History of Pensacola, Florida

Pensacola, Florida is one of the oldest towns in Florida and is located in Escambia county.

Pensacola, also holds a rich history as one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements in the United States. The area’s story is deeply intertwined with various cultures, nations, and conflicts.

Pre-European Settlement:

Before the arrival of European explorers, the Pensacola Bay area was home to several Native American tribes, including the Muskogean-speaking Pensacola people and the Tocobaga.

These indigenous groups thrived in the region for thousands of years, relying on the abundant natural resources provided by the bay and surrounding areas.

European Exploration and Colonization:

In 1559, Spanish explorer Don Tristán de Luna established the first European settlement in the present-day United States at Pensacola Bay.

However, the settlement faced numerous challenges, including hurricanes and conflicts with the indigenous populations, leading to its eventual abandonment in 1561.

In 1698, the Spanish returned to the area and established a new settlement named “Presidio Santa María de Galve,” which marked the beginning of a more sustained presence. The Spanish influence in the region grew as they established various forts and missions.

British and French Period:

During the 18th century, Pensacola’s ownership changed hands several times. In 1719, the French captured the city but returned it to Spain in 1722 as part of the Treaty of Paris.

The British gained control of Pensacola in 1763 after the Seven Years’ War (French and Indian War) but returned it to Spain in 1781 during the American Revolutionary War.

American Era:

Pensacola became part of the United States in 1821 when Florida was acquired from Spain through the Adams-Onís Treaty.

As a result of its strategic location on the Gulf of Mexico, Pensacola played a significant role during the Civil War, with both Union and Confederate forces vying for control of the area.

Naval Aviation and Military Presence:

In the early 20th century, the U.S. Navy recognized the strategic importance of Pensacola and established the first U.S. Naval Air Station there in 1914.

This marked the birth of naval aviation in the United States, and the base has since become a crucial training center for Navy and Marine Corps aviators.

Modern Pensacola:

Today, Pensacola is a vibrant city known for its beautiful beaches, historical sites, and strong military presence. The city’s rich history is evident in its architecture, museums, and cultural heritage, making it a popular destination for tourists and history enthusiasts alike.

Throughout its history, Pensacola has experienced significant events and developments that have shaped its identity.

From indigenous communities to European colonization, wars, and the establishment of a naval aviation hub, Pensacola’s journey has been a fascinating and integral part of American history.

The following is a timeline of the history of Pensacola, Florida:

1559:

  • In August, Pensacola is temporarily settled by Spanish explorer Tristan de Luna.
  • A few weeks later, a hurricane strikes the area and sinks all but three of Luna’s ships.

1561:

  • By 1561, most of the settlers have left and all that remains is a military outpost which is abandoned shortly later.

1698:

  • Spain establishes a fort in Pensacola, called Fort San Carlos de Austria, and a new settlement begins to take shape around it.

1719:

  • French forces destroy Fort San Carlos de Austria.
Official Seal of Pensacola, Florida
Official Seal of Pensacola, Florida
  • Spain surrenders Pensacola to France during the War of the Quadruple Alliance. Over the course of the next century, Spain, France and Britain battle over Pensacola.

1752:

  • A destructive hurricane on Santa Rosa Island prompts the Spanish settlers to move to a site in Pensacola with a freshwater stream, which is now modern day Spring Street, where they build a small fort called San Miguel.

1763:

  • Florida is ceded to the British after the French and Indian War ends.
  • The British build a naval redoubt on the Barrancas “Red Cliffs.”
A view of Pensacola in West Florida circa 1770
A view of Pensacola in West Florida circa 1770
  • Pensacola becomes the capital of West Florida.

1781:

  • The governor of Spanish Florida, Bernardo de Galvez, attacks Pensacola and the British surrender on May 9. The Spanish take possession of Pensacola Bay and all the British forts.

1787:

  • The Spanish build Fort San Carlos de Barrancas on the site of the Royal Navy Redoubt and they build Battery San Antonio below it.

1804-05:

  • The Julee Panton house is built on Zaragoza Street.

1805:

  • The Charles Lavalle House, a French Creole period style house, is built on Church Street.

1807:

  • St. Michael’s Cemetery is established on North Alcaniz Street, although it had been used by the colonial community as a burial ground since 1786.

1814:

  • On November 7-9, the Battle of Pensacola takes place, during the War of 1812, between the Americans, the British and the Spanish. During the battle, General Andrew Jackson leads an attack against the Spanish and British forces who eventually surrender. Jackson returns Pensacola to the Spanish and they rebuild Fort San Carlos de Barrancas, which had been destroyed by the British during the battle.

