It's late afternoon in Gulf Islands National Seashore. Along some 20 miles of pristine ocean-front beaches here in northwest Florida, the water is crystal clear; one can wade into gentle surf to peer down at starfish and sand dollars. Pelicans and sea gulls wheel across the sky. Dolphins pop up above the waves, their sharp dorsal fins silhouetted against a horizon where the turquoise Gulf of Mexico meets an iridescent blue sky.
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The unspoiled shoreline is virtually unaltered from the time Spanish explorers first made landfall here nearly five centuries ago. Yet this marine wilderness lies only a few minutes' drive from the center of Pensacola, the lively and historic city of 56,000 at the westernmost tip of the Florida panhandle on the border with Alabama. Pensacola boasts a surprisingly little-known past: it is the site of the nation's oldest European settlement.
This year, the city is marking its 450th anniversary with an ongoing birthday bash. "No matter when visitors show up, we'll be throwing a party," says Laura Lee of the local visitors bureau. "My favorite, Fiesta Days, honors the founding of Pensacola." The festival, June 4-11, will feature parades and historical reenactments. Another highlight was the arrival this past February of King Juan Carlos I and Queen Sofia of Spain. Flanked by Governor Charlie Crist and before a crowd of 3,000, the Spanish monarch lauded the heritage of a city "which contains so much of the shared history of Spain and the United States."
It's all Pensacola's way of drawing attention to a largely forgotten chapter in American history. In August 1559, Spanish explorer Tristán de Luna sailed into what would one day be known as Pensacola Bay. (A local tribe called the region Panzacola, perhaps meaning "long-haired people," as the indigenous inhabitants may have been known.) Spain's viceroy of Mexico, Luis de Velasco, had charged Luna with establishing a settlement on the bay, reconnoitered by Spanish navigators the previous year. Nearly a century later, Mexican scholar Carlos de Sigüenza y Góngora would describe Pensacola's natural harbor as "the finest jewel possessed by His Majesty...not only here in America but in all his kingdom."
Luna commanded a fleet of 11 vessels and some 1,500 settlers, including African slaves and Mexican Indians, many of them craftsmen. "Here in Pensacola, three distinct cultures arrived in North America at the same time," says James M. James, the former executive director of the African American Heritage Society, a local nonprofit organization. "That's very unusual in U.S. history, but it's also just how things were—and still are—in Pensacola. We've always had different cultures living together in this beautiful place."
Luna's contingent arrived in Pensacola six years before Adm. Pedro Menéndez de Avilés reached Florida's Atlantic Coast, where he would found St. Augustine, still widely regarded as the oldest city in the United States, probably because the Menéndez colony endured. (Columbus never reached what would become the United States.) Luna's colony would not fare as well: on September 19, 1559, only weeks after he dropped anchor, a powerful hurricane blew in from across the bay, sinking all but three of Luna's ships. By preventing the Spanish from establishing a foothold in western Florida, says local historian and author John Appleyard, "that storm changed history."
Luna dispatched a remaining ship to Veracruz, Mexico, in hopes of enlisting rescuers. For more than a year, the settlers hung on, their numbers and stores dwindling. At last, some vessels arrived to transport survivors to safe haven in Havana. By spring of 1561, only a military outpost remained; in August, its handful of soldiers abandoned the site and returned to Mexico.
It wasn't until 1698 that Spain established another garrison in Pensacola, where soldiers began to lay out a colonial town. In May 1719, Spaniards in Pensacola surrendered to the French, who were at war with Spain. Over the next century, a succession of competing powers—French, Spanish, British, then Spanish once more—would plant their flags in Pensacola sand until, in 1821, Spain ceded Florida to the United States.
Today, a historic district of parks and plazas roughly 40 blocks square, shaded by old live oaks, reflects the city's diversity. On streets that recall New Orleans' French Quarter, early and mid-19th-century houses, constructed of brick or stucco and replete with intricate ironwork verandas and interior courtyards, reflect Spanish and Gallic influences. After succeeding the Spanish in 1763, the British built cottages of traditional timber, clapboard and brick and laid down the street grid visible today. The heart of the old colonial downtown is Palafox Street, running through its center and now boasting a mix of trendy shops, restaurants and galleries.The town's original wharf was at one end of Palafox, according to Tim Roberts, historic preservationist for the historic quarter.
Pensacola's rich history has spawned a passion for the past. For more than 20 years, archaeologists from Pensacola's University of West Florida have conducted digs at several city sites. Since 2006, the Florida Public Archaeology Network (FPAN), an education and outreach organization, has also participated in excavations. It's not only scientists who are at work: volunteers—locals and even tourists—can sign on to help for a day or a decade. Twice weekly, FPAN staff offer training in the processing of artifacts. "Even if you have only a few hours to volunteer, we can put you to work: screening dirt, washing artifacts, sorting them. We want people to engage their past," says archaeologist Della Scott-Ireton, director of FPAN's Northwest Regional Center. Says University of West Florida archaeologist Margo Stringfield, "With all this history we've yet to uncover, there's still a lot of work to do."