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Pensacola Bay is a lozenge shaped body of water, the entrance to which from the Gulf is at the southern point of the figure, and the southern side is formed by Santa Rosa Island, which stretches out in a long sandy line here to divide sea and inland water. On the western shore, near the head of the bay, is situated the busy city of Pensacola, one of the most active shipping points on the Gulf and also one of the most ancient. About six miles south of Pensacola, and near the mouth of the bay, is the city’s ancient defense. Fort San Carlos de Barrancas, which has gone through ten generations and more of life as humans reckon it and has done valiant service under four flags.
The military (and social) history of Pensacola Bay commences in 1558, when Philip II, of Spain, commissioned Luis de Valesca, viceroy of New Spain, to undertake the settlement of Florida. After a preliminary survey Valesca, in the summer of 1559, sent 1500 soldiers and settlers to make a beginning at Pensacola Bay, this body of water having been adjudged the best roadstead and the most favorable for the support of human life on the Gulf Coast. A tentative settlement was established, but for some reason the site did not please the expedition and its leaders attempted unsuccessfully to find a better one. The winter that followed and the next summer were filled with privation and the colony became much reduced in numbers. During the second summer most of the settlers went with Angel de Villafane to Santa Elena, Port Royal Sound, south on the Atlantic coast (South Carolina, today) and the remainder was recalled by Philip II, who thereupon decreed that no further effort should be made to settle the west coast of Florida, a royal promulgation which circumstance and lack of incentive to the contrary conspired to make effective for more than a century. If one accepts this abortive expedition as the beginning of settlement in Florida then Pensacola is the oldest point of European residence in the United States, antedating St. Augustine by seven years.
The Spaniards did not regard La Salle’s effort at colonization at the mouth of the Mississippi River with favor and were not at all displeased at his misfortunes. To forestall other efforts of the French they undertook a survey of the coast and established a colony at Pensacola in the last years of the Seventeenth Century. This was the beginning of Pensacola of today.
When Iberville, in 1699, sailed from France with several vessels containing colonists for Louisiana and when in due course of time he arrived off Pensacola, he found the Spaniards firmly established with a fort with four bastions and some ships of war. The Frenchmen asked for permission to disembark his forces. His request was refused and he then sailed along the coast until he found a landing to his liking near the present day Biloxi, Mississippi. The governor of Pensacola at this time and the first governor of the colony was Don Andre D’Arriola. The fort was named San Carlos de Barrancas.
There came in 1719 a war against Spain in which France and England were allies opposed to her. The French thereupon sent in this year M. de Serigny with a sufficient force to take possession of Pensacola, which was valuable to the French on account of its proximity to Louisiana and its accessibility to the West India Islands. The expedition was entirely successful as, after an attack by land by 700 Canadians, the commander of the Spanish garrison, Don John Peter Matamoras, surrendered with the honors of war.
It is probable that the Spanish stronghold at that time was not the one, which has come down to us today, though it bore the same name and was, very possibly, built on the same site.
The news of the surrender of Pensacola caused a great stir in Spain, and an expedition was fitted out to recover the lost territory. The command of the expedition was given to Don Alphonse Carracosa and the force consisted of 12 vessels and 850 fighting men. Don Carracosa achieved success, as at the sight of his fleet part of the French garrison deserted and the rest surrendered, to be treated with great severity by the Spanish. Don Matamoras was reestablished and an expedition was despatched against the French at Mobile without result satisfactory to the Spanish.
The French were to have their day, again, however. De Bienville invested Pensacola by land and Count de Champmelin by sea. After a stubborn resistance Matamoras surrendered, giving the French between twelve hundred and fifteen hundred prisoners. The French dismembered the greater part of the fort and left a small garrison in the remainder of the structure.
Under the peace of 1720 Pensacola was restored to the Spanish and thus was ended the port’s first experience of warfare. Fort San Carlos was rebuilt substantially in the form that it bears today, and in 1722 another fortification was built on the point of Santa Rosa Island where Fort Pickens long years afterward was to maintain a gallant defense.
Fort San Carlos is a little semicircular structure most solidly put together but not of great pretension as to size. On account of its fine location, however having no heights near which could dominate it, and having a fine sweep over the entrance to the bay which it is designed to protect it was of importance in the days of short range cannon.
