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Pensacola City

Escambia County, Florida

Pensacola City Hall is located at 222 West Main Street, Pensacola, FL 32502.
Phone: 850‑435‑1603.

Pensacola as described in 1939 [1]

Pensacola is built on the north shore of Pensacola Bay, the largest natural, landlocked, deep-water harbor in the State. On the east is Bayou Texar and on the west Bayou Chico, wide arms of the bay that reach inland on each side of the Pensacola peninsula. The ship channel winds past the U.S. Naval Air Station, Forts Barrancas and San Carlos, and enters the Gulf of Mexico between a barren sand spit and Santa Rosa Island.


The area, occupied by the business section and dominated by a block-square hotel, to North Hill and East Hill, the newer residential districts. From them is a view of the bay, more than 15 miles wide at places, with its irregular, tree-fringed bayous and ochre-yellow bluffs. It is spanned on the southeast by a long toll bridge connecting the city with Santa Rosa Island and the white Gulf beaches. The harbor, once crowded with ships when exports of lumber and naval stores made Pensa-cola an important Gulf port, shows little activity. Huge wharves, railroad coaling docks, and warehouses line the waterfront, obviously too large and numerous for the maritime commerce handled today. In atmosphere and character, Pensacola is more an old Spanish town than an American city.

The old city, extending six blocks north of the bay, presents a jumble of gables, pilasters, dormers, and colonnades. The plank walks and long flights of steps leading to second-story entrances have disappeared, but there remain high balconies, many ornamented with wrought-iron railings, and jutting balustrades reminiscent of New Orleans and Mobile, to which Pensacola is more closely related historically and architecturally than it is to other Florida cities.

In residential areas overlooking the old town much of the natural growth of oak, magnolia, and other hardwood has been retained in small parks and spacious yards, and along the streets. The majority of the houses, built since the World War, are of Southern Colonial design; those of brick and stucco have not been influenced by the architecture or bright coloring introduced by the boom.

Unlike most Florida communities, there are no sharp dividing lines in the areas given over to the different racial groups and nationalities. In some white sections are numbers of Negro homes, and in other parts of the city where Negroes are most numerous, some white families live in harmony with their neighbors. The probable reason for this is that Pensacola is one of the few Southern cities where the dominant social group was originally Spanish. In fact, the customs and characteristics of southern Europe still prevail, and pure Latin types are frequently seen on the streets. Negro life in Pensacola is progressive, and members of this race seem better educated than is usual in the "Deep South;" and though racial distinction is rigidly adhered to from a social standpoint, many Negroes hold trusted and responsible positions with firms operated by white men. There is a small professional group in the city, and some Negro establishments, particularly barber shops, are patronized by white customers.

There exists in Pensacola the remnant of a peculiar ethnic group calling themselves "Creoles" but who are not to be confused with the New Orleans Creoles of French and Spanish stock. The Pensacola Creoles are chiefly descendants of a much larger group, of Spanish and Negro admixture, who enjoyed great prosperity before the War between the States. A large percentage of them own their homes. Although they hold themselves aloof from the Negroes, they are not accepted on terms of social equality by the whites.

The economic life of the city is largely dependent on the Naval Air Station. Its officers and cadet aviators, and, to a lesser extent, the officers of the army post at Fort Barrancas, dominate the social life. Sailors, soldiers, and marines are abroad every afternoon and night. The gala occasions are the annual pre-Lenten coronation balls and Navy Day celebration, and the more boisterous festivities along the waterfront attending the return of red-snapper fishing boats.

There is evidence that Panfilo de Narvaez and his men, leaving the vicinity of Apalachicola in a fleet of makeshift boats, passed close to the site of Pensacola during the winter of 1528; but its first recorded history begins with the arrival of Capitan Maldonado, commander of the fleet that brought De Soto to Florida shores, who entered the bay and christened it Puerta d'Anchusi, a name probably suggested by Ochus, as the bay was known to the Indians. By discovering the bay he completed a voyage westward along the Gulf coast seeking a harbor for De Soto, who was near Apa-lachee, 100 miles to the east. De Soto agreed to make the harbor his base of supplies, but intrigued by tales of gold he marched off to the north.

