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Bicentennial Highlights History of Florida, Escambia County

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A series of events and activities will take place over the next few months, as part of the 200th anniversary of Florida becoming a U.S. Territory and Escambia County becoming one of its two original counties. Organizers plan to use the occasion to share more details about this often-overlooked period in the area’s rich history.

“Let’s put it this way, when I tell people that we’re going to celebrate our 200th anniversary, they look at me. They have no clue what I’m talking about,” said Dr. Judy Bense, chair of the Bicentennial Commission for Escambia County and the City of Pensacola.

Bense is President Emeritus of the University of West Florida and archaeologist by trade has spent much of her career educating the community about the history of area. But, she acknowledges it’s been heavily focused on the colonial period, from the shipwrecks and settlement of Tristan de Luna in the 1500s to the final Spanish occupation that ended in the early 1800s.

“Our job is now in the lead up to the real date - when the flags were lowered and raised - July 17 in 1821,” said Bense. “We’re commemorating it this July, 17, 2021. In this lead up, we are educating the public what it was all about it.”

We begin with what it was like in late Spanish Florida when the transition took place. According to Dr. Bense, this period two centuries ago marked the decline of the Spanish colonial empire.

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Credit University of West Florida
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University of West Florida

“The colonial form of government, which was under a king and under a viceroy in Mexico who was authoritarian, really was ending,” she explained. “And, the transition to a democratic form of government where people vote and have mayors and health departments and governors really began and actually everything we know about the Pensacola organization and form of government in the city, state and county started then.”

In describing the geography of the area, Bense points out that the boundaries of the territory known as West Florida, extended east to west for more than 200 miles.

“Well, actually, it was the new Escambia County, and it went from the Perdido River to the Suwanee River,” she noted.

“The only other county was St. Johns, which was everything else, (including) the peninsula and northeast Florida. So, it was a huge county and I will say that the official commemoration, the flag raising and the official transfer, took place here in Pensacola, not in St. Augustine.”

Soon after the 1821 transfer, those two huge counties of Escambia and St. Johns were divided into smaller ones.

Locally, Walton County established in 1824. Santa Rosa County was created in 1842. Important to keep in mind, says Bense, is that Florida’s establishment as a territory made it a part of the United States, which was a democracy.

“So, the people in Washington were very sensitive to appointing people as opposed to electing. So, they only appointed the mayor, county commission, fire department head, the police chief, the essentials, for one year,” she said of the early government formation. “After that, they had an election and they elected who they wanted, and we’ve been doing that ever since.”

As a result, in the state of Florida, Escambia County and the City of Pensacola can boast of the “oldest” in numerous categories of government, including county commission, office of mayor, fire department, and health department. And, all of those entities are celebrating their 200th anniversaries.

There’s a lot of historical information to unpack and various avenues for unpacking it.

For the past year or so, Bense has led a commission that includes some of the area’s most noted historians, to come up with ways to commemorate the occasion. In addition to stories and features from WUWF, the Pensacola News Journal will be helping to get the word out.  Click here to read the March 7 article about Andrew Jackson.

“We as a commission and the News Journal have partnered to have an article in the newspaper every week, for 23 weeks until July 17, on Mondays,” she said, noting that many authors are contributing. “I think there are like 10 different authors of the pieces and I think we’re putting a timeline on the website, for the commission, which is on the Visit Pensacola website.”

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Credit Florida Memory
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Florida Memory
Spanish land grant to Marianna Bonifay, who resided in Pensacola in 1821, when Florida became a U.S. Territory.

Another interesting project involves the West Florida Genealogical Society and their effort to document all the people who were in Pensacola in 1821 when the territorial transfer took place. The list has grown from about 200 last summer.

“They’ve identified more than 1600 individuals. They’re Spanish, they’re French, they’re Native Americans, they’re African-Americans, some are enslaved and some are free,” she stated. “So, they’ve got their names, or unfortunately, in the case of enslaved African-Americans they only have numbers. But, that’s better than nothing.”

Information such as name, sex, age, and ethnicity is being put on a spreadsheet. Now, the Genealogical Society is seeking to put faces with those names.

“So, they have their project called “The Mosaic,” which is where the public is invited to volunteer through the website on the News Journal article and they can volunteer to take a selfie of themselves, send it in to the website and identify the person or not they want to be,” said Bense. As an example, she pointed out that she’d want to represent Marianna Bonifay, who was a wealthy landowner and businesswoman or an unknown German woman who was in Pensacola in 1821.

Additionally, many of the people who lived in Pensacola 200 years ago are buried in historic St. Michael’s Cemetery, which will play a significant part in the commemoration.

The celebration, to include reenactment of the flag exchange, will culminate on the actual anniversary date, July 17.

As COVID-19 begins to get under control, Bense says she’s hoping for a “good ole’ fashioned” event in Museum Plaza in downtown Pensacola.

“It sure seems to me that people will be so ready to have a mid-summer fun thing and also to celebrate a part of our history that we didn’t know too much about,” she declared.

Final details of the 200th Anniversary Commemoration Event will hinge on the status of the pandemic when the July 17 date approaches.