Pensacola Pride

Spanish shipwrecks, naval air station – plenty of change in 450 yearsPensacola PrideFor 450 Years, the Panhandle City Has Weathered Adversity to Emerge as One of Florida’s Gems  

By Rosanne Dunkelberger

On Aug. 15, 1559, Don Tristan de Luna y Arellano sailed from Mexico (after a pit stop in nearby Mobile) into Pensacola Bay with 11 ships, 80 days’ worth of provisions, 1,500 settlers, soldiers, Africans and Aztec warriors – and dreams of establishing a glorious Spanish colony.

That’s 60 years before the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock, 40 years before Jamestown and – pay attention now, this one is important – six years before St. Augustine. Civic boosters proudly proclaim Pensacola to be one of the first European settlements in the United States.

In its 450 years, Pensacola has existed under five flags – Spain (three different times), France, England, the Confederacy and the United States – and has compiled an intriguing history shaped by confrontation, commerce, disease and natural disaster. The city has made an impact on state, national and world history – as well as sharing a few ties with Tallahassee.

Of course, the earliest history of Pensacola is the unwritten one about the native population, known historically as the Panzacola, a Choctaw word for “long-haired people.” They, like all of the other native Floridians, would ultimately disappear, victims of conflict and disease introduced by European explorers.

Alonzo Alvarez de Pineda sailed by and mapped the coastline in 1519, but there is no indication he actually made landfall.

Pensacola also makes a brief appearance in the story of the ill-fated expedition of Panfilo de Narvaez. His five ships and 600 men landed somewhere near Tampa Bay in 1528. After being told by the natives that he would find gold in “Appalachen,” he and a contingent of men left the ships and went overland to an area that includes present-day Tallahassee. Finding no gold and antagonistic natives, the group decided to head to the coast and back to civilization. But after a year of looking, his ships had sailed back to Mexico, so the expedition created six rafts, attempting to return home. Three of them wrecked near Pensacola and one – which included de Narvaez – was swept out to sea. Only three men would make it back to Mexico to tell the tale.

Which leads us to Luna, who brought the first group actually attempting to settle in the area. Unfortunately, within five weeks of landing, all but three of his ships were wrecked in the bay when a hurricane blew through – a natural phenomenon that continues to create turning points in Pensacola’s history, as recently as 2004’s Hurricane Ivan.

Because Luna’s ships wrecked in relatively shallow water, archaeologists believe the top parts stuck out of the water and could be partially salvaged. They were lost to history until 1992, when a team scanning the bay bottom found a large anchor in just 12 feet of water that turned out to be from one of Luna’s ships. A second wreck from the expedition was discovered by University of West Florida archaeology students and is currently being excavated.

The anchor is now the centerpiece of an exhibit about the Luna expedition at the downtown T.T. Wentworth Jr. Florida State Museum that takes visitors on a walk through Pensacola’s early history. (Wentworth was an avid collector who showed his findings at a roadside attraction in nearby Ensley. Some of his most popular oddities – including the Mummy Cat and the Big Shoe – are still on display at the museum.)

History shows that Luna was wealthy and well connected – but he probably wasn’t the best choice to lead an expedition to a harsh new land. When their provisions on the ship were decimated by the hurricane and relief supplies were slow in coming, many of the settlers abandoned the colony and some soldiers mutinied. Natural plant food sources weren’t abundant, the land was poor and, apparently, the group didn’t have much fishing expertise. Luna eventually left a few years later, sick, broke and defeated by the venture.

This is why, even though de Luna hit the beach in Pensacola a few years earlier than Juan Menendez de Aviles started his settlement, St. Augustine maintains the title of America’s “Oldest City” – because it has been continuously occupied since its founding.

It would be 133 years before the Spanish would return for their second crack at settling Pensacola, in 1698, after hearing that the French were planning an expedition to the area.

Most Tallahasseeans are familiar with the tale of Mission San Luis. Threatened by an invading force of British soldiers and their Creek allies in 1704, the Apalachee people and Spanish residents of the mission burned their village and fled westward. Many would make their way to Pensacola. They continued on, but the Apalachees left behind a technique for creating pottery that has been found on Pensacola-area artifacts studied by archaeologists.

