Pensacola Forts Stand Witness to History
I am a sucker for history. Last summer, I checked off a serious item on my bucket list when I visited the Mayan pyramids in Belize. I climbed to the top of a pyramid called the Sun God Tomb.
I ran my hands along the stony surface and fantasized about what life might have been like for the Mayans. I thought about how long those pyramids have stood there and how the world around them had changed in that time. For a moment, it gave me a sense of the scope of human history and where I fit in.
Here in Pensacola, we are lucky to have our own monuments to days gone past – actual structures that have witnessed the progress of history and changes in American culture - our local forts.
Pensacola’s importance as a military town stretches back much further than today’s Navy bases. Right here in Pensacola, we have the remnants of forts that date to the Revolutionary War – real places that represent real people and real events that helped shape who and what we are today.
Perhaps the oldest military installation in Pensacola is the site of what is now called Fort Barrancas. Today, Barrancas is part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore and is located at Pensacola Naval Air Base. Parts of Barrancas were utilized for their strategic importance as far back as 1719 when the French briefly occupied the area. The Spanish went on to build Fort San Carlos de Barrancas in the 1790s, portions of which stand today.
General – and future president – Andrew Jackson took Barrancas in 1814 and held it for the Americans.
Some historical accounts insist the first shots of the Civil War were fired at Fort Barrancas on Jan. 8, 1861, more than three months before hostilities in South Carolina.
Today, Barrancas is a sprawling complex of structures. Since it is located on Pensacola NAS, visitors must comply with entry regulations set by the Navy, including ID presentation. Portions of Barrancas are accessible by self-guided tours while explorations of other parts are led by park rangers.
Fort George – built on the apex of a hill north of downtown Pensacola – is located on today’s Palafox Street. Built in 1778 by the British, Fort George was captured by Spanish General Bernardo de Galvez in the Battle of Pensacola three years later. The fort was taken by the Americans – under Jackson’s leadership – in the War of 1812.
George fell into disrepair and vanished from the landscape until archaeologists rediscovered it in the 1970s. That led to the reconstruction of a portion of the fort, complete with authentic British cannons. You can visit that today.
The largest and arguably most famous fort in our area is Fort Pickens, an extensive complex of buildings and green spaces on the western tip of Santa Rosa Island. It is also part of the National Seashore. Pickens was built in 1834 and continued as a military installation until 1947.
One of the most famous occupants of Pickens was the Apache warrior Geronimo. From October 1886 to May 1887, Geronimo was one of a handful of native warriors imprisoned at Pickens by the American military following conflicts in the west.
At the time, Geronimo’s Pensacola internment was hailed as a tourism boost by local officials. Must have worked, I am still writing about it 130 years later.
To me, Pickens is the site that most invokes the Mayan pyramids. I run my hands along the masonry walls and think about the people who built the fort – in this case, many were slaves – and I wonder abou how different life was compared to now.
Indian wars. Slavery. Threats from the sea. It was a very different world, indeed. The walls of Fort Pickens – surrounded by the sea on three sides – have withstood history and are destined to see much more.
I would be remiss if I did not mention that Fort McRee was constructed on the eastern tip of Perdido Key as part of the three-pronged protection – along with Pickens and Barrancas – of Pensacola’s natural harbor. However, due to its location on a site accessible only by foot or boat, McRee was left to the elements. Over the past century, storms and erosion have taken their toll on the fort. Today, nothing more than a few scattered foundations remain.
Everybody already knows that Pensacola is a destination of choice for sun worshippers and seafood devotees. However, it’s also the go-to locale for history nerds like me.
Louis Cooper has lived in Northwest Florida since 1997 when work brought him here directly out of college. But he has since come to think of the Pensacola area as his home. He had a career at the Pensacola News Journal and the Northwest Florida Daily News covering local government, business and community. He currently works in freelance marketing and professional writing. He lives with his husband, Craig Webster, and their dogs, Angus and Riley, in Pensacola.