1818:

  • In May, General Andrew Jackson returns to Pensacola, believing the Spanish were encouraging Native American raids in the American territory, and attacks the Spanish garrison at Fort San Carlos de Barrancas. The Spanish surrender the fort.
  • Ten months later, the United States returns Pensacola to Spain.

1821:

  • Spain cedes Pensacola to the United States.
  • On July 17, General Andrew Jackson attends a flag ceremony at Plaza Ferdinand VII during which the Spanish flag is removed and the American flag is raised in its place.
The Plaza fountain at Plaza Ferdinand VII, Pensacola, Florida circa 1905-1915
The Plaza fountain at Plaza Ferdinand VII, Pensacola, Florida circa 1905-1915

1822:

  • Pensacola is incorporated as a city in Florida.

1823:

  • The first Pensacola Light, a lightship called the Aurora Burealis, is established in Pensacola Bay.

1825:

  • The Pensacola Lighthouse, a 40-foot lighthouse tower, is built on the south entrance of the Pensacola Bay.
  • The Pensacola Naval Yard is established and plans are made for its construction on U.S. 98 West.

1832:

  • The Old Christ Church is built on Adams Street.

1834:

  • Fort Pickens is built on Santa Rosa Island.

1838:

  • Barrancas National Cemetery is established on Cemetery Road.

1850:

  • The population of Pensacola is 2,164.

1858:

  • A new lighthouse is built on the north side of the Pensacola Bay.

1860:

  • The population of Pensacola is 2,876.

1861:

  • On January 10, Florida secedes from the Union.
  • On January 10, knowing that his small force of 50 soldiers can’t defend Fort Barrancas if the Confederates attack, U.S. Army Lieutenant Adam J. Slemmer, commander of the 1st U.S. Artillery at Fort Barrancas, spikes the guns at the fort, blows up the ammunition at Fort McRae and relocates all his troops to Fort Pickens.
  • On April 12, the Naval Yard is surrendered to Confederate forces but Fort Pickens remains under control of the Union forces.
Confederate camp, Warrington Navy Yard, Pensacola, Florida, in 1861
Confederate camp, Warrington Navy Yard, Pensacola, Florida, in 1861
  • In May 1862, Confederate forces abandon the Navy yard, Fort Barrancas, and Fort McRae due to the continued presence of Federal forces at Fort Pickens.

1870:

  • The population of Pensacola is 3,347.

1871:

  • The Clara Barkley Dorr House, a Victorian-style house, is built on South Adams Street.
  • The King–Hooton House, a vernacular-style house, is built for Margaret E. King on North Seventh Avenue.

1876:

1879:

  • The Pensacola Bar Beacon, a square pyramidal wooden tower with a beacon, is built near the Pensacola Lighthouse.

1880:

  • The population of Pensacola is 6,845.

1881:

  • Construction begins on the First Methodist Church, a Romanesque Revival-style building, on North Palafox Street.

1886:

  • The Christ Church Parish School is built on Church Street.

1887:

  • The US Customs House and Post Office is built on Palafox Place.

1890:

  • The Lear-Rocheblave is built on Zaragoza Street.
  • The Marzoni House, a Quenn Anne-style house, is built for for Louis D. Marzoni, son of Antonio Marzoni, a local newspaperman, on East La Rua Street.
  • The population of Pensacola is 11,750.

1895:

  • St. Michael’s Creole Benevolent Association Hall is built on East Governor Street.

1900:

  • The population of Pensacola is 17,747.

1901:

  • The James House is built on what is now modern day Martin Luther King Boulevard and it later became the home of General Daniel “Chappie” James Jr.
  • The Thiesen Building is constructed on South Palafox Street.

1902:

  • The L&N Marine Terminal Building is constructed at the Commendencia Street Wharf.

1906:

  • The Sacred Heart Catholic Church is built on East Moreno Street.

1907:

  • City Hall is built on Jefferson Street.

1910:

  • The San Carlos Hotel, a seven story hotel designed by New York architect W. L. Stoddard, is built on North Palafox Street on the former site of the First Methodist Church.
  • The population of Pensacola is 22,982.
San Carlos Hotel, Pensacola, Florida, circa 1905-1915
San Carlos Hotel, Pensacola, Florida, circa 1905-1915

1911:

  • The Pensacola Naval Yard is decommissioned.

1912 – 1913:

  • The Louisville and Nashville Passenger Station and Express Building is built on North Alcaniz Street.

