Four hundred and fifty-seven years ago this week, Spanish explorer Tristán de Luna y Arellano sailed into Pensacola Bay and established the first multi-year settlement in what would become the United States.

And with that, America’s first city was born. Over the ensuing four and half centuries, some of the world’s greatest powers — Spain, France, the United Kingdom and United States — would fight for control of the deep-water port, each contributing to the city’s unique and rich multicultural fabric.

Of course, dozens if not hundreds of Native Americans were already living living full and imaginative lives in the Pensacola Bay area in 1559 — and would play an integral role in the city’s future — but de Luna’s arrival and his establishment of a European settlement on a bluff overlooking the bay marks the beginning of Pensacola’s modern history.

Luna set sail from Veracruz in New Spain (present-day Mexico) on June 11, 1559 with a fleet of eleven ships and some 1,500 settlers, including soldiers, women, children, around 200 Aztecs, and an unknown number of African slaves. On August 14, after a brief stop at present-day Mobile Bay, Luna moved his fleet into Pensacola Bay, which he promptly rechristened the Bahía de Santa María Filipina in honor of the Virgin Mary and King Philip II of Spain. Herbert Ingram Priestley’s narrative of Luna’s expedition, compiled from his translations of Luna’s papers, recounts the landing:

The viceroy’s description of this bay, Pensacola, as taken from the pilots, announced it as the best port yet discovered in the Indies. It was three leagues wide at the spot where Luna anchored, the entrance over the bar being half a league wide, with a minimum depth of eleven cubits. Its landfall was marked by a reddish bluff which divided the eastern side of the bay. No storm could damage the ships at such a safe anchorage. There was scant population, only a few fishermen’s huts being visible, and no resistance was offered. The place chosen for the first settlement was on a high point of land which commanded a view of the anchorage. The Luna Papers, 1559–1561

Luna set about ensuring his settlement’s future, dispatching ships to Mexico and Spain to secure additional provisions and settlers and sending several expeditions inland in search of natives and food. Unfortunately, Luna’s colony seemed doomed from the start: just weeks after his arrival, a hurricane swept through the area, sinking much of his fleet, causing a substantial loss of life, and destroying most of the expedition’s supplies.

Despite deteriorating conditions, elements of the Luna expedition managed to survive at Pensacola for another two years before being evacuated to Mexico by August 1561. The Spanish returned under Andrés de Pez in 1698 to establish a permanent settlement.

Undated 16th-century Spanish map depicting Florida and the Gulf Coast. (Library of Congress/Special to The Pulse)

Undated 16th-century Spanish map depicting Florida and the Gulf Coast. (Library of Congress/Special to The Pulse)

Over its 450-year history, Pensacola has played a central role in the history of the nations who ruled it. Spanish general Bernardo de Gálvez’s recapture of the city from the British in 1781 helped turn the tide of the American Revolution. Pensacola is the place where general and future president Andrew Jackson brought Florida into the United States forty years later in 1821. During the American Civil War, Pensacola was home to Fort Pickens, the only southern fortress held by Union forces for the duration of the war.

Given the number of wars and hurricanes the city has lived through, it’s no surprise that Pensacola was named “America’s Toughest City” by in 2013. Today, in addition to its title as America’s First City, Pensacola is also known as the Cradle of Naval Aviation and home to the Blue Angels, the U.S. Navy’s elite flight demonstration team.

Happy 457th birthday, Pensacola!


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