First settled by Spaniards in 1559, Pensacola is the oldest European settlement in mainland America. The location - south of the original British colonies and near the dividing line between French Louisiana and Spanish Florida - has caused Pensacola to change ownership several times. Pensacola was Spanish, then French, then Spanish, then British, then Spanish again, before becoming American, then Confederate, and then the current U.S. city.
Early exploration of Pensacola Bay (called Polonza or Ochuse) spanned decades, with the likes of Ponce de León (1513), Pánfilo de Narváez (1528), and Hernando de Soto (1539) charting the area. Due to prior exploration, the first settlement of Pensacola was large, landing on August 15, 1559 and led by Don Tristán de Luna y Arellano with over 1,400 people on 11 ships from Vera Cruz, Mexico. However, weeks later, the colony was decimated by a hurricane on September 19, 1559,which killed hundreds, sank 5 ships, grounded a caravel, and ruined supplies. The 1,000 survivors divided to relocate/resupply the settlement, but due to famine and attacks, the effort was abandoned in 1561. About 240 people sailed to Santa Elena (today's Parris Island, South Carolina), but another storm hit there, so they sailed to Cuba and scattered. The remaining 50 at Pensacola were taken back to Mexico, and the Viceroy's advisors concluded northwest Florida was too dangerous to settle, for 135 years.
The banners of five nations, Spain, France, England, the Confederate States of America, and the United States, have flown over the city of Pensacola, giving rise to its nickname, The City of Five Flags. Pensacola is Florida’s second oldest city, and has the deepest bay on the Gulf Coast. The mouth of the bay is bounded by Santa Rosa Island to the east and Perdido Key to the west. To guard the entrance, Spain established Fort Barrancas atop a 60-foot bluff on the mainland opposite the bay’s mouth. Soon after the United States took control of Florida from Spain in 1821, the federal government, recognizing the importance of Pensacola’s harbor, moved to establish both a naval yard and lighthouse there.