History of Pensacola, Florida

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Spanish map showing Pensacola as port of San Miguel de Panzacola (upper left) along coastline of the Florida Panhandle (map dated 1700, labeled in Spanish)

The history of Pensacola, Florida begins long before the official founding of the modern city in 1698. The area around present-day Pensacola was inhabited by Native American peoples thousands of years before the historical era. The historical era begins with the arrival of Spanish explorers in the 16th century. In 1559 Tristan de Luna established a short-lived settlement at Pensacola Bay which became one of the first European-established settlements in what is now the continental United States; however, it was soon abandoned.[1] In the late 17th century the Spanish returned to the area to found the modern Pensacola as an outpost from which to defend their claims to Spanish Florida. The city's strategic but isolated position led to it changing hands among different Western powers a number of times; at different times it was held by the Spanish, the French, the British, the United States, and the Confederate States of America.[2] [3]


The city was named after the Panzacola Indians, a tribe that lived near the bay when the Spanish arrived.[7] The area was first referred to as "Panzacola" in 1686,[7] when a maritime expedition, headed by Juan Enríquez Barroto and Antonio Romero, visited Pensacola Bay in February 1686.[7] Barroto and Romero had orders to survey essentially the entire northern Gulf coast from San Marcos de Apalache (near Tallahassee) westward, looking for the new French "lost colony" of René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle (which was found at Matagorda Bay, Texas in 1689).[7] The diary of their ensign Juan Jordán de Reina recorded that Native Americans in the region around Pensacola Bay called the area "Panzacola" after the Panzacola Indians of the area, and he judged the bay, "the best that I have ever seen in my life." [7]


The original inhabitants of the Pensacola Bay area were Native American peoples. At the time of European contact a Muskogean-speaking tribe known as the Pensacola lived in the region.[4] The area's recorded history begins in the 16th century, when the first European explorers came there. Early exploration of Pensacola Bay (called Polonza or Ochuse) spanned decades, with Ponce de León (1513), Pánfilo de Narváez (1528), and Hernando de Soto (1539) plus others charting the area.[5]

First Spanish period (1559-1719)[edit]

Pensacola is located on the site of one of the first European-established settlements in what is now continental United States

European exploration of the area began in the 16th century. In 1516 Diego Miruelo became the first European to sail into Pensacola Bay.[6] The expeditions of Pánfilo de Narváez in 1528 and Hernando de Soto in 1539 visited the bay, at which time it was known as the Bay of Ochuse.

One of the first European settlements in what is now the continental United States was established at the modern site of Pensacola by conquistador Don Tristán de Luna y Arellano in 1559. In one of several attempts by the Spanish to facilitate colonization of Santa Elena (now Parris Island, South Carolina), de Luna landed on Santa Rosa Island on August 15, 1559 and established a settlement of about 1,000 as a base for further exploration.[1][3][5] [6] Weeks later, the settlement and its fleet, carrying supplies, were decimated by a hurricane on September 19, 1559,[3][5] and after many attempts to divide and relocate the colony, the site was abandoned two years later.[3][5] The first settlement in the region was large, landing on August 15, 1559, [5] and led by Don Tristán de Luna y Arellano with over 1,400 people on 11 ships from Vera Cruz, Mexico.[3] However, weeks later, the colony was decimated by a hurricane on September 19, 1559,[3][5] which killed hundreds, sank 5 ships, grounded a caravel, and ruined supplies. The 1,000 survivors divided to relocate/resupply the settlement, but due to famine and attacks, the effort was abandoned in 1561.[3] About 240 people sailed to Santa Elena (today's Parris Island, South Carolina), but another storm hit there, so they sailed to Cuba and scattered.[3] The remaining 50 at Pensacola were taken back to Mexico, and the Viceroy's advisors concluded northwest Florida was too dangerous to settle, for 135 years.[3]

The Spanish later built 3 presidios in Pensacola, in 1719, 1722 and 1754. [7]

The Spanish later built 3 presidios in Pensacola: [7]

The present city of Pensacola was established by the Spanish in 1698 as a buffer against French settlement in Louisiana. Another important Spanish settlement had been established at Saint Marks in Wakulla county (San Marcos de Apalache) in 1733.[6] The Spanish settlers established a unique Creole culture in the region and brought in the first African slaves to the area and introduced the Roman Catholic Church.

