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The King of Pensacola

An early portrait of the rich Hispanic diversity of Pensacola, Florida, the Atlantic and Gulf Coast region

By David Perez
Published on LatinoLA: September 27, 2008


The King of Pensacola


They can scarcely distinguish today's descendants of the colonial Spanish settlers of the Gulf coast from the descendants of other immigrants such as the English, Irish, Scottish and Greek. The offspring of the early Spaniards have been thoroughly Americanized. They all speak English, many are protestant, and few know Spanish or identify with Spanish culture. Most, however, are proud to be able to trace their lineage to those Spaniards who arrived on the Gulf coast during the colonial era. In particular, the name of one of those early Spanish immigrants stands out in Gulf coast history.

Many present-day residents of Pensacola and other Gulf coast cities are the direct descendants of Francisco Moreno of Malaga, Spain.

The Moreno family that came from Malaga to New Orleans in 1778 may have descended from Lucio Murena. Descendants of that Roman gentleman settled in various parts of Spain, including the Granada area. Still, just where and how the family of Francisco Moreno, a farmer of Malaga, province of Granada, fits into better-known Spanish Moreno families is unknown.

Panzacola, then the capital of Spanish West Florida, is the Spanish of spelling Pensacola, is the Choctaw meaning of long-haired people, referring to the Indian men and women who wore their hair long.

In 1806 the Spaniards built a new fort opposite the entrance into Pensacola Bay. Construction of the new brick fort, called Fort Carlos de Barrancas, began in 1797 on the site of the old British naval redoubt. The new fort had an adjacent water battery named San Antonio. Although the brick fort has since been redesigned and rebuilt, the battery San Antonio is still intact and is now a part of the American Fort Barrancas.

On April 12, 1813, on Fort Carlota in Mobile, General James Wilkenson landed a force of 600 soldiers near the Spanish Fort. The garrison at Fort Carlota was far out manned and its commanding officer, Captain Cayetano Perez, surrendered the fort to the Americans on April 13, 1813, without a shot fired. A few days later the Spanish troops sailed for Pensacola.

Following the British evacuation of Pensacola in the summer of 1781, Pensacola became a Spanish-French city. The new residents- they numbered some 500 to 600 until 1803- occupied the houses left by the British.

With the sale of Louisiana to the United States in 1803, Pensacola swelled to a reported population of between 1,000 and 3,000 in 1813. The population then declined to 600 or 700 in 1820, not including several hundred or more slaves. Taverns, billiard parlors, barbershops, butcher shops, and stores, dominated the commercial establishments in town, while several sawmills, a brickyard, and a tannery existed on the city's periphery.

The most popular sport for the men was billiards. Dancing and gambling was also a popular pastime. The Tivoli dance hall- later the Hotel de Paris owned by Francisco Moreno- also had rooms for card playing and gaming. From all accounts, Pensacolans loved to gamble.

This was the Pensacola in which Francisco Moreno lived and raised his families. For several years, Francisco apparently farmed the large tract of land given to him and his brother Fernando in 1810. In 1815, he married Dona Josefa Lopez, the legitimate daughter of Don Joseph Anthony Lopez, by then deceased, and Dona Maria Victoria Calder. In the same year, Josefa gave birth to a daughter, Angela. In 1817, a son Francisco Jr. was born, and the following year a daughter, Josefa, appeared. Unfortunately, both Francisco's wife and daughter, the two Josefas, died in 1820. Thus only two of Francisco's children, who were born before July 17, 1821 (the date Andrew Jackson accepted the transfer of Spanish West Florida to the United States), survived the Spanish era in Pensacola history. However, Francisco married twice after his first wife's death. He married her sister, Margarita Eluteria, who bore twelve children between 1822 and 1851, when she died. He then married seventeen-year-old Mentoria Gonzales in 1852, and she gave birth to twelve more children between 1853 and 1873. Eight of Francisco's twenty-seven children died young. That left nineteen of them to reach adulthood.

It is difficult to separate fact from fiction about Don Francisco. It is said that about 1828, Francisco and his brother Fernando sold their 800 arpents, an area unit of land near Fort San Carlos de Barrancas to the U.S. government for $3,000. The land became a part of the U.S. Navy Yard and is a part of the Pensacola Naval Air Station to this day. Francisco apparently used his share of the money to become Pensacola's first Banker. He kept the money in a chest that he hid under his bed. When he made a loan, the money- supposedly only gold- came from this chest. The chest is now a display in the Moreno Room of the Walton House in Pensacola. He also bought and sold large amounts of land in and around Pensacola. He may have opened the first hotel in the city, the Hotel de Paris. In 1836, he became the Spanish consul of Pensacola, a post he held until the end of the Civil War. Don Francisco Moreno also owned a number of slaves: in 1850, he owned twenty-one slaves: in 1860, he owned thirty slaves. After emancipation, three of the slaves elected to remain with the Moreno family - Old Mose, Uncle Dick, and Teresa. Francisco's social and financial status was such that he was often referred to as the King of Pensacola.

