Born and raised in Pensacola, I am clearly a big fan of my city and all it has to offer. As I’ve grown up and been able to travel around the country, I’ve realized just how special my hometown is. Not just because it’s where I call “home,” but also because of the culture, character and rich history.
In fact, Pensacola is known as the first for many things…you just might not realize it. For your history lesson of the day, here’s a walk down memory lane to share some of what makes Pensacola number one.
First Multi-Year European Colonial Settlement
The Spanish claimed the founding of Pensacola in 1698, but the history of the city dates back even further. On August 14, 1559, Spanish Conquistador Don Tristan de Luna, traveling on an expedition that included 11 ships from Veracruz, Mexico, arrived in Pensacola. Back during this time, the city was known as “Panzacola.”
De Luna made Pensacola home during August, which we all know is prominent for summer heat leading to hurricanes along the Gulf Coast. Only one month after the colony arrived, a hurricane hit and sank many of their ships. It took two years before ships from Mexico came to rescue to the scarce colony. Pensacola was abandoned after this.
The University of West Florida archeology department was eager to discover the original settlement made by De Luna. Starting work in October 2015, the department finally made headway in December 2015 after coming across artifacts in a historical Pensacola neighborhood. Some of the artifacts found are believed to be sherds of broken 16th-century Spanish ceramics, mainly consisting of cookware and tableware. They even found what is believed to be an olive jar.
The discovery of these artifacts confirmed Pensacola as the earliest multi-year European colonial settlement in the United States.
Photo caption: Artifacts from de Luna's settlement found in Pensacola. Photos from the University of West Florida.
First U.S. Naval Air Station
De Luna founded his colony off Pensacola Bay, which happens to be where Fort Barrancas is located today. The area continued to be seen as valuable, causing the U.S. to purchase the Floridas from Spain in 1821.
With the Pensacola harbor and nearby timber reserves in mind, President John Quincy Adams and Secretary of the Navy Samuel Southard had big plans for the land. In April 1826, the construction of the Pensacola Navy Yard began. The base, known for docking and repairing some of the largest warships of the time, became known as the best-equipped naval station in the country. The base decommissioned in 1911.
Not long after, innovations in naval aviation began to take flight. In 1914, Pensacola became home to the first-ever U.S. Naval Air Station, utilizing the same land as the decommissioned Pensacola Navy Yard.
Today, NAS Pensacola is home to over 14,000 military personnel and the world’s largest Naval Aviation Museum.
First Shots from the Civil War
Keeping on the same turf as Pensacola Naval Air Station, history was made again during the Battle of Pensacola.
The battle was between the Confederate troops occupying Pensacola Bay and the Union fleet under Harvey Brown. The Union forces were stationed at NAS Pensacola (known during this time as the Pensacola Navy Yard). When some local men tried to take over Fort Barrancas at NAS Pensacola on Jan. 8, 1861, some historians say that these were the first shots fired by the United States forces in the Civil War, pre-dating Fort Sumter by more than three months. But American history books tell a different story.
And there you have it! Pensacola has made its mark in history as being number one, many which have occurred surrounding NAS Pensacola. Today you can visit the historic sites year-round, participating in walking tours of the forts and exploring the Gulf Islands National Seashore. Many of these areas make for great days out with family and friends, including three historic forts, trails, and picnic areas.
Photo caption: Color postcard, 9 x 14 cm. State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory.