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Celebrating 200 Years Of United States Rule

July 17, 1821 — Spain cedes Florida to the U.S. in Pensacola

Two hundred years after Spain ceded Florida to the United States, it was remembered in downtown Pensacola on Saturday. To the day, to the hour, and in the same location.

It was a typical July day in Pensacola – sunny skies, hot temperatures and high humidity – leading some to wish that the changeover had occurred in November. Among them, Collier Merrill, chairman of the University of West Florida Historic Trust.

“So Andrew Jackson and his troops were here; and they had to know this celebration would happen 200 years from then,” said Merrill. “And the townspeople would gather – and one of them probably said, ‘You know general, the townsfolk might appreciate maybe a cool day in the fall (laughs).’”

In exchange for the future Sunshine State, the U.S. dropped all claims to areas that are now Texas. When the Americans made the Louisiana Purchase from France, the western boundary was unclear — maybe reaching the Rio Grande.

On the front page of the event’s program was a depiction of Andrew Jackson taking Pensacola on that day. UWF President Emeritus Judy Bense said at that moment, La Florida ceased to be a Spanish colony, and began as a United States territory.

“That is what it looked like. It was different. The remains of all of those buildings are still with us – about 2 ft. underground and well-protected,” Bense said. “I don’t know what they thought would happen 200 years from 1821, but here we are. And we are the direct descendants.”

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Jennie McKeon
Judy Bense speaks at the Bicentennial Ceremony Saturday, July 17.

The year 1821, says Bense, was a huge turning point for not only Florida, but the U.S. — and its people as well.

“In our history everything changed; the culture changed, the religion changed, the government changed, everything changed,” said Bense. “And we are still practicing what they developed 200 years ago.”

When it went to the U.S., Florida became two counties: Escambia to the west, and St John’s to the east – the boundary was the Suwanee River. All of the other eventual 65 counties were apportioned from those original two.

“Now, since the establishment of Florida as a territory in 1821, a few other important events have taken place [in Pensacola], said UWF president Martha Saunders.

“In 1845, Florida became the 27th state; in 1913, the naval air station was established. In 1963, the University of West Florida was founded, and in 2001 the state of Florida entrusted to UWF the area on which we are now seated known as ‘Historic Pensacola.’”

Early Saturday morning, a prayer service was conducted by members of the Santa Rosa Creek Indian Tribe, to commemorate the bicentennial. Speaking at the ceremony, Chief Dan “Sky Horse” Helms said two centuries ago, you may have heard these words spoken in Pensacola. He then gave a demonstration of the Muscogee language.

“I said, ‘Hello, how are you? I am Chief Sky Horse. I have deer hides I want to trade,’” he translated into English.

Members of the Creek Confederacy, said Helms, provided commodities such as [animal] hides; cattle, corn, hogs, tobacco, sassafras, and the list goes on. That helped build Pensacola into the largest mercantile center in the Southeast.

“Today we are in the unique position of being the descendants of our ancestors, and the ancestors of our descendants,” Helms said. “It is up to us to pass on to the children all the good qualities that brought us to this time and place.”

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Jennie McKeon
Chief Dan "Sky Horse" Helms speaks at the Bicentennial Ceremony Saturday, July 17.

“This is an incredible day that I never expected; I had in my dreams that this is what it would look like, but it looks better than I even could have imagined,” said Pensacola mayor Grover Robinson — a 7th generation Pensacolian.

He said several firsts in Pensacola are celebrated – the first settlement in North America; and the first aircraft carrier landing, among others. But he added there’s also a need to look to the future, referencing the time capsule buried Saturday for opening in a quarter century.

“I look forward to the day in 2046, because I believe at that point Northwest Florida will be a leader like none other,” the mayor said. “Not just in Florida, but in this country and the world in what we continue to do here.”

After the speeches, an honor guard of men in period military uniforms, American and Spanish, marched to the flagpole at Museum Plaza, and took down the flag of Espana, and raised the Stars and Stripes with its 22 stars as the Star Spangled Banner played in the background.

Something not heard during the ceremony was the national anthem of Spain, "La Marcha Real. Organizers said that the program was already full, and there was no room to play it.

As for Spain, the early 19th century saw the loss of most of its colonies in the New World, including La Florida. The exceptions were Cuba and Puerto Rico. They were acquired by the U.S. after the Spanish-American War in 1898.