Florida Property Where Early Spanish Colonial Artifacts Were Unearthed Is Up For Sale
When Ben and Jenny Welu decided to demolish their old home a few years ago to make way for the new, they triggered a chain of events that opened a revealing window into the world of Pensacola, Florida in the 16th century.
In 2015, artifacts dating to the mid-16th century were discovered on their property. The artifacts have provided tremendous insight into a Spanish settlement where Spanish explorer Don Tristán de Luna established the first permanent European colony in North America in 1559, six years before the St. Augustine settlement in Florida and nearly 48 years before the English settled in Jamestown, Virginia.
The Welus are selling the property for $2.5 million and undoubtedly will have a fascinating story to tell their son when he is old enough to fully understand the significance of the location.
Their property has been officially declared an archaeological site by the University of West Florida, which announced the discovery of the Luna settlement in 2015 based on the findings from the Welus’ property.
The residential lot is within view of two uncovered shipwrecks in Pensacola Bay that were also linked to the Luna expedition. The exact location of the site has not been revealed to protect the neighborhood and integrity of the site.
Four years ago, the Welus were renting a property off site while workers were demolishing their old home to rebuild a new one.
“The existing structure that we purchased, the house that was previously here, had an in-ground pool,” says Jenny. “We had demolished the house and dug up the pool. When the workers demolished it and built and leveled it, it rained. Then all of the artifacts were scattered across the surface.”
Tom Garner, a local historian, was in the area when he noticed ground disturbed on the private lot. Shards of pottery and artifacts that were viewable from the street piqued his curiosity. Garner spotted a shard of pottery that he identified as the rim of an olive jar dating to the mid-16th century. At that point, Ben says, “Tom was able to connect the dots.”
Garner had read the translated version of Don Tristán de Luna’s papers years earlier and identified the neighborhood as a possible site for Santa María de Ochuse, the colony Luna founded.
Jenny, who was pregnant at the time, says archaeologists with the University of West Florida (UWF) had been trying to contact Ben and her because the Welus wanted to be present when construction workers dug up the concrete footers. “They needed to find context as to where the artifacts were on the property,” she says.
The Welus granted a five-day window so that the university team could excavate about half an acre of land before construction began on their new home. After multiple visits and surface collections, Garner, who had been trained in professional archaeological methods at UWF, took the artifacts to the university’s archaeology lab on Oct. 30, 2015.
The university received permission from the property owners to investigate further. Archaeologists began test excavations at the site and recovered numerous shards of broken 16th-century Spanish ceramics found undisturbed beneath the ground surface, according to the university’s website. They are believed to be pieces of assorted cookware and tableware, including liquid storage containers called olive jars.
Small personal and household items were also among the findings, including a lead fishing line weight, a copper lacing aglet and wrought iron nail and spike fragments. Additionally, the team recovered beads known to have been traded with Native Americans. These items are consistent with materials previously identified in the shipwrecks offshore in Pensacola Bay.
The couple halted all digs on the property once construction began on their house. “We haven’t had digs since,” says Ben.
Jenny says the University of West Florida reached out to residents and property owners, seeking their cooperation and support as they examined the neighborhood to determine the extent of the site.
“A lot of our neighbors participated in that, and they were able to get a better timeline and a better idea of what the community looked like from that,” she says.
Ben says the area was essentially the town center. “The highest concentration of artifacts were found on our property,” he says. “It’s also been where they’ve been able to do the most site digs.”
The stunning discovery was a bit stressful, admits Ben. “Let’s just say that when the discovery was made I kind of went into a panic mode and kind of agreed to disagree to let them on the premises to dig through the footers. I was worried they were going to find a body or something and halt construction, and we were going to have to rent longer. We had a brand new baby.”
The Welus are leaving all decisions on future digs, including a large portion of undisturbed area on the property, to the next home buyers. The new owners would have to deal with excavations at their discretion.
Ben says security surrounding the home has not been an issue, although the property is “generally under a pretty watchful eye.” He says, “Some people are sitting on their porch at all hours. We haven’t had any issues. There have definitely been people walking in the neighborhood, taking pictures. They know, but other than what’s happened word of mouth, there’s been no official disclosure.”
The charm of Spanish oak trees frames the Welus’ four-bedroom, four-bath home situated on about two-thirds of an acre near Pensacola Bay. The newly-constructed home of about 4,000 square feet includes two living spaces and a flex space/office. Above the garage, is an in-law suite.
Restaurants, businesses, grocery stores and parks are within walking distance. “I walk my paddle board down to the bayou and go paddle boarding,” says Ben. “It’s a really unique area.”
“The value is in the whole property, not in individual artifacts,” explains broker associate and history buff Elisa Macon of Kaiser Sotheby’s International Realty in Orange Beach, Alabama.
“We want to make sure we have the right purchaser out of respect for history and posterity and for Pensacola,” she says. “This is a historic site, the likes of which I’ve never known or represented. It would be suitable for a family home and bed and breakfast, as a historical attraction or a donor could donate the artifacts to the university.”
Macon says there would be a tax benefit because the owner of the property would be in control of the artifacts found on the site.
“The artifacts have no value in each piece alone,” she explains. “Their value is in the historical significance and the research to be done on them. But the donor of this property could live on the property and have a substantial multimillion-dollar donation to the university for a tax benefit.”
Now that the dust has settled, the Welus, who are both in sales jobs, are preparing to downsize. “This house is more than we can handle,” says Ben. “We didn’t expect that going into it. It’s an effort to take care of this much property as busy as we are. It literally has been a three-year blur. The history of it all, the enormity of it all is just now starting to sink in and realizing where we are and how special this place is.”
The discovery is so far-reaching that the City of Pensacola announced in April a new tagline and official image: “Florida’s First & Future,” celebrating where Florida’s history began and capturing the city’s “promising path ahead.”