Pensacola 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 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, slaves 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 the first European settlement 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.
Of course, the earliest history of Pensacola is the unwritten one about the native population, who called themselves 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.
It was de 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 became Florida’s first territorial governor in 1821, and his wife, Rachel, wrote words of praise for the bay’s natural beauty. Even so, they stayed only four months; 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.
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. Much of the Navy’s and Marines’ flight training and testing have occurred at the Naval Air Station in the ensuing years, earning it the moniker of “The Cradle of Naval Aviation.”
Hurricanes have been a part of Pensacola’s history since the one that walloped de 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.
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.