplished since the 1970s.  There is, at least, a possibility that all or some of the 33 artifacts could date to the 1500s.  The following pages provide illustrations of a sample of the artifacts.

(provided by Eugene Futato of the Univ. of Alabama Museums)






A Sample of the Artifacts

  Iron Cotter Pins

The 1Ba196 cotter pin appears similar to the Santa Elena cotter pins in size and shape.  More detailed comparisons of these and other 1Ba196 artifacts need to be completed. 


Figure  6:  Iron Cotter Key from Site 1Ba196.  (Photo Provided by Mound State Monument, Univ. of Alabama)



Figure  7:  Iron Cotter Keys from the Spanish Santa Elena Site.  (South et al. 1988, pg. 185)



Wrought Iron Tacks

Iron tacks were found at both Santa Elena and 1Ba196.  Tacks from the Mobile Bay site disintegrated during preservation attempts, so we only have text descriptions to compare with the Santa Elena tacks. The descriptions follow:



“Short, wrought iron round-headed tacks were the most numerous single class of historical artifacts at 1Ba196.  Of  the nine whole examples recovered, seven were found within the Zone D concentration (table 1).  Efforts to clean some of these tacks by electrolysis failed because each had been almost completely oxidized while buried.  In addition, several fragmentary tacks, apparently of the same form, were recovered.”

(DeJarnette et al. 1976: pg. 91).


Santa Elena:

“Nail type 1 is a large headed iron tack called estoperoles.  These were used inside ships to fasten grass matting (esparto) to stanchions for holding cargo in place during shipment. When the cargo was unpacked the mats were removed and some were likely reused in Santa Elena…..


A total of 35 of these tacks were found in Santa Elena and 41 in Fort San Felipe.  ...the average distance across the head of the tacks is 22 mm, with the average length of the shank being 28 mm.  The head width is about 80% of the length of the shank.  The wide head allowed for greater purchase of the tack on the matting they were designed to hold.”

(South et al. 1988: pg. 57).


Additional 1Ba196 artifacts are

presented on the following pages




Figure  8: Spanish Nails and Tacks from 16th Santa Elena, 1566-87.  (South et al. 1988, pg. 45)



Figure  9:  1Ba196, Iron Spike and Nails (Photo Provided by Mound State Monument, Univ. of Alabama)



Figure  10:  1Ba196,  Iron Riding Spur  (Photo Provided by Mound State Monument, Univ. of Alabama)



Figure  11:  1Ba196,  Iron Boat Cleat Fragments  (Photo Provided by Mound State Monument, Univ. of Alabama)




Figure  12:  1Ba196,  Sheet Brass Fragment  (Photo Provided by Mound State Monument, Univ. of Alabama)





Figure 13:  Iron Bars

(Photo Provided by Mound State Monument, Univ. of Alabama)









Testing the Hypothesis


The hypothesis proposed in this article is testable.  Basically stated, the hypothesis is that site 1Ba196 on Mobile Bay may contain the remains of a short-lived campsite of the Luna expedition located on Filipina Bay during the summer of 1560 (Priestley 1928, vol. I : pgs. xlvi-xlviii;  vol.II: pg. 121;  Priestley 1936: pgs. 144-150).


To test the hypothesis, several procedures are being initiated.  First, photographs and descriptions of the European artifacts from 1Ba196 are being sent to specialists skilled in the identification of Spanish artifacts from the 1500s.


Second, efforts are being made to conduct micro-structural analysis of a sample of the iron artifacts from 1Ba196.  The goal is to obtain a relative date of the artifacts by comparing their composition to Spanish artifacts from known sites dating to the 1500s.


Third, members of the field and lab team who worked on site 1Ba196 are being contacted and interviewed for their recollections of the 1970s excavations.  Emphasis is being placed on the descriptions and proveniences of the European artifacts from the site.


Questions still remain to be answered.  Are the 1Ba196 artifacts from the Tristan de Luna or a later historic occupation?  If the artifacts are 16th Century Spanish, are they from the Luna campsite?  The results of the hypothesis testing will, hopefully, be soon concluded. 




Childers, R.  Wayne and David B. Dodson

  n.d.  Davila Padilla, The Expeditions to La Florida. Manuscript in Preparation.

Curren, Caleb and Noel R. Stowe

  1971    An Archeological Survey of Portions of South Alabama.  Submitted to the

  Archeological Research Association of Alabama from the Univ. of South Alabama. 

DeJarnette, David L., (ed.),  Jerry J. Nielsen, Ned J. Jenkins, Vernon J. Knight, Caleb Curren,

  Kathleen D. Shaw, and Mark F. DeLeon

  1976  Highway Salvage Excavations at Two French Colonial Period Indian Sites on Mobile Bay,   Alabama.  University of Alabama Museums, Tuscaloosa.

Priestley, Herbert I.

  1928a  The Luna Papers Volume I.  The Florida State Historical Society.

  1928b  The Luna Papers Volume I.  The Florida State Historical Society.

  1936  Tristan de Luna, Conquistador of the Old South. 

  Arthur H. Clarke Company.  Glendale, California. 

South, Stanley, Russell K. Skowronek, and Richard E. Johnson

  1988  Spanish Artifacts from Santa Elena.  Anthropological Studies 7. Occasional papers of  the   South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology. The University of

  South Carolina. 



The following made contributions to the completion of the article:  David Dodson, Jerry Gill, Ned Jenkins, Mike Kenney, Tower East, Eugene Futato, Gene Wilson



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