As a child, I spent my summers with my paternal grandparents in Pensacola, Florida. In the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, Pensacola was a sleepy little city completely out of the American mainstream. Because my grandfather was a retired Naval Officer, we had full access to the facilities at the Pensacola Naval Air Station. My grandmother had grown up in Pensacola and you couldn’t throw a rock without hitting one of my many cousins. We spent our days playing baseball and swimming in Jenny’s hole, a perfectly clear and ice cold spring-fed creek with a sand bottom. One of our great treats would be a day trip to Santa Rosa Island and Pensacola Beach. My grandparents would set up shop in one of the public picnic areas. My grandfather and I would always go and visit Fort Pickens, the only U.S. Fort to remain in Union hands throughout the War for Southern Independence, as well as the place of imprisonment for Geronimo, the Apache chief.
Every year Pensacola would celebrate the Fiesta of Five Flags, and as a result, I was aware that the city had a long and interesting history. We visited the site of Fort San Carlos de Brannacas, and I was generally aware of the city’s Spanish heritage. Few Pensacolians knew much about the area’s political and military importance for nearly a 500 year period. It was difficult to believe that such a laid back place could have been a key player in the great game of nation building and international intrigue.
The Spanish explorer Ponce De Leon landed in Florida in 1513, just 21 years after Columbus had stumbled upon the West Indies. He noted the present day site of St. Augustine and charted Pensacola Bay. Over the next fifty years other Spaniards paid visits to both areas, but in 1559 the Viceroy of Mexico dispatched an expedition to the site of Pensacola Bay with 11 ships and over 1400 soldiers, priests and settlers. They were chargeded with establishing a permanent settlement to control the great natural harbor. This attempt to settle the Pensacola Bay area pre-dated the permanent founding of St. Augustine by six years. A massive hurricane in September of 1559 decimated the settlement and forced the settlers to abandon their colony. If not for this, Pensacola would be the oldest permanent settlement in North America.
Pensacola’s location in the panhandle of Florida made it one of the natural harbors on the Gulf coast. Mobile, Biloxi and New Orleans were the others, and all were controlled by either France or Spain. As part of the treaty ending the French and Indian war in 1763, this area became the 14th British Colony of West Florida, with Pensacola as its capital. During the American Revolution, West Florida remained loyal to the British Crown and became a haven for Tory’s. In 1779, after Spain joined the American side in the Revolution, it re-conquered British West Florida to control the area until selling it to the United States in 1821. There was a great need for access to shipping ports for exporting agricultural goods from the new states of Mississippi and Alabama, and the acquiring of West Florida filled these needs. New Orleans became a great port due to its location on the Mississippi River, and Mobile prospered because of the Tombigbee River system. Pensacola slipped into the background, never becoming a serious port for international commerce. This allowed it to be the sleepy quiet town that I knew as a child. – Tom Lawrence