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At early colony, "People kind of died in waves'

Archaeologists find mass graves underneath the 300-year-old site of a church in a Spanish settlement at Pensacola.

Archaeologists have discovered mass graves at Pensacola's second Spanish settlement, bearing witness to disease and violence that killed an estimated 2,500 people over a 21-year span.

The victims were wrapped in shrouds and buried beneath a church inside a wood fort at what is now Pensacola Naval Air Station, said Judy Bense, director of the University of West Florida's archaeology institute.

"I had no idea we had mass graves," Bense told the Pensacola News Journal. "People kind of died in waves here. Terrible diseases. Massive violence."

The settlement dates back 300 years. Pensacola was occupied by Spain, France and Britain before becoming part of the United States. An earlier Spanish settlement, established in 1559, was abandoned after only two years, battered by a hurricane and dissension.

The university is completing a $340,000 project to examine life at Fort San Carlos de Austria and the surrounding settlement, Presidio Santa Maria de Galve, established in 1698. The project coincided with Pensacola's tricentennial last year and includes a partial replica of the fort, armed with two cannons unearthed at the site.

Historians know the Spanish fought thieves within their own ranks and Indians in the settlement's early years. French soldiers from what is now Mobile, Ala., captured the fort in 1719 when the two countries were at war. The Spanish retook the fort but lost it again in a third battle. Spain regained Pensacola by treaty in 1722 and moved across Pensacola Bay on Santa Rosa Island.

Archaeologists discovered skeletal remains last year but at first discounted their importance, thinking they had been buried near a hospital in the fort. Since then, however, it has been determined the mass graves were beneath the fort's church.

There were signs bodies had been buried on top of each other and some were not laid in the traditional east-west manner. No caskets were found.

"People were dug through to put in more people," said historical archaeology student Marie Pokrant, a site supervisor during the dig. "It could possibly mean they were running out of room."

The archaeologists did not search for all possible graves and reburied the remains.

Sifting dirt from the graves they made another important discovery: four dime-size blue glass man-in-the-moon beads. They are among the earliest French artifacts found in Pensacola. Mobile is the only other place they have turned up in the Southeast. The beads are more common in the Midwest where they were traded to Indians.

A French brass crucifix and Jesuit copper rings also were found, an indication Spanish and French settlers traded with each other when they weren't fighting.