In 1693, seven years later, Mexican Viceroy Gaspar de Sandoval Silva y Mendoza, the Conde de Galve (1688–1696),[6] sent General Andrés de Pez to explore the north Gulf coast from Pensacola Bay to the mouth of the Mississippi River.[6] The renowned Mexican scientist, mathematician and historian, Carlos de Sigüenza y Góngora,[6] accompanied Pez. The Pez-Sigüenza expedition consisted of two ships, leaving Veracruz in late March 1693 and reaching Pensacola in early April.[6] The Spanish re-christened Pensacola Bay as "Bahía Santa María de Galve" (after the Virgin Mary and the Conde de Galve, still Viceroy of Mexico at the time).[6] Arriving back in Mexico, Sigüenza wrote a glowing report and enthusiastically endorsed the notion of a settlement on the bay,[6] in his letter to the viceroy. One of the expedition's goals was to determine how flora and fauna in the Pensacola region could benefit the Spanish. Charged with such a task, Siguenza, prone to exaggeration, described a veritable paradise,[6] teeming with food resources and ample economic opportunities. The Mexican savant also wrote detailed descriptions of waterways in the area and described abundant trees on Blackwater River and East River as "lofty and stout, suitable for building ships of any draft".[6] Overlooking the many drawbacks that Sigüenza reduced in his report, the Spanish Crown endorsed the settlement of Pensacola Bay on June 13, 1694.[6] A year later, in 1695, Andrés de Arriola inspected both the mouth of the Mississippi River and Pensacola Bay but did not find the bay to be the paradise Sigüenza had described.[6] Preoccupied with King William's War (1689–1697), however, the Spanish delayed settlement of Pensacola until 1698.[6]

Previously, Pensacola Bay had been known as "Bahía Santa María de Filipina" as it was named so by Tristan de Luna when he founded the area's first settlement.[6] "Panzacola" was affirmed as the area's name by a royal order of Spanish King Ferdinand VI in 1757.

The Spanish resettled Pensacola in November 1698 under the direction of the first governor, Andrés de Arriola.[6]

The early years of settlement were extremely tenuous; the soil was poor, it was irregularly resupplied, and it was seen as an unpopular military posting due to disease, heat, and the poor conditions. French explorers had hoped to colonize the same site, and ended up founding Mobile, Alabama in 1699. This presence presented a risk to the Spanish, who had opposed the French in the Nine Years' War. Incursions into Spanish territory by traders from the Province of Carolina proved to be more problematic, especially after Queen Anne's War (1702–1713) made the French and Spanish allies against the English. During the conflict English-allied Creek Indians made repeated raids in the Pensacola area, and twice besieged the fort in 1707. The Indian population of northern Florida was virtually wiped out by English raids in the war, and those who survived fled to Pensacola, Mobile, and St. Augustine.[clarification needed]

French period (1719-1722)[edit]

Governor of French Louisiana, Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville, took Pensacola for France on May 14, 1719, arriving with his fleet and a large ground force of Indian warriors.[1] The Spanish commander of Pensacola, Metamoras, had not heard that war had been declared between France and Spain, and his garrison was so small that he felt it would be useless to resist: at four o'clock in the afternoon, he surrendered on the conditions that private citizens and property should not be disturbed and the garrison should march out with honors of war and be shipped to Havana in French vessels.[1] Bienville left about sixty men at Pensacola and sailed away.[1]

The French, who had established settlements also further west at Mobile and Biloxi, held Pensacola during this period. Overall, French influences were generally dominant among the Creoles on the Gulf Coast west of Pensacola, with Spanish influences dominant among Creoles in the modern Panhandle. A hurricane drove the French from Pensacola in 1722 and the Spanish moved the town from the storm-vulnerable barrier island to the mainland.[citation needed]

The French captured the settlement in 1719 and remained in control for three years. They burned the settlement upon their retreat in 1722.[citation needed]

Second Spanish period (1722-1763)[edit]

The area was rebuilt, but ravaged by hurricanes in 1752 and 1761.