Nineteen years later, Philip II of Spain dispatched an expedition of 1,500 soldiers, colonists, Negroes, and Indians, in the command of Don Tristan de Luna, to the Pensacola region. The fleet reached the harbor in 1559, and De Luna renamed it Santa Maria. No historical data exist as to the exact spot upon which the settlement was established, but in 1561, after a storm destroyed the fleet, the colony was abandoned. This settlement on the shores of Pensacola Bay antedated by six years the founding of St.Augustine.

Gradually the name Santa Maria was replaced by the present name, reputedly derived from the Indian panshi, meaning hair, and okla, meaning people, a name conferred upon natives of this region who wore their hair long. Some historians, however, claim the settlement was named for the Spanish seaport Peniscola.

Formal possession of the site was re-established in 1698 by Don Andres d'Arriola, who, arriving with 300 soldiers and settlers, built a wooden fort in honor of Charles II, and erected houses and a church. The French, having established colonies to the west, captured the fort in 1719: it was retaken by the Spanish only to be surrendered to the French again when the town was burned and the fort blown up. Although a treaty was signed between the warring nations in 1720, it was not until 1723 that Pensacola was restored to Spain.

The new settlement was founded on Santa Rosa Island, a barren and uninhabited strip of land opposite the mainland, because its isolation promised security from Indian attacks. Destroyed by a hurricane in 1754, the settlement was re-established on the north side of the bay, the present site of Pensacola. Shortly after Florida became a British colony in 1763, the Spanish garrison and entire population were removed to Vera Cruz, Mexico, and Pensacola was made the capital of West Florida. A captain of the English forces occupying the deserted town, wrote that Pensacola consisted of huts, thatched with palmetto leaves, and barracks for a small garrison, the whole surrounded by a stockade of pine posts.

Many white settlers brought Negro slaves and established plantations. The first city plan was made—still discernible in the old sections of Pensacola—and streets were laid out through the swamp; the principal thoroughfare was named for George III, another for Queen Charlotte; a stockade was built in the center of town as refuge against Indian attacks. During the period of English rule, surrounding marshes were drained, cleared, and planted in gardens.

At the outbreak of the American Revolution, Pensacola became a haven for Tories. The most important commercial result of this immigration was the establishment of the Scottish firm of Panton, Leslie and Company, by its senior member, William Panton, America's first millionaire and merchant prince, his object being to capture the Indian trade of West Florida. The Scotsman's interests were strengthened by the influential connection he formed with Alexander McGillivray, chief of the great Creek Confederation.

McGillivray was the son of Lachlan McGillivray, a youth of a good Scottish family, and of a French-Indian mother. He received an education in Charleston, South Carolina, and in 1776, at the age of 30, returned to his mother's people to become the chief of 6,000 Creek warriors. He held positions as Colonel in the British Army, Colonel in the Spanish Army, and Brigadier General in the United States Army. But McGillivray kept faith only with Panton and made the trading company more powerful than any government in the territory. The firm's trade with the Indians grew steadily, reaching as far as Tennessee.

This era (1772-81) was most prosperous, and Spain again coveted the harbor. A Spanish fleet under Don Bernardo de Galvez, governor of New Orleans, besieged Pensacola from sea and land, until its surrender in May 1781. The Spanish governor was unsympathetic to all Protestant colonists, and most of the English left the city when Florida was ceded back to Spain in 1783. It was during this period that Fort San Carlos was built. After Napoleon sold Louisiana to the United States in 1803, Spanish Florida was surrounded by territory of its unfriendly neighbor, the United States.