Today, the American Hispanics trace our origins or descent to Spain or to Mexico, Puerto Rico, and many other Spanish-speaking countries of Latin America. Many of our ancestors were among the early explorers and settlers of the New World. In 1609, 11 years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, our Mestizo (A mix of Indian and European blood) ancestors settled in what is now Santa Fe, New Mexico.

We are a large, fast-growing segment of the nation's population. In 1990, there were 22.4 million Hispanics in the United States, almost 9 percent of the Nation's nearly 250 million people. The Hispanic population in 1990 was slightly less than the entire U.S. population in 1850.

Both the Cuban and Puerto Rican populations grew at a rate at least four times as fast as the rest of the Nation. Other Hispanic populations grew dramatically between 1980 and 1990, partly as a result of the large influx of Central and South American immigrants during this time period.

According to recent U.S. Census Bureau statistics, the estimated Hispanic population in Escambia County, Florida was 2.6% of 282,303 residents.

In Santa Rosa County Florida the Hispanic population was 2.4% of 117,322 residents, and in the City of Pensacola, the Hispanic population was 2.0 % of 58,193 residents.

Because of the steadily growing increases in Hispanic populations, there are several social and professional service organizations in our community. Many of which collaborate and volunteer with other professional organizations to promote fellowships and incorporate their events and campaigns.

The Hispanic Action Society, Incorporated is perhaps the largest nonprofit, nonpartisan organization in the Pensacola community. Other Hispanic organizations are I.M.A.G.E., The North Florida Hispanic Association in Tallahassee, and The Hispanic-American Club, a university-supported student organization of Parkland College.

In 1990, the racial diversity of the United States became more pronounced as a result of the more rapid growth among most minority groups. Six out of every ten people were of Mexican origin. This group had a 35-percent increase since 1980.

Persons of Puerto Rican origin were the next largest U.S. Hispanic group, making up 12 percent of all U.S. Hispanics.

Persons of "Other Spanish/Hispanic" origins are those whose origins are from Spain, the Spanish-speaking countries of Central or South America, or the Dominican Republic, or they are persons of Hispanic origin identifying themselves generally as Spanish, Spanish-American, Hispanic, Hispano, Latinos, and so on.

Census Trivia: According to the 1990 census, the state that had the highest numerical gain in its Hispanic population between 1980 and 1990 was California with a 3.1 million Hispanic gains. The State with the highest percentage gain was Rhode Island with a 132% growth.

After English, Spanish was the most common language spoken at home. More than half (54% or 17.3 million) of those who spoke a language other than English at home reported they spoke Spanish.

With 272 miles of Atlantic and Caribbean coastline and a rich culture, lush and verdant, Puerto Rico is a formidable tropical Island. Roughly half the size of New Jersey, this American commonwealth sits strategically some 1,000 miles southeast of Florida at the hub of the Caribbean chain of islands.

Puerto Rico is the most easterly and the smallest of the four major islands that form the Greater Antilles. The other three are Cuba, Jamaica, and Hispaniola (the latter are the home to two nations, Haiti and the Dominican Republic). San Juan, Puerto Rico, is one of the largest and best-preserved complexes of Spanish colonial architecture in the Caribbean; San Juan (founded in 1521) is the oldest capital city under the U.S. flag. The city's economy is the most stable and solid in all of Latin America.

In 1625, Holland covetously eyed Puerto Rico, whose traders and merchants desperately wanted a foothold in the West Indies. Spearheaded by the Dutch West India company, which had received trading concessions from the Dutch Crown covering most of the West Indies, the Dutch armies besieged El Morro Fortress in San Juan in one of the bloodiest assaults the fortress ever sustained. Frustrated in their siege of the fortress and fearing the arrival of Spanish reinforcements from the western side of the island, the Dutch threatened to burn down every building in San Juan if the Spanish did not surrender. When the commanding officer of El Morro scorned the threat, the Dutch burned San Juan to the ground, including all church and civil archives and the bishop's library, by then the most famous and complete collection of books in America. Fueled by rage and courage, the Spanish rallied their forces and soon threw out the Dutch, who retreated in confusion, never again to assault the communities of Puerto Rico.