Population growth remained modest during this period, which was characterized by missionary work with Indians and the development of Pensacola as an important port and military outpost. Conflict with French and British interests was common, although Spain's informal alliance with France meant that the greatest threat was from English pirates, smugglers and especially merchants, whose ability to sell goods more cheaply than Spanish companies diminished local support for the Bourbon monarchy in Madrid.

British West Florida (1763-1781)[edit]

Pensacola, 1885
British plan for Pensacola, 1765

Following Great Britain's victory in the Seven Years War (known in America as the French and Indian War) in 1763 the British took control of Pensacola under the terms of the Treaty of Paris (1763). It is during the British occupation that the area began to prosper. Pensacola was made the capital of British West Florida and the town was laid out in its current form around the Seville Square district by surveyor and engineer Elias Durnford. Working with Dunford was George Gauld (18th century British Naval Surveyor), who painted several views of Pensacola during the British colonial period. “Pensacola was becoming something more than a garrison town by the time Gauld made this splendid painting. There were now a number of fine houses and structures and an especially impressive Governor’s Palace while the fort had been strengthened and made more efficient. It seems likely the town had over two hundred houses made of timber. Pensacola was still, however, mainly a military and trading outpost, its principal link to the outside world being primarily by sea.”[8]

From 1763, the British went back to the mainland area of fort San Carlos de Barrancas, building the Royal Navy Redoubt, and Pensacola became the capital of the 14th British colony, West Florida. After Spain joined the American Revolution late, in 1779, the Spanish captured East Florida and West Florida, regaining Pensacola from (1781–1819).[2] In an 1819 Transcontinental Treaty (Adams-Onis), Spain renounced its claims to West Florida and ceded East Florida to the U.S. (US$5 million).[2] In 1821, with Andrew Jackson as provisional governor, Pensacola became part of the United States.[2]

At the end of the massive French and Indian War of 1756-1763, the British gained access to inland areas as far west as the Mississippi River and the French were expelled from the North American mainland. Louisiana was transferred from French to Spanish control. West and East Florida were transferred from French and Spanish control to British control. The British colony of West Florida, with its capital at Pensacola, included all of the Panhandle west of the Apalachicola River, as well as southwestern Alabama, southern Mississippi, and the Florida parishes of modern Louisiana. West Florida included the important cities of Pensacola, Mobile, Biloxi, Baton Rouge, and, disputably, Natchez. In 1763, the British laid out Pensacola's modern street plan. This period included the major introduction of the slave-based cotton plantation economy and new settlement by Protestant Anglo-British-Americans and black slaves. British East Florida, with its capital at Saint Augustine, included the rest of modern Florida, including the eastern part of the Panhandle.

During the American Revolution (1775–1783), the state of Georgia revolted against the British crown, but East and West Florida, like the Canadian colonies, remained loyal to the British. Many or Loyalists or "Tories", loyal to the king, relocated to Florida during this period. Like the French, the Spanish allied themselves with the Americans. In 1781, in the Battle of Pensacola, the Spanish attacked the British there and succeeded in capturing West Florida for Spain. At the end of the war with the American victory over the British, East Florida was also transferred to Spain. The British all left, but Spain sent only a few soldiers and settlers.

Third Spanish period (1781-1819)[edit]

The Spanish recaptured Pensacola in 1781 and retained control (excepting three short-lived invasions by American General Andrew Jackson in 1813, 1814, and 1818) until 1821, when the Adams-Onís Treaty ceded all of Spanish Florida to the United States.

The T.T. Wentworth Jr. Museum is built in the 19th century mission style, reminiscient of the Alamo.

