Home History British rule of Pensacola began 254 years ago this week

British rule of Pensacola began 254 years ago this week

On August 7, 1763, Captain Wills of the Third Battery of the British Royal Artillery landed in Pensacola and took possession of the city from Spain, inaugurating 18 years of British rule over America’s first European settlement.


The British had received Pensacola along with the rest of Spanish Florida in the Treaty of Paris, which earlier that year had ended the global conflict known as the Seven Years’ War. Less than a month after the British arrived, all remaining Spaniards in Pensacola left the city on September 3, bound for Vera Cruz.

“A view of Pensacola, in West Florida,” circa 1765. (University of West Florida/Special to The Pulse)

The town inherited by Captain Wills was fledgling, having moved to the mainland just nine years earlier from what’s now Pensacola Beach on Santa Rosa Island. Wills wrote in a dispatch that 1763 Pensacola was just “40 huts, thatched with palmetto leaves, and barracks for a small garrison, the whole surrounded by a stockade of pine posts.”

“The country, from the insuperable laziness of the Spaniards, still remains uncultivated,” wrote Capt. Wills. “The woods are still near the village, and a few paltry gardens show the only improvements. Stock, they have none, being entirely supplied by Mobile, which is pretty well cultivated and produces sufficient for export.”

Unsatisfied with what they’d found, the British decided to remake it. Arriving in Pensacola in 1764, surveyor Elias Durnford created what is undoubtedly the most lasting legacy of British rule over Pensacola: a new city plan which laid out the basic street grid which still exists today.

A British plan of Pensacola, dated 1767. (Library of Congress/Special to The Pulse)

All the principal streets of modern-day downtown Pensacola are present on Durnford’s plan, albeit with different names. Palafox Street was named George Street, for then-King George III. Alcaniz was named Charlotte Street, for his queen. All of it was centered on a nine-block area stretching between present-day Plaza Ferdinand VII and Seville Square, where the British built a star-shaped fort on the site of the earlier Spanish presidio.

The British extended George (Palafox) Street to the high ground now known as North Hill but which they christened Gage’s Hill for General Thomas Gage. There, they would build Fort George and two redoubts overlooking what was then the whole city.

Named the capital of the British colony of West Florida, Pensacola became home to a series of Crown-appointed governors, the first of whom, George Johnstone, arrived in Pensacola with Durnford in 1764. The town had grown over the past year, with Johnstone describing it as “an assembly of poor despicable huts, to the number of one hundred and twelve.”

Unlike Capt. Wills, though, Johnstone saw Pensacola’s potential in the wild landscape:

“But it has all the advantages which a sandy soil can afford, namely health, good water, a noble port, beautiful situations surrounding it, infinite communications by water, capable of easy communications by land, great plenty of fish, and excellent vegetables,” Johnstone wrote.

By 1767, though, Johnstone was out as governor, recalled after becoming unpopular with settlers over his enforcement of controversial British policies like the Stamp Act of 1765. His second-in-command, Montford Browne, administered the colony until a permanent replacement, John Eliot, arrived in 1767. Eliot wouldn’t last long, though: just a month after arriving in Pensacola, Eliot — suffering from a “violent pain in his head” that was probably a brain tumor — hanged himself in the Governor’s House.

The magazine at the Queen’s Redoubt exploding during the battle for Pensacola in 1781. (Library of Congress/Special to The Pulse)

The next decade in British Pensacola was largely uneventful, with Great Britain preoccupied with the unrest in its colonies to the north which would soon devolve into the American Revolutionary War. Delegates from both West and East Florida were invited to attend the First Continental Congress in 1774, but with loyalist sentiments prevailing, they declined.

In the years that followed, Pensacola and British Florida remained mostly untouched by the war raging up and down the eastern seaboard — until Spain signed the Treaty of Aranjuez in 1779. Eager to retake its former colonies in Florida, Spain agreed to enter the war on the side of France, the United States’ chief ally against Great Britain. Over the next two years, Spanish general Bernardo de Gálvez swept across the Gulf Coast, taking Baton Rouge, Mobile, and other British possessions.

After regrouping in Cuba, Gálvez arrived in Pensacola with some 1,300 troops on March 9, 1781, blockading the harbor and beginning siege operations. Additional reinforcements over the next six weeks would bring Gálvez’s total force to 8,000 men — a number that would prove unstoppable for the 1,800-strong British garrison — and by early May, the battle for Pensacola was in full swing.

Bernardo de Gálvez leads Spanish troops in battle at Pensacola. (Augusto Ferrer-Dalmau/Special to The Pulse)

The decisive blow came on May 8, when a Spanish howitzer shell struck a gunpowder magazine at one of the British force’s two redoubts. “In an instant the body of the redoubt was a heap of rubbish, depriving no less than 48 military, 27 seaman, and one negro of life by the explosion, besides 24 men wounded, most of them dangerously,” British Major General John Campbell later reported. The Spanish force swarmed what remained of the redoubt, bringing in artillery and opening fire on the remaining British fortifications.

Two days later, on May 10, General Campbell raised the white flag over Fort George, surrendering the battle and bringing nearly two decades of British rule over Pensacola and West Florida to a close.