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Bicentennial Spotlight: Florida Joins U.S. in Historic 1821 Ceremony

UWF Historic Trust
This painting captures the 1821 ceremony in Pensacola when Florida officially becomes a U.S. Territory.

On Saturday, July 17, 2021, the Pensacola-area community will host a big celebration marking Florida’s Territorial Bicentennial.

The official transfer of Florida from Spain to the United States took place in Pensacola on July 17, 1821. In today’s Bicentennial Spotlight, local historians Judy Bense, Margo Stringfield, Brian Rucker and Dean DeBolt tell the story of how the historic ceremony unfolded 200 years ago.

“The ceremony to take possession by the U.S., of what was Spanish Florida, was short and sweet,” said Bense, University of West Florida Archaeologist Emeritus and chair of the 200th Anniversary Commission.

Bicentennial Ceremony Prelude
To find out about the standoff between American Gen. Andrew Jackson and Spanish Gen. Jose Callava, the governor of West Florida in the weeks before Florida became a U.S. territory. Listen to the story before the story of the 1821 flag ceremony, which marked the official transfer of Florida from Spain to the U.S.

After camping in the Cantonment area for several weeks in preparation, Andrew Jackson and his military entourage reportedly arrived in Pensacola for the transfer around 10 a.m., just before the ceremony began.

“Gen. Andrew Jackson was tasked with taking formal possession after a treaty had been signed prior to that.”

According to UWF Archivist and commission member DeBolt, "This was (Jackson's) third time coming into Florida and the other two times, he was fighting the Spanish."

“Jackson was going to be the provisional governor,” said Rucker, commission member and history professor at Pensacola State College.

“He actually stayed out of the town, near the Cantonment area, for a while before the official transfer.”

“I think the atmosphere that day would have been electric,” declared Margo Stringfield, UWF Archaeologist and commission co-chair.

“I think that everyone in town would have come to see the exchange of flags, because it would have been a festive day.”

The ceremony included a gun salute, with a gun fired for each U.S. state and territory, including Florida; the USS Hornet answered the gun salute from Pensacola Bay.

Additionally, the Fourth Infantry band played the “Star Spangled Banner,” which had been written just a few years before.

To hear more details about that historic day, listen to the audio file above.

The historic 1821 flag ceremony will be commemorated with reenactments Friday at Fountain Park. The 1814 Battle of Pensacola will be reenacted at 11 a.m. and the 1818 Battle of Pensacola reenactment will begin at 2 p.m.

A big community celebration of Florida's Bicentennial and the 200th Anniversary of Escambia County will be held Saturday at Museum Plaza, beginning at 10 a.m.

More information is available at the Visit Pensacola website.

Sandra Averhart has been News Director at WUWF since 1996. Her first job in broadcasting was with (then) Pensacola radio station WOWW107-FM, where she worked 11 years. Sandra, who is a native of Pensacola, earned her B.S. in Communication from Florida State University.