By 1814 Pensacola had become a lawless and disorderly city, headquarters for filibusters, runaway slaves, and British agents. An English expedition under Colonel Edward Nichols entered the city in the summer of 1814 and received a hearty welcome from the Spanish governor. Soon the forts were repaired, arms and ammunition were distributed, and the flags of England and Spain floated in unison. Nichols busied himself in penning bombastic proclamations, and in enticing the Indians to join him. A visitor of that day wrote: "Such scenes of preposterous costuming, of tripping over swords, of hopeless drill, and mad marching and counter-marching as the common of Pensacola then witnessed can be imagined only by those who know precisely what sort of creatures Indians are. Captain Woodbine might as well have attempted to train the alligators of the Florida lagoons for the British artillery service." These conditions induced Andrew Jackson to make an attack on Pensacola in November 1814, as a result of which the British withdrew.

Raids by Florida Indians on the Georgia border brought Jackson to Florida again in 1818, when he descended upon Pensacola and set up a military government. Severe criticism was directed at him for invading the territory of a nation with which the American Government was at peace, but Spain was told that West Florida would be returned when sufficient Spanish troops were sent to govern the unruly savages. This was done in 1819 and the province was surrendered. In 1821, with the transfer of Florida to the United States, Jackson was made provisional governor of the territory, and took up his residence in Pensacola. He accepted the appointment as a vindication of his Florida campaigns, but held it only four months. Neither he nor Mrs.Jackson understood the Latin population, and Jackson indulged in fiery tilts with retiring Spanish officials.

The first legislative council of the new Territory of Florida convened in Pensacola in 1822, but because of a yellow-fever epidemic the sessions were transferred to a plantation 15 miles from the city. Pensacola was chartered as a city in 1822. During 1825, owing to the strategic location and excellent harbor, the United States established a navy yard here, and the same year a New York syndicate projected the building of a railroad between Pensacola and Columbus, Georgia. Land auctions were held and lots changed hands rapidly; new buildings were erected. An editor of a local paper complained that 'The sound of carpenters' hammers, heard on every side, we regard as the greatest annoyance; a man can no longer adjust himself for an hour's siesta.'

Iron and cars for the railroad were imported from England; shiploads of laborers brought over from Ireland 'worked like beavers, but fought like devils,' and were replaced by Dutchmen. Half of these refused to stay in the city; the rest demanded their mid-morning and mid-afternoon beer, and until this privilege was granted laid down their tools.

In the early 1880's began the development of the waterfront. The harbor was filled with steamboats and square-riggers from the ports of the world. Vessels, before loading cargo, discharged their ballast, which was hauled and dumped along the shore, and 60 acres of land were created in a few years. Thus Pensacola's reclaimed shoreline is made up of red granite from Sweden, blue stone from Italy, broken tile from France, and dredgings from the River Thames and the Scheldes of The Netherlands.

In 1880 fire gutted the business district, destroying more than 100 buildings. Rebuilding was slow. By the turn of the century Pensacola, with a population of 18,000, was the second largest city in the State. It did not grow proportionately through the early 1900's, and little of importance occurred until 1914, when the Government established its first training base for naval aviators. During the World War the Naval Air Base activities increased, and Pensacola datelines appeared regularly in the Nation's press. When the Armistice was signed, 438 officers and 5,559 enlisted men were stationed at the base.

Important industries in the Pensacola territory are those producing turpentine, rosin, and insulating wall board from pine stumps and wood waste, a furniture factory, and a large brewery. Vegetables, fruits, and poultry from the back country make the city an important agricultural trading center.

Pensacola is one of the leading points for commercial fishing, and 46 per cent of the red-snapper catch of the United States is shipped from here. Fishing boats, modeled after Gloucester smacks, sail to the snapper banks near Yucatan, remaining at sea for weeks and bringing back tons of fish. The snappers are caught by hand-lines often in water 25 fathoms deep. When a boat returns home, Pensacola's waterfront is a scene of merrymaking, with money flowing freely until spent. It is considered unlucky for a professional fisherman to set out on another trip with funds in his pockets.

  1. Federal Works Agency, Works Progress Administration, Federal Writers' Program, Florida: A Guide to the Southernmost State, American Guide Series, Florida Department of Public Instruction, 1939.