With its sparkling green waters, sugar-white sand, and dolphin spotted coast it’s unsurprising that Pensacola Beach is a highly coveted destination. This isn’t a new phenomenon, over the course of its history Pensacola has passed through the hands of five different nations earning it the title of The City of Five Flags.
Pensacola has retained a name very similar to the one used by her first people: Panzacola. Thought to mean “long-haired people”, Panzacola was Latinized by the Spanish settlers when they sailed into the Pensacola Bay in 1559. This date probably comes as a surprise to even the average Floridian as it falls 6 whole years before the founding of St. Augustine, the city commonly regarded as the oldest city in the United States. Well, we were here first – for a grand total of one year.
Within weeks of their landing, a massive hurricane struck Tristán de Luna and his 1500 settlers, sinking all but three of their eleven ships. Not the best start. With virtually all their supplies sitting at the bottom of the gulf, the settlers soon turned to evacuation. It wasn’t until 1698 that the Spanish returned to establish a far more successful colony. After viewing its clear turquoise waters, Mexican scholar Carlos de Sigüenza y Góngora described Pensacola’s harbor as “the finest jewel possessed by His Majesty…not only here in America but in all his kingdom.” If he were to look at today’s Pensacola Beach, we’re sure he’d have the same glowing review. Thanks to a federally protected area known as the Gulf Islands National Seashore, present visitors can admire the natural beauty enjoyed centuries ago by the first Spanish settlers. 20 miles of pristine coastline, populated with Spanish mackerel, sand dollars, starfish, and dolphins all clearly visible from above the waves.
The Spanish managed to hold on to their gem until 1719 when they handed it over to the French for a short stint. Unwilling to give up on paradise, Spain won it back by 1723 and governed for another 40 years.
The Union Jack had a short reign from 1763-1781, but once again Pensacola was handed back to the Spanish after the British lost the Revolutionary War. This time their borders were not clearly defined. After a few years of disputes with American settlers moving farther south, Spain decided to give up its claim to Florida. Spanish minister Do Luis de Onis and U.S. Secretary of State John Quincy Adams signed the Florida Purchase Treaty and the stars and stripes were flown over Pensacola.
Unfortunately, the Civil War came along to shake up what should have been an unbroken streak. The confederate’s original stars and bars flag flew over Pensacola from 1861-1862, but the Union worked hard to hold our historic Fort Pickens. The bombardment between Fort Picken’s canons and the confederate-held fort across the bay was so loud and continuous that windows shattered in historic Pensacola. There were even reports of the inlet fish floating to the surface, killed by the shock waves. After the dust cleared the Union was victorious; the American flag never left the beach thanks to their tireless efforts.
So what does this history mean for Pensacola…
The struggle to hold this gem of a city has left it with a layered culture that manifests in its food, architecture, people, and traditions. The Pensacola community is one unlike any other. You are sure to agree after you visit and spend a little time diving into the rich history. To dive deeper into the experience we recommend the following sites and events:
Archaeology Institute Exhibit Hall
The Archaeology Institute Exhibit Hall at the University Of West Florida showcases Northwest Florida archaeological sites. Explore the history of 16th-century Spanish shipwrecks (including all three of De Luna’s), 18th-century Spanish Presidios, British-era towns, and a Spanish colonial cemetery. Exhibits are free and open to the public Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. through 4 p.m.
Take a trip to Fort Pickens; the Union’s home base as they worked to take back Florida. It’s maze-like interior is worth exploring and the cannons are great for a picture. The fort is surrounded by the beach, gorgeous natural trails, and a fishing pier so you’ll have plenty to do. The Gulf Islands National Seashore Fort Pickens area charges an entrance fee of $25/private vehicle or $20/private motorcycle. It’s good for 1-7 days. An annual pass can be purchased for $45.
Pensacola Museum of History
Tour the City of Five Flags exhibit at the Pensacola Museum of History. It houses artifacts, photographs, streamlined timelines, and interactive experiences all designed to help visitors immerse themselves in life under Pensacola’s five different flags.
And of course you should party with us June 1st-10th at the annual 10 days of Fiesta Pensacola. Tristan De Luna and his court will be there to welcome you!