Those pesky hurricanes

PENSACOLA, Fla. — A trivia question: Where was the first European settlement in the continental United States?
Places like St. Augustine, Fla., or Santa Fe, N.M., both settled early by the Spanish, might come to mind. pensacola-beach-sign-for-weOr perhaps the English settlements at Roanoke Island, off the coast of North Carolina, or Jamestown in Virginia. But you’d be wrong on all four counts.
No, the first European settlement was at Pensacola, in what is now the far western portion of the Florida Panhandle, only a few miles from the Alabama state line.
We rode through Pensacola on Thursday — skirting the western shore of Pensacola Bay — as we near the end of a transcontinental bicycle ride from San Diego to St. Augustine. It’s hard to imagine what the Spanish explorers who first came to Pensacola would make of it now, with its high-rise beachfront condos, high-dollar homes perched on scenic bluffs and the usual urban sprawl.
span-caravel_12906_mdSpanish explorers, seeking ways to exploit this newly found continent, started poking their caravels’ prows into Pensacola Bay, just east of Mobile Bay, shortly after Ponce de Leon “discovered” Florida in 1513.
Don Diego Miruelo is thought to be the first to sail into the bay in 1516. Alonzo Alvarez de Pineda is believed to have entered the bay and traded with the native people in 1519. He was followed by Pánfilo de Narváez and Alvar Nunez de Vaca, with about 240 followers, in 1528. Captain Diego de Naldonado sailed into Pensacola Bay in 1540 and returned each summer until 1543 hoping to find survivors of the ill-fated expedition of Hernando de Soto deep into the interior of the continent. He was the first European to stay any length of time.
He must have liked what he saw, for on Aug. 15, 1559, some 1,400 to 1,500 people, led by Don Tristán de Luna y Arellano, arrived on 11 ships from Vera Cruz, Mexico, to establish a settlement, which they called Bahia Santa Maria de Filipina.
pensacola beach with birdUnfortunately, it was hurricane season. Only a month after their arrival, on Sept. 19, the infant colony was struck by a hurricane that killed hundreds of the settlers, sank five ships, grounded a caravel in an inland grove and ruined the settlement’s supplies.
About 1,000 survivors tried to resupply and resuscitate the settlement but abandoned the effort in 1561. About 240 people sailed to Santa Elena (today’s Parris Island in South Carolina), but another storm struck there. So they sailed to Cuba and scattered. The remaining 50 at Pensacola were taken back to Mexico, and advisers to the viceroy of New Spain, Luis de Velasco, concluded that northwest Florida was too dangerous to settle.


Pensacola in 1885

It took more than a century for that notion to wear off. The Spanish re-established a permanent settlement at Pensacola in 1696. It was occupied by the French in 1719, but another major hurricane devastated the settlement in 1722. The French evacuated and the Spanish returned.


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Filed under Americana, Cycling across America, Journeys

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