From the earliest days of Spanish colonization, an army of priests and missionaries embarked on a vigorous crusade to convert Puerto Rico's Tainos to Roman Catholicism. King Ferdinand himself paid for the construction of a Franciscan monastery and a series of chapels, and required specific support of the church from the aristocrats whom they had awarded land grants in the new territories.

Puerto Rico was declared by the pope as the first - ecclesiastical headquarters- in the New World. In 1519, it became the general headquarters of the Inquisition in the New World. (About 70 years later, the Inquisition's headquarters was transferred to the important and well-defended city of Cartagena, in Columbia.)

The 1895 revolution in Cuba increased the Puerto Rican demand for a greater self-rule; during the ensuing intellectual ferment, many political parties emerged. The Cuban revolution provided part of the spark that led to the Spanish-American War, Cuban independence, and U.S. control of Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and the Pacific island of Guam.

In Cuba, the naval battle of Santiago was won by American forces, and in another part of the world, U.S. troops also captured the Spanish colony of the Philippines. On July 25, after their victory at Santiago, American troops landed and Guanica, Puerto Rico, and several days later took over Ponce. U.S. navy Captain Alfred T. Mahan later wrote that the United States viewed Puerto Rico, Spain's remaining colonial outpost in the Caribbean, as a vital to American interests in the area. Spain offered to trade other territory for Puerto Rico, but the United States refused and demanded Spain's ouster from the island.

Left with little choice against superior U.S. forces, Spain capitulated, surrender under agreed conditions. The Spanish-American war ended on August 31, 1898, with the surrender of Spain and the virtual collapse of the once-powerful Spanish Empire. Puerto Rico, in the words of McKinley, was to "become a territory of the United States." The island's beleaguered economy was further devastated by a 1899 hurricane that caused millions of dollars' worth of property damage and killed 3,000 people. In 1900, U.S. Secretary of War Elihu Root decided that military rule of the island was inadequate; he advocated a program of autonomy that won the endorsement of President McKinley.

Thus began a nearly 50-year colonial protectorate relationship as Puerto Rico was recognized as an unincorporated territory. A resident commissioner, it was agreed, would represent Puerto Rico in Congress, "with voice but no vote."

As the United States prepared to enter World War I in 1917, Puerto Ricans were granted American citizenship and thus were subject to military service.

The people of Puerto Rico represent a mix of races, cultures, languages, and religions. They draw their unique heritage from the original native population, from Spanish royalists who sought refuge here, from African slaves imported to work the sugar plantations, and from other Caribbean islanders who have come here seeking jobs. The Spanish they speak is a mix, too, with many words borrowed from the pre-Columbian Amerindian tongue right up to modern-day English. Even the Catholicism they practice blends some Taino and African traditions.

In 1962, Nicholas Wollaston wrote "It is a kind of lost love-child, born to the Spanish Empire, and fostered by the United States."

I would recommend the restructuring and rewriting of history textbooks in order to give proper place to native Americans and the Spanish pioneer settlers. Textbooks currently used are not adequate for this purpose; American history texts almost uniformly neglect the pre-Plymouth Rock story - what I call the lost century of American history. Our teachers and children deserve tohave, in addition to accurate textbooks, up-to-date curriculum guides and audiovisual materials. Traveling workshops conducted by qualified scholars and training teams can inspire a new generation of teachers who can give our children the whole and true story of our early history and thus begin to remedy some of the ethnic and regional biases built into conventional approaches to American history.

I would recommend that folklore festivals everywhere be encouraged to adopt a "A Vision To The 21st Century" theme in the year s beyond 2000. I would recommend cultural exhibits, events and performances of the pictorial, graphic, and performing arts. I would also recommend completion of surveys of the state's historical, archaeological, architectural, recreational, and cultural resources for appropriate use by civic leaders, environmentalists, preservation groups, scholars, students, and the media. Where possible I would urge the development of new festivals and ceremonies directed toward observance of the new millennium.

Why celebrate the New Millennium? Simply answered, this new era presents us with unparalleled opportunities for expanding understanding of our Hispanic cultural heritage, for energizing institutional support, for raising money from both the public and private sectors, for influencing government and the media, for encouraging young people to choose the humanities.

It is a golden door that may not open again for the likes of us in our lifetime.

About David Perez:
Served as 2nd VP and later President of the Hispanic Action Society of Northwest Florida 1994-1999. Founder of the Hispanic Action Club of Shelbyville, TN. Also served on the Board of Officers in the TN Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
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