Pensacola: Where American History Explodes Beneath the Surface
By Beth D'Addono
While St. Augustine can forever claim the banner of oldest continuously occupied European settlement in the United States, the Spanish actually landed in Pensacola six years earlier, in 1559.
Pensacola – Travel across the Santa Rosa Sound on the three-mile Pensacola Bay Bridge, and what you'll see first are shimmering water and pristine beaches.
You might not even notice a pontoon boat in the water, the only indication that buried just 12 feet below the surface is a wreck of profound proportions.
Here, not one but two Spanish ships, dating to 1559, are buried. And this juxtaposition of past and present is a part of Pensacola's charm that, like the Emmanuel Point I and II wrecks, hovers just below the surface.
That Tristan de Luna's settlement was foiled as much by poor planning as by a hurricane is just one page in Pensacola's archives. University of West Florida marine archaeologists are still combing through the remains of the rare 16th century galleons, two of fewer than a dozen ever discovered.
Centuries before the Europeans set sail, native tribes including Choctaw, Apalachee and Pensacola peoples lived, fished and traded in and around what would become Pensacola.
When de Luna sailed in with 11 ships and some 1,400 soldiers and settlers, it was a trip sparked by Spain's ongoing effort to colonize Florida, an area that according to the Spanish crown extended north from what is now the Florida Keys all the way up to Newfoundland and west to what is now Mexico.
Although not loaded with gold, the wrecks are treasure ships indeed, offering an invaluable portal into marine life and 16th century shipbuilding.
"People don't realize the richness and diversity of culture, ethnicities and narratives that exists in Pensacola," said Margo Stringfield, a resident of the city since 1983.
Stringfield, a terrestrial archaeologist and assistant professor of anthropology at UWF, helps tell those stories as a consultant for Viva Florida 500, a statewide celebration of the 500th anniversary of Juan Ponce de León's arrival on Florida's east coast in 1513.
"Pensacola was always a strategic point on the map," said author and historian John Appleyard, who was on the planning committee of both the 400th and 450th anniversary of de Luna's first attempt at colonizing Pensacola. "Because of its protected bay, ships could dock, get supplies and minor repairs. Had de Luna been able to create a permanent colony at Pensacola, the history of North America may have been quite different."
Visitors can connect to Pensacola's history and past by visiting a coastal fort, climbing a haunted lighthouse, touring antebellum homes and walking streets like Florida Blanca, named for key Spanish military strategists.
"Spend a little time here, and there's something about Pensacola history that just captures the imagination," said Appleyard. "There's more to this town than just beautiful beaches."
10 Ways Pensacola Makes History
- Spanish sailor Don Tristan de Luna arrived in Pensacola on Aug. 15, 1559, six years before St. Augustine was settled.
- The first Catholic Mass in America was held on Pensacola Beach in August 1559.
- The remains of one of de Luna's ships, Emmanuel Point II, discovered in 2007, is the second oldest shipwreck in the country. See artifacts from the ship on display at the free T.T. Wentworth Jr. Florida State Museum downtown.
- Pensacola is the site of a pivotal Revolutionary War battle led by Spanish Gen. Galvez, a battle central to the docudrama Galvez! that aired on PBS.
- Fort Pickens in the Gulf Islands National Seashore is one of four Southern forts never occupied by the Confederate forces during the Civil War.
- The still operating Pensacola Lighthouse is the oldest and tallest on the Gulf Coast, dating to 1859. Climb 177 steps to the top for great views, but beware... this lighthouse is famously haunted.
- Pensacola was Florida's first capital. Spain ceded the city to Gen. Andrew Jackson in 1821. A spot at Plaza Ferdinand is marked by a bust of the state's first governor.
- Naval Air Station Pensacola, established in 1914, is famed as the birthplace of Naval aviation.
- Pensacola's colonial and antebellum past is preserved in 11 homes and museums open for touring in downtown's Historic Pensacola Village.
- Called the City of Five Flags, Pensacola was controlled by Spain, France, Britain, the Confederacy and the United States.