The War of the Quadruple Alliance, which pitted Spain against France, Britain, Austria and the Dutch, brought European power plays to the colonies when a small Spanish garrison surrendered to a French invasion force in 1719.

Two months later, the Spanish regained Pensacola (this one was the Presidio Santa Maria de Galve, located at the entrance to the bay, not the current site of downtown Pensacola), and the town was passed back and forth over the next two years. The French did not have a significant impact on the area – no buildings or major improvements survive from that period – but there was a distinct French influence. France held the nearby settlements of Mobile, Biloxi and New Orleans, and there was much trade and intermingling between them.

A 1722 treaty would put Pensacola back in Spanish hands. The French had burned the fort, so the Spanish decided to resettle on nearby Santa Rosa Island (now home to Pensacola Beach). It would be wiped out by a hurricane 30 years later, and the colonists retreated to the mainland, which would be struck by another hurricane after just eight years. Like earlier attempts to colonize Pensacola, the existence was hand-to-mouth and settlers had to rely on supplies shipped in from elsewhere to survive.

Pensacola would once again become a pawn in the machinations of the European powers when the 1763 Treaty of Paris, ending the French and Indian War, ceded control of Spanish Florida – which included Pensacola and large amounts of land in present-day Alabama and Mississippi – to the British.

Although the British would hold on to their Florida territories for only about 20 years, they did bring some prosperity to the city, including laying out the street grids that remain in modern-day Pensacola.

Because it was so isolated, Pensacola remained loyal to the British as the American Revolution was underway in the eastern colonies. But because England was focused on the war, Spain was able to reclaim Florida in 1781. Historians suggest that having Florida in Spanish hands benefited the fledgling United States, because it did not have to worry about the British, who controlled Canada, attacking from a southern front.

After the war, Pensacola was still a Spanish outpost surrounded by U.S. territories and Southern states with American pioneers looking for new places to settle.

Andrew Jackson would briefly capture Pensacola three times between 1813 and 1818, and ultimately Florida territory – with Pensacola as its capital – was given over by treaty to the United States.

Jackson would become Florida’s first territorial governor in 1821, and his wife, Rachel, wrote words of praise for the bay’s natural beauty. Even so, they only stayed four months, because it was still a frontier town and susceptible to outbreaks of yellow fever. In 1824, Tallahassee would become the territory’s capital, according to that oft-repeated tale, because it was halfway between Florida’s two major – and somewhat competitive – main cities at the time, St. Augustine and Pensacola.

The goal of the centrally located capital was to encourage people to settle in an area with very good soil and “fill in the gap” between the two established cities, says Margo Stringfield, an archaeologist and research associate at the UWF Archaeology Institute.

Florida became a state in 1845, when the issues dividing North and South were already fomenting. (Florida entered the union as a slave state, paired with free state Iowa.) When the Civil War began, Florida – and Pensacola – became part of the Confederacy. Union soldiers retreated to Fort Pickens, on Santa Rosa Island at the mouth of Pensacola Bay. Although the soldiers couldn’t do much more than defend themselves, the position was strategic and allowed the Union to effectively blockade the port. The Confederates would hold sway over Pensacola for only a short while; soldiers and citizens would evacuate the city in 1862 and the Union would take over.

Pensacola’s sandy soil was never good for agriculture – which is why there were no antebellum plantations in the area – but the city had success with shipping, warehousing, brickmaking, timber and naval supplies.

True stability and prosperity would come to Pensacola when the Naval Air Station was established in 1914 on a strategic point that has been home to forts since the city’s colonial days. It was the Navy’s first base dedicated to flight and came just 11 years after the Wright Brothers made history at Kitty Hawk. Much of the Navy’s and Marines’ flight training and testing has occurred at the Naval Air Station in the ensuing years, earning it the moniker of “The Cradle of Naval Aviation.” It grew to be a hub of naval aviation during the 20th century and, with 17,000 military and civilian personnel, the Naval Air Station continues to be an important part of Pensacola’s identity.