1913-14:

  • The Pensacola Naval Air Station is built on the former site of the Naval Yard.

1915:

  • The Pensacola Hospital is built on North 12th Avenue.
Government Street, Pensacola, Florida, circa 1905-1915
Government Street, Pensacola, Florida, circa 1905-1915

1918:

  • The Mount Zion Baptist Church is built on West Jackson Street.

1920:

  • On February 11, General Daniel “Chappie” James Jr is born in Pensacola.
  • The retired USS Massachusetts is brought to Pensacola Bay Naval base and used as target practice until it sank.
  • The population of Pensacola is 31,035.
Plaza and harbor, Pensacola, Florida circa 1910-1920
Plaza and harbor, Pensacola, Florida circa 1910-1920

1925:

  • The Saenger Theatre is built on South Palafox Place.

1927:

  • The John Edmunds Apartment House is built on Gadsden Street.

1930:

  • The population of Pensacola is 31,579.

1932:

  • The Crystal Ice Company Building is constructed on North Davis Street.

1933:

  • The San Carlos Hotel on North Palafox Street is demolished.

1940:

  • The population of Pensacola is 37,449.

1950:

  • The population of Pensacola is 43,479.

1958:

  • Escambia High School is founded on North 65th Avenue.

1960:

  • The population of Pensacola is 56,752.

1961:

  • On April 25, members of Pensacola’s NAACP Youth Council stage a sit-in at the segregated lunch counter at Woolworth’s Five and Dime store on South Palafox Street.

1962:

  • On March 12, the City of Pensacola desegregates its lunch counters.

1969:

  • Escambia High School is desegregated.

1970:

  • The population of Pensacola is 59,507.

1972:

  • A race riot breaks out at a Escambia High School football game when the school band plays the school song “Dixie” at the game.
  • Throughout the school year, African-American students at Escambia High School continue to protest the school’s mascot, which is a Confederate rebel, the school’s team name, the Rebels, the school’s song, Dixie, and the school’s use of the Confederate flag.

1973:

  • Escambia High School changes its team’s name to the Raiders.

1976:

  • On February 4, an impromptu school election is held at Escambia High School in which students vote on whether to keep the name “Raiders” or change it back to “Rebels.” The majority of the students vote to keep the name “Raiders.”
  • On February 5, hundreds of white students, who are upset about the election results, gather outside the school and attempt to raise a Confederate flag on the school’s flag pole, which starts a violent riot between the white students and the black students. The violence last four hours, during which four students are shot, 30 students are inured and the school is heavily damaged.

1977:

  • On July 13, the Ku Klux Klan petition the Escambia County School Board to hold a meeting at Escambia High School. The board voted 5 – 1 against the petition.

1980:

  • The population of Pensacola is 57,619.

1985:

  • A new city hall building is constructed at Government Center.

1988:

  • The T.T. Wentworth Jr. Florida State Museum opens in the former City Hall building on Jefferson Street.

1990:

  • The population of Pensacola is 58,165.

2000:

  • The population of Pensacola is 56,255.

2010:

  • The population of Pensacola is 51,923.

For more info on this topic, check out this article about historic sites in Pensacola.

Sources:
Jones, D. Maxine and Kevin M. McCarthy. African-Americans in Florida. Pineapple Press, 1993.
King, Wayne. “Racial Animosity Turns to Violence in Pensacola, Florida, on Issue of Calling High School Teams ‘Rebels.” New York Times, 7 March. 1976, .nytimes.com/1976/03/07/archives/racial-animosity-turns-to-violence-in-pensacola-fla-on-issue-of.html
“Pensacola Lunch Counter Sit-Ins.” Waymarking, waymarking.com/waymarks/WMX2JA_Pensacola_Lunch_Counter_Sit_Ins
Frenette, Hana. “Celebrating change spurred by sit-in, 55 years later.” Pensacola News Journal, 24 April. 2016, pnj.com/story/news/2016/04/24/celebrating-change-spurred-sit–55-years-later/83400232/
“Pensacola Navy Yard.” NPS.gov, National Parks Service, nps.gov/places/pensacola-navy-yard.htm
“Barrancas National Cemetery.” National Cemetery Administration, cem.va.gov/cems/nchp/barrancas.asp
“Historic Pensacola Village.” American Heritage, americanheritage.com/content/historic-pensacola-village
“St. Michael’s Cemetery GIS.” University of West Florida, uwf.edu/centers/geodata-center/portfolio/st-michaels-cemetery/
“About St. John’s Cemetery.” St. John’s Cemetery, stjohnsdb.com/about.html

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