Pensacola is as authentically Spanish in its pedigree and tradition as is St. Augustine, but with a much stronger infusion of the French influence, emanating from nearby Louisiana. Whether from these influences, from its comparative isolation from the newer Florida of the peninsula, or from something in its climate, with just enough of a tang to be invigorating in mid-winter and constant sea breezes which keep it from becoming enervating in mid-summer, Pensacola presents to the visitor a suggestion of gayety, as of a community whose people are completely satisfied that they are living in the best of all possible environments, and can afford not to take life too seriously. That is not to suggest indolence, but rather a cheerful energy which seems to pervade all of Pensacola’s activities and which is building the city and its environs not only into one of the most beautiful communities to be found in or out of Florida, but into an increasingly important industrial and commercial center.
Parallelling the civic progress of Pensacola is its growing importance as a center of activities of the United States Navy. In striking contrast to the Navy’s ancient timber reserve along Santa Rosa Sound, a relic of the ancient days of wooden ships, is the daily spectacle of the squadrons of the air maneuvering over the bay, cadets undergoing training at the United States Naval Air Station, which has given to Pensacola one of its widely-known sobriquets, “The Annapolis of the Air.”
Few cities anywhere have been planted in lovelier natural surroundings. Built on high ground which in some parts of the city reaches almost bluff-like proportions. Pensacola fronts on an almost completely land-locked arm of the Gulf of Mexico, a perfect natural deep-water harbor, large enough for all the navies of the world to manoeuver in. Pensacola Bay, with its northerly and easterly arms, Escambia Bay and East Bay, cover 175 square miles. The Escambia River flows down from Alabama on the North; Perdido Bay and River, hardly a rifle shot from the city, separate Florida from Alabama on the West. From the North and West two important trunk line railroads enter the city, the Frisco and the Louisville & Nashville. The latter continues eastward across Florida where its lines connect with the westernmost terminal of the Seaboard Air line at River Junction.
North, east and west broad paved highways radiate from Pensacola. Through the heart of the city, over a new street named, appropriately, Cervantes, after the great Don Miguel who wrote “Don Quixote,” runs the Old Spanish Trail, the great transcontinental highway which connects St. Augustine on the Atlantic with San Diego on the Pacific. It is an hour’s run by motor to Mobile, half a day’s journey through Biloxi and Gulfport to New Orleans. One can motor from Pensacola to the capitals of either Alabama or Mississippi and back between dawn and dark. Fine motor roads lead from Pensacola to the beaches. Pensacola Beach, on the Gulf shore of Santa Rosa Island, is reached by a toll bridge across Santa Rosa Sound. Opened in 1932, its accessibility draws motorists by the thousands on week-ends and holidays from a hundred or more miles, Winter and Summer. The waters of the Gulf are seldom too cool for comfortable bathing, though there are winter days when the air temperature is low enough to make a bathing suit uncomfortable wear on the beach. An older and locally more popular resort is Gulf Beach, to the west of the harbor entrance.
Historically, Pensacola challenges St. Augustine’s claim to being the site of the first white settlement in what is now the United States. The relation between the two is like that be tween Roanoke Island and Jamestown. Sir Walter Raleigh planted his Roanoke colony in 1587, twenty years before the Jamestown settlers landed; but the Roanoke colony vanished while the others made a permanent settlement. Just so, in 1559, twenty-eight years before Roanoke, Don Tristan de Luna landed at Pensacola with 2,000 followers, with the intention of establishing a colony. But a hurricane destroyed some of the vessels’ heavy supplies for the new colony, the day after they landed, and after less than two years of hardships the 500 survivors abandoned the colony and sailed back to Spain. It was six years later, in 1565, that Menendez planted the first permanent settlement at St. Augustine.