In 1763 the whole of Florida, which, of course, included our brave little fort at Pensacola, passed into the hands of the English by treaty with Spain, and an English garrison took possession of Fort San Carlos. Upon the outbreak of hostilities again between Spain and England, Galvez, the Spanish governor of Louisiana, sailed from New Orleans in February 1781, with 1400 men and a sufficient fleet to reduce Pensacola. He was joined by squadrons from Havana and Mobile and in May of that year entered Pensacola Bay. The fort here was in the command of Colonel Campbell with a small garrison of English. After a sufficient resistance Colonel Campbell surrendered and Galvez took charge. In 1783 the whole province of Florida was ceded to Spain, and Pensacola remained under a Spanish ruler for thirty-one years after this latter date.
The next eventful interval in the life of Fort San Carlos had to do with one of the most popular figures of United States history, Andrew Jackson. In 1814, during the progress of the second war of the United States with England, Jackson was made a major general and was given command of the Gulf Coast region where he had been operating against the Creek Indians. While arranging a treaty with these conquered savages he was informed by them that they had been approached by English officers, through the connivance of the Spanish commander at Pensacola, with offers of supplies and assistance to fight against the Americans. Two British vessels arrived at Pensacola August 4 and Colonel Edward Nicholls in command was allowed to land troops and to arm some Indians. Late in August seven more British vessels arrived at Pensacola and the mask of Spanish neutrality was thrown aside when Fort San Carlos was turned over to the British, the British being allowed to hoist their ensign thereon, and Colonel Nicholls was entertained by the Spanish governor as his guest.
Jackson was at Mobile, Alabama, not very far distant as the crow flies from Pensacola, and when the intelligence of these happenings had been confirmed immediately set about raising a force of Americans. By November he had 2,000 volunteers and early in that month marched from Fort Montgomery (Montgomery, Alabama) upon Pensacola. November 6 he was two miles from that city. To ascertain the Spaniard’s intentions he sent Major Pierre to wait upon the commandant of the city and was rewarded for his pains by having his envoy fired upon. By midnight Jackson had his men in motion against the city, and in the hot engagement, which followed the Spanish, and British were badly worsted. The British fled down the Bay in their ships, blowing up Fort San Carlos in their retreat and carrying away one of the higher Spanish officers – certainly, on the whole, a not very grateful return for the benefits bestowed upon them by their hosts.
The Creek and Seminole Indians who had begun to rally to the English standard were much impressed by this display of force on the part of the Americans and esteeming Jackson a very bad medicine, indeed, wisely decided to return to the prosaic paths of peace.
During the Civil War, Fort San Carlos played no conspicuous part. The limelight of fame was thrown on its close neighbor. Fort Pickens, on Santa Rosa Island. This latter post at the outbreak of the war was in charge of Lieutenant Adam J. Slemmer, a Pennsylvanian, who, seeing the conflict impending, concentrated (in Fort Pickens as being the easiest one of them all to defend) the forces in the various forts under his jurisdiction. From January 9 to April 11, 1861, Slemmer was in a state of siege in Fort Pickens and on the latter date was relieved by forces from the North. The point was held by Federal troops throughout the war.
A curious incident which occurred early in 1914 at Fort San Carlos recalled vividly to the officers there the part the little Spanish post played in the days when pirates roamed the Spanish Main and all of this part of the world was new./ A stranger came to the fort with an old parchment which he declared showed the location of buried treasure in the old fort. He would not tell how he came by the document, but its evident antiquity aroused interest and for an idle hour’s interest the officers of the post decided to dig for the buried treasure. On the parchment was a well-drawn plan of the fort with a cross in a particular corner of the parade. This point was located with some little difficulty and men were set to digging. For a time nothing interesting
occurred, but after a while one of the men struck a rotten wooden board which proved to be the top of an old well. At the bottom of this covered over well was discovered a lot of watery mud which, when it had been dug into, revealed the top of an old chest. Darkness fell now and it was not considered worthwhile to continue operations until the next day. The next morning when the men went back to work they found that the stirring up of the earth and water had caused the object, whatever it was, to sink so deep into the unstable soil of the spot that it could not be recovered!