Hurricanes have been a part of Pensacola’s history since the one that walloped Luna 450 years ago. While the city has seen its fair share in modern times, it was 2004’s Hurricane Ivan that locals use as a watershed moment. The storm roared into Escambia Bay, bringing a mighty storm surge that washed away a large section of Interstate 10 and flooded much of the city’s downtown and Santa Rosa Island, causing damage estimated at $6 billion. Every building at the Naval Air Station was affected, and the city’s second-largest economic engine – tourism – was derailed for several years.

But as it has throughout the years, Pensacola rebuilds and rebounds, with new hotels, plans for a waterfront park, an active arts and culture community and a 450-day celebration of its history.

Celebrating Pensacola’s 450th AnniversaryA 450th birthday is a once-in-a-lifetime event, and Pensacola has planned a party to commemorate the anniversary of the first European settlement in the United States. The good news: You’re invited.

The highlight of the 450-day celebration is Aug. 15, 2009, which marks the day 450 years ago when Don Tristan de Luna landed in Pensacola. The day starts with a seaside Mass and ends with a grand celebration at the Pensacola Civic Center. During the rest of the day, there will be food, celebration and fun, as well as some loosely historic reenactments.

In February, the city welcomed King Carlos I and Queen Sofía of Spain, who took a truly “royal” tour of Pensacola’s sites of interest over two days.

Other significant events throughout 2009 include:

April 2-5 – The Pensacola Wine Festival will feature Spanish wines and a paella cook-off as well as a reserve wine tasting hosted by Pensacola Celebrity Chefs.

May 1 – Beginning on this night, the Pensacola Museum of Art will exhibit the works of renowned Spanish artist Miguel Zapata.

May 8-9 – A commemoration of the Battle of Pensacola, a Revolutionary War battle that ultimately resulted in the British surrender of Florida, is scheduled. Events will include a children’s day at Fort George, a nighttime historic tour on May 8 and a reenactment of the conquest on May 9.

May 9 – A celebration of Pensacola’s diverse cultures will be celebrated at a Heritage Festival on downtown’s Palafox Street.

June 3-9 – The tall ship Juan Sebastian de Elcano will stop by for a visit at the Plaza de Luna in downtown Pensacola.

June 4-11 – Get a preview of the de Luna landing at the 60th Annual Fiesta Days Celebration and Boat Parade.

Nov. 21 – The newly renovated Saenger Theatre is the showcase for “A Night of One Voice,” which will feature dozens of choirs from the Pensacola Bay area.

For more information, visit BackPensacola is chock-full of opportunities for learning about the area’s long and colorful history. Here are just a few:
For a one-stop history lesson, you can’t beat downtown’s Historic Pensacola Village. There is the T.T. Wentworth Jr. Florida Museum (with free admission), as well as a self-guided walking tour of archaeological sites. There are Commerce and Industry museums, as well as one of the oldest surviving church buildings in Florida and a collection of historic houses with guided tours – as well as reenactors offering a wealth of interesting information about life in the past.

It’s a stretch, but while you’re sunning and funning on Pensacola Beach, you might want to recall that Santa Rosa Island was the site of a small colonial settlement and that the western tip is home to the Civil War-era Fort Pickens. Hurricane Ivan washed out the only road to the fort in 2004, but repairs are nearly complete to once again make it accessible by land.,

Contributors to the TripAdvisor Web site proclaim the National Naval Aviation Museum at the Naval Air Station to be Pensacola’s No. 1 attraction. You could make a day of eyeballing the collection of 150 meticulously restored planes, as well as exhibits about aviation history – made even more interesting by volunteer guides who are happy to point out the significance of particular planes. The in-house cafe is an actual South Pacific bar that was reassembled on the site. There also are Top Gun simulators, an IMAX theater and a bunch of cockpit trainers where kids are invited to flip switches and push buttons to their heart’s content. On Tuesday and Wednesday mornings from March to November, you can see the Blue Angels as they practice. Also on the Naval Air Station property is the Pensacola Lighthouse. Despite storms, lightning strikes, fire and a Civil War battle or two, the lighthouse is still functioning.

The last above-ground remnant of colonial history, St. Michael’s Cemetery is the final resting place for generations of inhabitants. It includes gravesites representing all of the nationalities who contributed to the region’s history – Spanish, French, Irish, African and Greek, to name just a few.

For more information about these and other historical sites, go to

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