Pensacola was the site of three 18th century frontier presidios (fortified frontier settlements) supported by New Spain (Mexico) to protect the western border of Spanish West Florida from French intrusion from Louisiana. The presidios were named Santa Maria de Galve (1698-1719), Santa Rosa (1722-1752), and San Miguel (1754-1763). The first two presidios were destroyed, the French burned Santa Maria and Presidio Santa Rosa was destroyed by a hurricane. San Miguel was peacefully overtaken by the British and demolished. While nothing remains above ground of the original presidio communities, all have now been located and UWF archaeologists and students have studied all three. Presidio Isla de Santa Rosa was partially excavated during three field seasons, from 2002-2004. UWF maritime archaeologists and students also studied the associated wreck of a frigate, the Rosario, that sunk in 1705 while servicing Presidio Santa Maria.
Located on the western tip of Santa Rosa Island at the entrance to Pensacola's extensive bays, Santa Rosa was the largest presidio settlement on the Gulf of Mexico. However, after being battered twice by hurricanes in 1741 and 1752, Mexican officials decided to abandon the island location and move the settlement across the bay to the mainland at what is now downtown Pensacola. After the settlement was abandoned, it was never occupied again. Until the advent of vehicles and bridges, the island was quite inaccessible, and as a prime defensive location, was kept in government hands. Today it is a part of Gulf Islands National Seashore. The only impacts to the site since 1752 have been the piling of dredged sand on the shore, placing a World War II railroad bed across the site, and digging a ditch adjacent to the old railroad bed. Because the site of Presidio Santa Rosa has been bypassed since it was destroyed in a catastrophic hurricane and abandoned, the archaeological remains are exceptionally well preserved.
The late Hale G. Smith, founder of the Department of Anthropology at Florida State University, was one of the first Spanish colonial historical archaeologists in the Southeast. Alerted to the location of Presidio Santa Rosa by G. Norman Simons, a Pensacola Beach resident and later curator for the Historic Pensacola Preservation Board, Smith excavated part of the site with his summer field school students and local volunteers in 1964. Smith published a report of his work there the following year ("Archaeological Excavations at Santa Rosa Pensacola," Notes in Anthropology, Volume 10, Department of Anthropology, Florida State University, 1965). Because of the exceptional architectural remains and artifacts he discovered, scholars have cited this short report ever since it was published.
Presidio Santa Rosa can be considered the "Crown Jewel" of Pensacola's 3 presidios. Not only was it the largest Mexican/Hispanic colonial settlement on the Gulf of Mexico, but it is the best preserved because of its catastrophic ending, immediate abandonment, and following isolation. Since Smith's brief excavations in 1964, there had been many advances in technology, archaeological methods, and knowledge, and UWF archaeologists put these to work at the site during the 2002-2004 excavations.
Three years of investigation at the site yielded a wealth of information, which culminated in a nomination to the National Register of Historic Places and five reports on the excavations including a final technical report. As with all UWF archaeology projects, professors in archaeology, history, and environmental studies guided a diverse team of graduate and undergraduate students, volunteers, and consultants in this endeavor. Support for this research was also broad and included Gulf Islands National Seashore, UWF, the State of Florida, and generous donations from friends in the community.
The site of Presidio Isla de Santa Rosa is located on the north side of Santa Rosa Island, a narrow barrier island that separates the Gulf of Mexico from Pensacola Bay in Northwest Florida. The island is over 50 miles long with white sandy beaches and dune ridges separated by marshy wetlands. The vegetation, stunted by salt and wind, includes patches of dense palmettos, oaks and pines. For a closer look, click on the images below.