You probably know where to find Pensacola’s best burgers and craft beer or great fishing spots and knockout views. You might even know the exact number of stairs at the historic Pensacola Lighthouse — 177, for those counting. Living in America’s First Settlement, we know it can be laborious to know all the history of Pensacola. With so much history to pride ourselves on, we’ve picked a few facts from the city’s past that even most natives probably don’t know. Let’s do the rundown.

How Pensacola got its name

Panzacola was a name of Native American origin given to Pensacola Bay and subsequently to the Spanish settlements built here in the 17th and 18th centuries, specifically the Presidio San Miguel de Panzacola. It is the antecedent of the modern name Pensacola.


The Spanish settlement of Panzacola. The map depicts present-day downtown Pensacola in 1812.

The word was first reported by Juan Jordán de Reina, who in 1686 encountered a group of Native Americans by the bay and transliterated their word for it, later referring to them collectively as the “Panzacolas.”

It is commonly held that “Panzacola” was the name of the tribe (and further, that the word means “hairy people”), but is unknown if this was indeed the demonym they gave themselves.

The name Panzacola became synonymous among the Spanish with the bay and its surrounding settlements. The settlements at Presidio Santa María de Galve, Presidio Isla de Santa Rosa, and Presidio San Miguel were all known alternatively as “Panzacola” during their respective establishments.

The San Miguel presidio was officially named “Panzacola” by royal decree in 1757. The change of pronunciation to “Pensacola” seems to have occurred under British rule, as the English used “Panzacola” and “Pensacola” interchangeably; when the city returned to Spanish rule, “Panzacola” was again used exclusively until the 1821 cession to the United States.

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The streetcar trolleys were the way to get around town

The Pensacola streetcar trolley system was a public transportation system that was operated by various entities between 1884 and 1932. The trolley sytstem was founded by Conrad Kupfrian, a German immigrant who drew inspiration from the horsecars in St. Louis to setup Pensacola’s streetcars.

Kupfrian, along with business partners John Pfeiffer and John Cosgrove, established the Pensacola Streetcar Company and lobbied the Pensacola City Council to allow steel track to be placed on streets within the city.

The first streetcars, which went operational in 1884, ran from Pensacola Bay north along Palafox Street to Wright Street, then east to the Union Depot, then south along Alcaniz to Gregory and west to DeVilliers Street. A north-south link at DeVilliers went south to Government Street and east again to Palafox. The trolley fare cost five cents – about $1.50 in today’s dollars.


Due to the popularity of the automobile, and driven by heavy lobbying efforts by car manufacturers and other special interests, streetcar service was discontinued in 1932, replaced by motor bus service operated by the Pensacola Coach Corporation.

At its peak in 1920, a total of 30 trolley cars carried four million passengers per year. Some of the old rail tracks are still visible in various places along the former routes, including on West Gadsden Street, West DeSoto Street, and East Jackson Street.


Maps of Pensacola Streetcar Routes

The first catholic mass in the new world was on Santa Rosa Island

The first Catholic Mass in the United States was held on Pensacola Beach shortly after the Spanish arrived in the Summer of 1559.

The cross on Santa Rosa Island commemorates the first Catholic Mass celebrated in the continental United States on August 15, 1559.

It was in 1559 that Tristan de Luna, with eleven ships and 1,500 people, including five Catholic Dominican priests, landed on the shores of Pensacola Beach.


First Catholic Mass Site

The dedication of the cross took place on May 3, 1953. For many in the community, the cross serves as a reminder of a time of discovery and adventure in which explorations and faith in God were intertwined.

August 15, 2009 marked the 450th anniversary of the first Catholic Mass at Pensacola, Florida.  Earlier Masses had been said during exploratory expeditions in the continental U.S., but this was the first at a settlement.

American pioneer Daniel Boone wanted to settle in Pensacola

Daniel Boone came through Pensacola during the British period in 1763. The British government offered Protestant settlers 100 acres of land. Boone traveled from present-day Boone, NC through St. Augustine to Pensacola. Returning home on Christmas Day 1765, he announced that he had obtained a place to settle in Pensacola. His wife refused to leave North Carolina, putting an end to the issue.

After his father’s death in 1765, Boone traveled with his brother Squire and a group of men to Florida, which had become British territory after the end of the war, to look into the possibility of settling there. According to a family story, Boone purchased land near Pensacola, but Rebecca refused to move so far away from her friends and family. The Boones moved to a more remote area of the Yadkin River Valley, and Boone began to hunt westward into the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Young woman photographing a young boy holding a crab in a bayou in the 1930s.

Young woman photographing a young boy holding a crab in a bayou in the 1930s.

Pensacola was the capital of a state that stretched to New Orleans

The calm and winding Perdido River currently serves as Florida’s western boundary, but that hasn’t always been the case. Two centuries ago, Florida’s territory extended all the way to the Mississippi River, touching the thriving port city of New Orleans. The story of how the humble Perdido ended up as Florida’s western edge is a complex but important one.


The frequent changes in Florida’s boundaries symbolized the competition between European empires (and later the United States) for territory on the North American continent. Spain, France, and Great Britain all established colonies that expanded, contracted, and shifted according to their respective fortunes and priorities. As a result, early maps of North America generally give a very vague sense of where Florida was supposed to be. After Juan Ponce de Leon claimed Florida for Spain in 1513, the Spanish continued exploring the present-day Southeastern U.S. and expanding their claims to the land. At various times maps show Spanish Florida reaching as far west as Texas and as far north as the Carolinas and the present-day Midwest!


An example of Florida’s once-enormous boundaries. Pictured here is “‘T Amerikaans gewest van Florida door Ferdinand de Soto,” a map prepared by Pieter van der Aa (circa 1710s).

An example of Florida’s once-enormous boundaries. Pictured here is “‘T Amerikaans gewest van Florida door Ferdinand de Soto,” a map prepared by Pieter van der Aa (circa 1710s).