Archaeological traces of late colonial buildings linger in Pensacola

Elizabeth D. Benchley

Editor’s note: This is the 18th of a series of stories that will be featured in the Pensacola News Journal each week leading up to the 200th anniversary of Escambia County. Look for these stories each Monday in print. 

Today only a few buildings remain standing from the second Spanish occupation of Pensacola, which ended July 17, 1821, when Florida became an American territory. However, there are still underground traces of colonial buildings in the heart of downtown Pensacola. UWF archaeologists have identified and studied these vestiges for more than 30 years, and new evidence of the Spanish and British colonial landscape is often revealed during modern construction.

The colonial occupation of downtown Pensacola began with the first Spanish military and colonists (circa 1750-1763) who built a temporary settlement that developed into the permanent fort and town of San Miguel de Panzacola. Residential areas outside the fort included compounds with a main house, detached kitchen, warehouse and other buildings arranged around a central courtyard where daily household and craft activities occurred. The courtyard was swept clean and debris accumulated at the edges of the compound. Buildings were made from local wood (pine and cypress) posts placed in narrow trenches in the ground. The gabled end buildings were roofed with bark and palmetto leaves. Large bricks (ladrillos) were made from local clays exposed in the bluffs along the bay and were used in hearths, bake ovens, flooring and chimneys, but rarely in building foundations. 

An undated painting of Celestino and Pauline Graupera Gonzalez House on Alcaniz Street in Pensacola

British Pensacola was established as the capital of West Florida, the 14th British colony (1763-1781). The town plan included a grid of streets forming blocks of 12 rectangular house lots that surrounded the central fort district. House and garden lots were given to incoming colonists with the provision that they be fenced and a house measuring at least 15 by 30 feet be built within two years. Houses were timber frame buildings built of local wood with hipped roofs covered with thatch or shakes. The houses were placed on the ground or on brick piers. Bricks were usually made from local clays and were smaller than ladrillos, but larger than later American bricks. Bricks were often used for interior chimneys in houses and for foundations of military buildings inside the Fort of Pensacola. British brick military foundations are visible today in the outdoor exhibits of the Colonial Archaeological Trail in downtown Pensacola. They include foundations of several military kitchens and the British Government House. British house lots also included detached kitchens and storage buildings and wells behind the house. The British deposited their trash and kitchen debris close to their houses, kitchens and across their yards. Sharp items such as broken bottles, glasses, and ceramic dishes were discarded in abandoned wells and trash pits.