Commemorating July 17, 1821
With the 200th anniversary of Florida’s passing from Spanish to American possession, Pensacola celebrates its important role —with a look back at the people there that day.
By Margo S. Stringfield
Featured image above: As part of the bicentennial commemoration-day festivities on July 16–17, this reproduction keel boat will be anchored in Pensacola. Reenactors will tell the story of how important the vessels were in the years around 1821 in transporting commodities from farms and ranches on the upper reaches of the Escambia River to Pensacola. Image courtesy Dale Cox and Rachel Conrad of Two Egg TV.
It is not merely the big personality or event that shapes our history and heritage; everyone leaves a mark, large or small. Nowhere is this more evident than in Pensacola, where native people lived for thousands of years prior to European settlement, and where, on July 17, 1821, American and Spanish officials oversaw the exchange of flags as Florida formally passed from Spanish to American possession.
People in attendance that day, according to information from the 1820 Spanish census, and other contemporaneous accounts, reflected Pensacola’s diverse population and their contributions to the community.
In Pensacola, from the onset of European settlement, there was an ebb and flow of Colonial governments that brought Spanish, French, Spanish again, English, and yet again, Spanish rule. Native people were initially decimated by European-borne diseases, internal warfare, and an effort by Europeans to disenfranchise them. Against all odds, their descendants survived and held tight to their cultural traditions.
Many came to Florida enslaved. These Africans and Afro-Caribbean people included skilled artisans, farmers, cooks and bakers, builders, and problem solvers.
Old World and New World traditions interacted, creating a vibrant blend of cultures and ethnicities.
In Pensacola, Americans inherited a town constructed primarily by people of color. In the city’s St. Michael’s Cemetery, surviving 1820 brick-and-plaster structures were built by one or all of three bricklayers there then, all of African descent.
Among the surviving wood houses built after 1800 in Historic Pensacola Village is the former home of Julee Panton, a free woman of color who owned several properties.
Another is associated with Dorothy Walton, wife of George Walton, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and mother of George Walton Jr., the first secretary of West Florida. An eyewitness to the formation of our country and state, she was quietly influential and had the ear of public officials.
Other women were more publically vocal. Merced Vidal, daughter of a wealthy Spanish official and a free woman of color, pressed her right to inherit her share of her father’s estate. The Vidal matter reached beyond Pensacola to the governments of Spain and the United States. Vidal prevailed.
Spanish civil servant Felipe Prieto left Pensacola with evacuating Spanish officials in July 1821. He soon returned, and was explicit in his will that his union with Mariana, a Mestizo born in the Creek Nation, be recognized and their children inherit his estate. The case illustrates that some men in unions with women of color, free or enslaved, took care to ensure their families were protected after their deaths.
In 1819, Pensacola physician Dr. John Brosnaham created a detailed city map, reconstructing its landscape and built environment. The Tivoli Tavern and Ballroom are among the structures captured there. Frenchman Juan Cazenave and two partners brought the concept of the Tivoli entertainment complex from New Orleans, and by 1805, it was a gathering place for food, drink, dance, theater, and other entertainments.
These sketches of those present as Pensacola shifted from Spanish to American rule illustrate the diversity of the 1821 population, which is reflected in the community today.
Pensacola’s commemorative events
On July 17, Escambia County and Pensacola will commemorate the 200th anniversary of the day Spain handed Florida over to the United States and Escambia became one of the state’s first counties. The celebrations will take place at Historic Pensacola Village’s Museum Plaza, with virtual tours, music and dance performances, and much more highlighting the community’s diverse heritage and collective influences.
The day will begin with a sunrise blessing by the Santa Rosa Creek Tribe, in honor of the region’s original inhabitants. Later that morning, University of West Florida musicians will play The Star Spangled Banner, exactly 200 years after the exchange of Spanish and American flags. Programs will recreate events of two centuries before with Spanish and African music and dance performances, and Spanish and English military reenactors.
The West Florida Genealogical Society developed “1821: A Pensacola Sampler,” a database of individuals living in Pensacola then, to help answer the question: “Who was there in the beginning?”
“This is a way to bring alive all these stories and more, to use the 200th anniversary of the changing of the flags to celebrate the people of our area at a crucial point in its history, when worlds both converged and collided,” says Erin Renfroe, senior researcher for the Sampler project.
Using the 1820 census, the 1822 voter rolls, and other records, researchers have identified more than 2,000 individuals in Pensacola then.
Anyone can participate in the project by submitting a photograph in honor of someone from the 1821 community. “These were more than just names; every person had a rich life and history,” says designer Joe Vinson.
The photos are part of an interactive web-based mosaic of faces that links the Sampler to the modern era. You can view it at https://1821sampler.com.
A virtual walking tour of historic St. Michael’s Cemetery highlights the stories of Pensacolans of 1821 who are buried there. Developed by the University of West Florida Archaeology Institute, the UWF Historic Trust and the St. Michael’s Cemetery Foundation, Inc., the tour will be available via cell phone or online. UWF archaeologist Jennifer Melcher created a storyboard, with stops at sites associated with the 1821 population, stmichaelscemetery. org/virtual-tour.
As the anniversary date approaches, The Pensacola News Journal is publishing weekly stories on the city’s history, including the positive and not-so-positive aspects of the Americanization of Florida. Read the stories at pnj.com or visitpensacola.com. News Radio 92.3, WUWF public radio and WSRE Public Broadcasting are also providing programming related to the anniversary, and the Pensacola Archaeological Society (pasfl.org) is hosting monthly online lectures on history and archaeology.
A state historic marker will commemorate the transfer of Florida. Other signs will highlight the contributions of lesser-known Floridians. The Pensacola Downtown Improvement Board and the Port of Pensacola are mounting displays connecting past to present.
A full program of events and other resources is available at visitpensacola. com/200th/.
Margo Stringfield is an archaeologist with the University of West Florida Archaeology Institute, with an ongoing interest in the history and archaeology of Spanish and British Colonial West Florida and the early Florida Territorial period. She is the co-author of Historic Pensacola (UPF 2009), Stringfield also works extensively in the field of historic cemetery preservation.
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