That first attempt at colonization on what the Spanish called the Bay of Santa Maria was the only attempt of Spain to gain a foothold on the north shore of the Gulf of Mexico for nearly 140 years. Secure in their possession of Mexico, they felt safe from aggressions from the unsettled North. But when the French, coming down the Mississippi in the trail of the discoveries of LaSalle and Pere Marquette, began to plant settlements which threatened the Spanish hold on the Gulf Coast, an expedition from Mexico under Andres de Arriola set forth in 1698 to plant another colony on Santa Maria Bay. They named the settlement Pensacola from an Indian tribe which inhabited the vicinity. They built a fort of logs to which was given the name San Carlos de Asturias, located about where the restored fort of that name, forming a part of Fort Barrancas, now stands as one of the historic spots of Pensacola.
The French arrived at the Bay two months later, but finding the Spaniards in possession retired to Biloxi. In 1718, however, France sent an expedition which took the Spanish colony by surprise. All of its inhabitants were captured and shipped to Havana. On the arrival of these ships with their Spanish prisoners at Havana, the governor general ordered the crews seized and imprisoned. Then manning them with Spanish crews, sailing under the French flag, he sent to Pensacola an overwhelming force that drove out the French and reestablished Spanish dominion. But this was short-lived, for before the year was over an expedition had come from Mobile and left, on the site of Fort San Carlos, reduced to ashes, this inscription:
“In the year 1719, on the 18th day of September, Monsieur Desuade de Champmeslin, commander of the squadron of His Most Christian Majesty, took this place by force of arms, as well as the island of Santa Rosa.”
Under the treaty of peace between France and Spain in 1723 Pensacola Bay was again restored to Spain. In rebuilding their colony the Spanish, with keen remembrance of the French raids from the landward side, established their town and fort on the western end of Santa Rosa Island, near where Fort Pickens now stands. But a hurricane in 1754 swept away the little town, and the Spanish rebuilt on the site of the present city.
When Florida became an English possession in 1763 Pensacola was made the capital of West Florida, the British claims extending from the Chattahoochee River to the Mississippi and northward beyond the site of what is now Montgomery, Alabama. The town became the commercial and political headquarters of all that region, the center of the trade with the Indians. The town which the British took over consisted of forty huts, thatched with palmetto leaves in the Indian style. The new owners laid out the plan which the Pensacola of today closely follows. The main street, named Palafox now, was called George Street and at the top of Gage Hill, named for General Gage, who was then in command at Boston and whose name has come down in history because of his part in the Revolutionary War, they built Fort George.
Isolated as it was from the British colonies to the Northeast, Florida did not join them in the Revolution; but in 1779, when Spain had joined France in the war against Great Britain, the Spanish, then in possession of Louisiana, sent an expedition by land and sea and again, on May 8, 1781, Pensacola became a Spanish city. Spain held its recaptured possessions with such a weak hand that in the war of 1812 the British, with whom the Spanish were allied in the fighting against Napoleon, openly used the town of Pensacola as a base of operations, inciting the Indians against the United States.
It was this that brought Pensacola and Florida to the attention of General Andrew Jackson and, by his expedition undertaken on his own responsibility, to call the Spanish gov ernment to account for such a breach, brought General Jackson to the knowledge of the English and Spanish. After driving out the English quartered here, and providing that the hostile Indians, who had operated from here, should be hunted down, he moved on to bring greater discomfiture to the British in the Battle of New Orleans. He seized Pensacola again four years later, on the pretext that the Spanish were stirring up the Seminoles, against whom he had led an expedition, and for a year and a half the city was under a provisional government having no authority back of it but the personal dictatorship of General Jackson. There was another short interval when the town was returned to Spain, but the cession of Florida to the United States in 1821 put an end to Spanish rule on Pensacola Bay.
Many of the present day inhabitants of Pensacola, including leaders in business and civic affairs and of social prominence, are proud of their descent from the Spanish settlers of the 18th century. There is also a considerable strain of French blood, tracing from those early colonial days, among the old families of Pensacola.