The Spanish now controlled the entire Gulf Coast and Mississippi River Valley, a region vital for shipment of American goods such as cotton, tobacco, and corn. This situation was not acceptable for the American Southern settlers of inland Alabama and Mississippi, who were rapidly expanding profitable cotton plantations (and hoping to expel the remaining Indians from the entire region). After the transfer of the vast Louisiana territory from Spain to France and the subsequent purchase of the region by the United States, Spanish East and West Florida were surrounded by American Southern states and territories. Anglo-American settlement of West Florida increased and the Spanish, busy with growing rebellions throughout Mexico and South America, were not able to focus on fortifying the region. In 1810, American settlers in the part of West Florida west of the Pearl River declared the West Florida Republic a state independent from Spain. The region was annexed into the new state of Louisiana in 1812. The residents of the prosperous Alabama and Mississippi territories, eager to avoid being trapped in landlocked states without seaports, agitated to annex more of West Florida. They succeeded in doing so with the military aid of General Andrew Jackson. He captured much of West Florida in the 1810s. He briefly returned Pensacola to Spain but areas further west became part of the new states of Mississippi (1817) and Alabama (1819). In 1819, the United States once again captured Pensacola and, in 1821, all of modern Florida was transferred to the United States. Residents of Pensacola, where Anglo-Southerners now outnumbered Creoles, voted to become part of Alabama. However, as Pensacola was the largest city and most important port in Florida, Pensacola remained part of the new American Florida territory, giving Florida its current borders for the first time.

Ante-bellum (1821-1860)[edit]

A bust of Andrew Jackson at the Plaza Ferdinand VII, where Jackson was sworn in as Governor.

In 1825, the area for the Pensacola Navy Yard was designated and Congress appropriated $6,000 for a lighthouse. The first permanent Protestant Christian congregation (First United Methodist Church) was established in 1827.

The Pensacola area is home to three historic U.S. forts, Fort Pickens, Fort Barrancas, and Fort McRee, as well as Barrancas National Cemetery. The city and Fort Barrancas were the site of the 1814 Battle of Pensacola. Fort Pickens was completed in 1834. It holds the distinction of being one of the few Southern forts to be held by the United States throughout the American Civil War.

Andrew Jackson served as Florida's first territorial governor, residing at the capital of Pensacola. He was noted for his persecution of Indians and Creoles, many of whom left the territory to be replaced by an increasing number of Anglo Southern settlers, including many planters and black slaves. To determine a location for a territorital capital, riders on horseback were sent on the Old Spanish Trail from the territory's two main cities, east from Pensacola and west from Saint Augustine. The riders met at the Indian village of Tallahassee, which became the new territorial capital city. As cotton plantations flourished, Florida's growing population came to be 50% slave. In the Panhandle, most slaves outside of Pensacola were concentrated in the new capital of Tallahassee and in the plantation counties near the Georgia border, notably Jackson, Gadsden, Leon, and Jefferson. Sandier areas near the coast were less dominated by plantation agriculture.

On March 3, 1845, Florida was admitted to the Union as the 27th state. Its admission had been slowed by the struggle with the Seminole Indians in sparsely populated South Florida and the need to wait for a free state (Iowa) to enter along with it. North Florida, including the Panhandle, remained the most populated part of the state.

The local economy grew rich through the lumber industry, because of the abundant forest land in the area, the good harbor, and entrepreneurship. Starting in the 1830s steam power greatly increased the efficiency of the saw mills that produced finished lumber for export. Entrepreneurs included prominent civil and social leaders, including alderman Alexander McVoy, Joseph Forsyth and E. E. Simpson (who jointly owned one of the largest operations in the state), and W. Main L. Criglar (whose combined lumber and shipping interests produced a personal fortune of more than $300,000).[9]

Civil War[edit]

On January 10, 1861, Florida became the third state to secede from the Union to join the newly formed Confederate States of America. Fort Pickens, one of three forts guarding the entrance to Pensacola Bay, was held by Federal troops, and remaining Union forces in the city also evacuated there: the fort was never taken by Confederate forces. In the Battle of Santa Rosa Island in October 1861, the city of Pensacola and the two Confederate forts fought against an invading United States army and the forces stationed at Fort Pickens.

In May 1862 Pensacola was conquered by U.S. troops, and most of the city was burned. Residents evacuated inland to Greenville, Alabama.

The Confederate Secretary of the Navy, Stephen Mallory, was a Pensacolian and is buried in the city's historic Saint Michael's Cemetery.

Late 19th century[edit]

General William Dudley Chipley helped rebuild Pensacola after the Civil War. An obelisk was erected in his honor at the Plaza Ferdinand VII.
Blount Building, 1907, in the Palafox Historic District
Aerial cartoon view of Pensacola ca. mid-1930s

The ravages of Reconstruction greatly damaged the region's economy.[clarification needed][citation needed] While devastating for many former white Confederate veterans, newly emancipated African Americans saw more political freedoms than ever. Pensacola and Escambia County had more African American representation than ever before or ever since. Florida was readmitted to the Union on 25 June 1868.

Cotton, worked largely by the sharecropper descendants of freed slaves, remained crucial to the economy but slowly economic diversification and urbanization reached the region. Vast pine forests, their wood used to produce paper, became an economic basis. A brickmaking industry thrived at the turn of the twentieth century. Shipping declined in importance, but the military and manufacturing became prominent. Harvesting of fish and other seafood are also vital. Aside from cotton and pine trees, major crops include peanuts, soybeans, and corn. The Historic Pensacola Museum of Industry gives a detailed account of these turn-of-the-century foundations of the local economy.

Recent history[edit]

Having cultural ties to the old South, racism was very evident in the culture of the city in the 1950s and 1960s. In 1972, newly desegregated Escambia High School endured a bloody race riot after black students fought the school's band and other white students when the band played the school song, "Dixie," at a football game. After a larger riot in 1974, the school's mascot, a rebel, was subsequently changed to a gator.

The late twentieth century saw a dramatic increase in the beach-based tourism industry and the rapid development of previously pristine wilderness beaches, particularly those around Panama City, Fort Walton Beach and Destin, Florida. The region did not receive the twentieth century influx of northern retirees and Latin American immigrants and remained an Old South stronghold of mostly (excepting military families) native-born residents. Only in the last few decades has the tourism and retiree beachfront development characteristic of peninsular Florida reached the region. However, this development is now rapid and dramatic, despite periodic hurricane damage.

Many barrier island areas have gone from sand dunes and water to condos and houses; other areas remain undeveloped, especially the beautiful Gulf Islands National Seashore.

Tourism, based on a working class Southern clientele from nearby Alabama and Georgia, led many to call the region the "Redneck Riviera." Upscale locals in Pensacola, Panama City, and Fort Walton Beach disapproved of expanded tourism, citing problems of increased traffic, demands on public services and infrastructure, and higher property taxes. They talked of preserving the "Emerald Coast." However, nearby communities such as Destin and Panama City Beach embraced the new business opportunities and quickly outgrew their neighbors.[10]

Other notable facts[edit]

From 1886 to 1887, the famous Apache Indian chief Geronimo was imprisoned in Fort Pickens, along with several of his warriors and their families. Fort Pickens is now a part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore, and as such, is administered by the United States Park Service.


  1. ^ a b c d e "Floripedia: Pensacola, Florida" (history from source "The Founding of Pensacola" 1904), University of South Florida, 2005, webpage: USF-Pensac2.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g "Santa Rosa Island - a History (Part 1)" (regional history), Jane Johnson, NavarreBeach.org webpage: NBhist
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i "The Tristan de Luna Expedition" (history), Steve Pinson, Pensacola Archeology Lab, DeLuna-PAL.
  4. ^ Swanton, John Reed (2003). The Indian tribes of North America. Genealogical Publishing. pp. 136–137. ISBN 0-8063-1730-2. Retrieved September 23, 2010. 
  5. ^ a b c d e f "History" (Luna colony at Ochuse/Pensacola), State of Florida, 2007, webpage: FLH-history: describes Tristán de Luna preparations, landing August 15, 1559.
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p "The Spanish Presence in Northwest Florida--1513 to 1705" (history), University of West Florida, 2006, webpage: UWF-hist.
  7. ^ a b c d e "Presidio Isla de Santa Rosa" (history & excavations), University of West Florida, Pensacola, FL, 2003, webpage: UWF-SantaRosa.
  8. ^ Gauld, George. 1767. “British Pensacola.” Painting. Colonial Pensacola. 1974. Page 78.
  9. ^ John A. Eisterhold, "Lumber and Trade in Pensacola and West Florida: 1800-1860," Florida Historical Quarterly (1973) 51#3 pp 267-280.
  10. ^ Patrick Moore, "'Redneck Riviera' or 'Emerald Coast?' Using Public History to Identify and Interpret Community Growth Choices in Florida's Panhandle," Gulf South Historical Review (2003) 18#2 pp 60-91.

Further reading[edit]