Ahoy, matey! Pensacola has a surprising pirate history.
Practically any community that hugs the sea as Pensacola does has fanciful legends about its purported pirate past. All around Northwest Florida, we hear apocryphal tales of pirates using the many inlets, bays, and bayous as hiding places or even potential locations for buried booty.
Rumor has it that pirates of the 17th and 18th centuries buried treasure on the shores of Perdido Key because it was difficult to find, and shoals in the narrow mouth made entering the bay a tricky maneuver.
“It’s certainly possible,” said Mike Thomin. “But in terms of, ‘Is there a lot of documentation to support that?’ the answer is, ‘No.’”
Thomin would know. He’s currently on the staff at the Florida Public Archaeology Network where he serves on the Archaeological Tourism Task Force. When he was a student at the University of West Florida, he researched pirates and privateers – who were basically pirates that held special “commissions” from foreign governments for their activities – especially pirate and privateer activity in the Gulf of Mexico.
Not to fear. Thomin says Pensacola does have a pirate story to tell. A few, in fact.
“In the early 1800s, piracy revamped up,” he said. “Most people are probably familiar with the Golden Age of Piracy. Think of Black Beard and the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ movie series. That was the late 1600s to the early 1700s. About 100 years after the Golden Age of Piracy, piracy exploded again, primarily in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea.”
American ships, as well as Spanish and British vessels, were the targets of the pirates and privateers.
What was perhaps Pensacola’s first brush with piracy came in 1811 when a U.S. gunboat chased a French pirate ship called La Franchise along the northern Gulf. Unable to get away from the military ship, the pirates supposedly pulled their ship up onto Pensacola Beach and burned it. The men aboard the ship were said to have disappeared into nearby woods.
In 1817, four years before Spain relinquished Florida to the United States in Pensacola, a group of privateers linked to notorious New Orleans pirate Jean Lafitte was believed to have set their sights on Pensacola.
“The plan was that they would take Pensacola over from the Spanish and turn it into a base of operations for their privateering,” Thomin said. “That was kind of a half-cooked-up plot that never happened, but it worried the Spanish officials. They called their citizens to arms.”
Pensacola took center stage in a pirate drama in 1822 when accused pirates aboard a ship called Carmen were brought to the newly established U.S. District Court of West Florida in Pensacola for trial.
In this case, Carmen was charged with firing on Louisiana, a federal Revenue Cutter Service vessel, off the coast of Cuba. Sailors aboard the Carmen likely mistook Louisiana for a merchant ship.
The U.S.S. Peacock witnessed the attack and took pursuit.
“The Carmen did what most pirate ships did when they saw a naval ship; they tried to run away as fast as possible,” Thomin said. “Usually, pirates did not try to engage a Navy ship. If they did, it was because they mistook it for a merchant ship. As soon as they found out they were dealing with a heavily armed Naval ship; they usually ran away.”
The Peacock caught up with the Carmen, apprehending its 18 Spanish soldiers and transporting them to Pensacola. The vessel was taken to a separate court in New Orleans. The facility where the Spanish sailors were tried doesn’t exist any longer, according to Thomin, but it was probably located near what is referred to as the Commanding Officer’s Compound, behind the current Pensacola Museum of History.
The verdict in the case of the Carmen was delivered in January 1823: Not guilty.
That result was not uncommon in such cases at the time, according to Thomin. In some U.S. Federal Court Districts, as many as half of accused pirates and privateers were acquitted. Many of the commissions held by privateers came from countries in Latin America that were in revolt against Spain – a cause that found a degree of sympathy among some Americans.
After the crew of the Carmen was exonerated, the captain lodged complaints with the Spanish government that eventually required the attention of then-Secretary of State John Quincy Adams. Adams went on to become president.
In the end, not only were the sailors freed, but the Carmen was returned to them.