Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Home Ports: The Best Bay

Pensacola, Florida, is now a booming community with a split personality. Hard working port on the one hand, it is also the playground of the idle who have time for golfing, yachting, and spring breaks on the beach. It may even be the haunt of a phantom or two. The long history of Pensacola, not surprisingly, is more about the port than the playground. And both pirates and privateers figure prominently in that mix.

The area surrounding what is now known as Pensacola Bay was populated for thousands of years by Native American groups who subsisted largely off the water, building dug out canoes and fishing in the bay. By the time the first European explorers arrived, the dominant group called themselves the Panzacola and eventually gave their name to the area.

The first explorers to poke around Pensacola were all Spanish. Visits from Ponce de Leon in 1513 and Hernando de Soto about thirty years later established that the area had potential for colonization. It wasn’t until 1559 that Tristan de Luna brought a group of close to 1,500 settlers to the bay from Vera Cruz in Mexico. The pilgrims arrived in August and barely had time to set up a makeshift camp before a hurricane blew through on September 19. It is estimated that a good half of the potential colonists were killed. Some people immediately left for the Carolinas while others tried to make a go of it on the island they called Santa Elena. Lack of fresh water and simmering tropical heat took their toll. Fifty remaining colonists returned to Vera Cruz two years later to the utter dismay of Mexico’s Viceroy.

The French exploration of what would become Louisiana brought Spanish attention back to western Florida. On the hunt for La Salle’s French explorers in the Gulf of Mexico, Juan Enriquez Barroto and Antonio Romero visited Pensacola in 1686. On the expedition was Juan Jordan de Reina, an amateur naturalist and all-pro exaggerator, who described the area as a lush tropical paradise where fruit dripped from trees, game was plentiful and the bay was “… the best I have ever seen in my life.” De Reina’s assessment highly influenced the Mexican Viceroy, Don Silva y Mendoza, to fund another colonial undertaking to Pensacola.

By 1700, a new colony had been established under the governorship of Andres de Arriola. This time the bay was christened Bahia Santa Maria de Galve (after the Viceroy, who was also the Count of Galve) and the land around it began to be known as Panzacola. Much to everyone’s dismay, the soil turned out to be almost useless for growing food stuffs, the area wildlife was hostile, yellow fever and malaria hung over the place every summer and hurricanes continued to wreak havoc. The settlement persevered, however, mostly in response to the growing numbers of French colonists in Mobile, Baton Rouge and New Orleans.

The area slowly urbanized with the Spanish building forts on the mainland. Money became available and with it came smuggling. British and American colonial pirate ships began to appear in the bay, exchanging prize goods for hard Spanish gold or silver. Famous names like Edward Teach and Edward England were known on the waterfront, much to the dismay of Governor Arriola. Raiding by the British and the Creeks during Queen Anne’s War, which took up a little more than the first decade of the 18th century, broke the settlement’s infrastructure down and soon Pensacola was hanging on for dear life.

The French took the settlement from the Spanish some time in 1719, but they could not hold it capably and it returned to Spanish hands. During the French period, the incidents of pirate interaction with local smugglers increased. Only a lack of organization kept early 18th century Pensacola from mirroring the future operation of the Laffite brothers in Barataria.

The French and Indian War brought British rule in 1763 and the area began to prosper. Cotton planting was stepped up, more building took place and Britain hoped to make Pensacola a new Jamaica. Those hopes were dashed with the Revolutionary War. After losing the Battle of Pensacola in 1781, Britain returned the area to the Spanish.

Despite controlling all of Florida and the vast Louisiana territory, Spain’s colonial grip loosened as her troubles mounted in Europe.

Napoleon sold Louisiana to Jefferson; by 1812 much of what had been Spain was the U.S. Andrew Jackson harassed the Spanish with raids on Pensacola and the chaos created opportunities for a new breed of free booters: the privateers. Pierre Laffite probably began the slave trading that would serve him and his brother so well in Pensacola during the first decade of the 19th century. Louis Aury briefly used the bay as a base. Dominique Youx may have considered settling there later in life. According to William C. Davis, Renato Beluche stopped in to the bay just as Britain was amassing warships in preparation for their invasion of New Orleans in late 1814. Beluche may very well have written a letter to the Laffite brothers warning them of the coming storm.

By the 1820s, Florida was U.S. soil. Andrew Jackson briefly took up residence at Pensacola as the area’s first Territorial Governor. By the mid-20s, a Navy Yard was established. Pensacola was used as a supply port for David Porter’s pirate hunting Mosquito Fleet based on Thompson’s Island (now Key West). The worm had turned completely; the frontier town that once welcomed pirates became the urban center that supplied the machinery for their downfall. Hard work at the docks and on the plantations funded gracious living for the wealthy.

As an aside, another seafaring point of interest is the Pensacola Lighthouse. Originally built in 1826 it was first kept by Jeremiah and Micheala Ingraham. Jeremiah died under mysterious circumstances (rumor has it Micheala killed him) and his wife was appointed keeper, a job she did faithfully for fifteen years. When the lighthouse was rebuilt in 1859, a violent haunting began to manifest including objects flying across rooms and unexplained stains on floors. The lighthouse, which is still kept by the Coast Guard, is said to be inhabited by Micheala Ingraham who is angered and offended by the disturbance to her former home. The Coasties say it’s all bologna, but the tourists flock to the sunset tours nonetheless.

Doubtless Pensacola is haunted by more that just the lighthouse keeper’s wife considering all that has happened there. But the locals, and the tourists, probably don’t pay much more attention than the occasional ghost story will rouse. The best bay continues to work and play hard, just as it always has.

Header: Map of Pensacola Bay c 1763 via Wikimedia


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! Nice post. Pensacola certainly has a rich (not to mention piratical) history. The lighthouse sounds like a good spot for an episode of "Ghost Adventures" or "Paranormal Challenge"...

Pauline said...

I would definately like to go there one day. And the Pensacola lighthouse has been on "Ghost Adventures" and was featured on the Travel Channel's "Haunted Lighthouses". Seems like there are probably more hauntings to investigate in old Pensacola as well... Maybe the ghostly ghost of Pierre Laffite?

Charles L. Wallace said...

One of my faves, for sure! Spent time as a wee fellow in Navarre and Fort Walton Beach [apparently that's where I developed a love for the water - Mama put me into the sound and instead of swimming, I sat on the bottom, looking around].

Later, I went through Naval Aviation Officer Candidate School at NAS Pensacola.

The lighthouse? Back in those days, one could rent the keeper's quarters for $4 a night (and that's how Kevin Wallace came to be :-) hahaha! True stroy.

When you go, make sure to see the Museum of Naval Aviation - the Blue Angels (in A-4's) flying in formation from the ceiling is world-class! One thing which gave me a start was the Officer's Club Bar at NAS Cubi Point (Philippines). When the PI closed down, the O'Club bar was dismantled and painstakingly re-created in Pensacola, including the shuffleboard table game. Nice detail....

Let's see: Gotta hit McGuire's Pub, and the Nautical Steam Shack, too! Good, fun places with good food.

For me, one of my fondest memories came on Sunday afternoons at the base. We had four hours of free time a week, and I would often spend mine at the water's edge, near the old seaplane ramps, looking out onto the water. Kept me sane for another week.

Great post, Pauline :-) Thank you for sharing.

Pauline said...

And thankee for supplying the info on lovely Pensacola. I've taken notes for when I do get a chance to visit!