Monday, April 29, 2013

Harboring History in Pensacola

In Florida's panhandle, vibrant Pensacola stakes its claim as the oldest European settlement in the United States

Pensacola, its anchorage first admired by the Spanish 450 years ago. In 1686, Spanish navigator Juan Jordán described Pensacola's bay as "the best I have ever seen." (Guillen Photography/Travel / USA / Florida / Alamy)

It's late afternoon in Gulf Islands National Seashore. Along some 20 miles of pristine ocean-front beaches here in northwest Florida, the water is crystal clear; one can wade into gentle surf to peer down at starfish and sand dollars. Pelicans and sea gulls wheel across the sky. Dolphins pop up above the waves, their sharp dorsal fins silhouetted against a horizon where the turquoise Gulf of Mexico meets an iridescent blue sky.

The unspoiled shoreline is virtually unaltered from the time Spanish explorers first made landfall here nearly five centuries ago. Yet this marine wilderness lies only a few minutes' drive from the center of Pensacola, the lively and historic city of 56,000 at the westernmost tip of the Florida panhandle on the border with Alabama. Pensacola boasts a surprisingly little-known past: it is the site of the nation's oldest European settlement.

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By Donovan Webster
Smithsonian magazine, May 2009

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