The original inhabitants of the Pensacola Bay area were Native American peoples. At the time of European contact, a Muskogean-speaking tribe known to the Spanish as the Pensacola lived in the region. This name is not recorded until 1677, but the tribe appear to be the source of the name “Pensacola” for the bay and thence the city. The area’s recorded history begins in the 16th century, when the first European explorers arrived. Pensacola Bay was visited by the expeditions of Pánfilo de Narváez in 1528 and Hernando de Soto in 1539, at which time it was known as the Bay of Ochuse.
The Spanish Navy training ship Juan Sebastian de Elcano fires a 21-gun salute in honor of Pensacola’s 450th anniversary in 2009.
In 1559, Tristán de Luna y Arellano landed with over 1,400 people on 11 ships from VeraCruz, Mexico. A notable early attempt to settle in Florida, the purpose of the expedition was to establish an outpost, called by de Luna Ochuse, from which to launch further efforts to colonize Santa Elena (present-day Parris Island, South Carolina.) However, the colony was decimated by a hurricane on September 19, 1559, which killed hundreds, sank five ships, grounded a caravel, and ruined supplies. The 1,000 survivors divided to relocate/resupply the settlement, but due to famine and attacks, the effort was abandoned in 1561. About 240 people sailed to Santa Elena, but another storm hit there, so they sailed to Cuba and scattered. The remaining 50 at Pensacola were taken back to Mexico, and the Viceroy’s advisers concluded northwest Florida was too dangerous to settle, a view which stood for 135 years.
In the late 17th century, however, the French began exploring the lower Mississippi River with the intention of colonizing the region as part of Louisiana. Fearful that these overtures would threaten Spanish territory in both Florida and Mexico, the Spanish determined to found a new settlement to check the French. In 1698 they finally established a fortified town near what is now Fort Barrancas, laying the foundation for the modern city of Pensacola. The Spanish built three presidios in Pensacola:
Presidio Santa Maria de Galve (1698–1719): the presidio included fort San Carlos de Austria (east of present Fort Barrancas) and a village with church;
Presidio Isla de Santa Rosa (1722–1752): this next presidio was on Santa Rosa Island near the site of present Fort Pickens, but hurricanes battered the island in 1741 and 1752, and the presidio was closed and moved to the mainland;
Presidio San Miguel de Panzacola (1754–1763): the final presidio was about five miles east of the first presidio, over in the present-day historic district of downtown Pensacola, named from “Panzacola”.
The Spanish ceded Florida to the British in 1763 as a result of the French and Indian War, and Pensacola was made capital of the new British colony of West Florida. From 1763, the British went back to the mainland area of fort San Carlos de Barrancas, building the Royal Navy Redoubt. After Spain joined the American Revolution late, in 1779, the Spanish captured the city in the 1781 Battle of Pensacola, gaining control of West Florida. After the war the British officially ceded both West Florida and East Florida to Spain. In 1819 Spain and the United States negotiated the Adams-Onis Treaty, in which Spain sold the Floridas to the United States for US$5 million. In 1821, with Andrew Jackson as provisional governor, Pensacola became part of the United States.
St. Michael’s Cemetery was established in the 18th century at a location which was located in a south central part of the city that would become the Downtown area. Initially owned by the Church of St. Michael, it is now owned and managed by St. Michael’s Cemetery Foundation of Pensacola, Inc. Preliminary studies indicate that there are over 3200 marked burials as well as a large number unmarked.
Archaeologically, the best known Pensacola Culture site is the Bottle Creek site, a large site located on a low swampy island north of Mobile, Alabama. This site has at least 18 earthen mounds; 5 of which are arranged around a central plaza. Its main occupation was from 1250 to 1550. It was a ceremonial center for the Pensacola people, and a gateway to their society. This site seems like an unlikely place to find a ceremonial center due to the fact that it is surrounded by swamps and is difficult to reach on foot. However, it would have been easy access by a dugout canoe, the main mode of transportation available to the people who built the Bottle Creek site.
Charles F. Sibbald founded Panama and the saw mill on land granted from Spain in 1816. The mill was destroyed by fire in July 1828, and rebuilt a year later. Notes are signed by William L. Haskins, Agent.
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