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Florida, Escambia, Gear Up for 200th Birthdays

Florida Memory

Plans are underway for a couple of bicentennial celebrations next year, honoring both Florida and Escambia County.

Last Friday marked the county’s 199th birthday, when what’s now Florida was ceded by Spain and became a U.S. Territory. Escambia and St. John’s were Florida's two original counties, covering the entire area within modern state boundaries.

“We were part of the Spanish Empire for 300 years; and we were part of the British Empire for a small period within that – about 20 years,” said University of West Florida President Emeritus Judy Bense, who chairs the 200th Anniversary Committee.

Because of COVID-19, some parts of the plan had to be changed -- but the strategy remains intact.

“We are integrating it with the local groups; there are lots of local groups, from the Downtown Improvement Board to the Chamber of Commerce, to the Colonial Dames, to St. Michael’s Cemetery, to all kinds of different groups,” said Bense. “And they all have an event.”

For example, the Downtown Improvement Board wants to compare the market that was on Palafox Street in 1821, with the market set up there today.

“Another thing is that the Colonial Dames [historical association] are meeting here, having their state meeting in May,” Bense said. “The Genealogical Society has done research to come up with a list of people’s names who were in Pensacola in 1821 – about 200 names. Many of them are buried in St. Michael’s Cemetery.”

Also in the works is a trail, linking Pensacola’s 14 cemeteries.

Credit UWF
Dr. Judy Bense, President Emeritus, University of West Florida and Chair of BIG200! Committee.

“Four are interpreted and ready to go; they’re going to put markers, and signs and benches,” said Bense. “Cemeteries are by their very nature historical, so we’re going to incorporate that.”

“We’re working with the committee – and we have a seat at the table on that committee,” said Rob Overton, the Director of the University of West Florida Historic Trust. “Along with the committee, but primarily on our own, we have been looking at working on an exhibit to talk about Florida becoming part of the United States.”

Overton adds that the pandemic has also forced some changes in their original plans, which involved then-future president Andrew Jackson.

“We had planned prior to COVID doing some reenactments of various battles leading up to Jackson coming in and taking Florida for the United States,” Overton said. “But those were canceled. I think in January we’re going to look at doing something maybe out around Cantonment.”

On July 17 of next year – 200 years to the day Florida joined the U.S. – a flag-raising is scheduled behind the T.T. Wentworth Museum.

“Depending on the pandemic situation, we will or will not have a public-friendly event,” Bense said. “We plan on having a big reenactment, and a fair kind of an atmosphere. But we’ll have to wait and see how the virus is being handled at that point.”

As part of the overall celebration, Bense says state government is providing some financial assistance to support some of the local activities. And she invites everyone – individuals and local organizations – to be a part of “BIG 200!”

“They will be contacted through their leadership in their organizations for input to come up with ideas of incorporating their program and their main event of the year,” said Bense. 

Credit Escambia County

Also under development is a website for the celebration, which Bense says will be available soon.

“I think Visit Pensacola is going to host it; but there will be a link on the [city of Pensacola’s] page, on the county’s page, on UWF’s page,” Bense said. “Little, quick lines when something’s coming up, we’ll post it. And then send out notices that something’s up.”

About a quarter of a century after becoming a U.S. possession, the circle was completed on March 3, 1845 – when Florida joined the Union as the 27th United State.

“Florida is a strange place; I’ve lived here all my life and many, many people in Pensacola have too; and we know that it’s not like any other state,” said BIG 200! chair Judy Bense. “It has a very long colonial history; it is a wonderfully complex and unique state. And it all began as part of the United States, in 1821.”