The area's written recorded history begins in the 16th century, with documentation by Spanish explorers who were the first Europeans to reach the area. The expeditions of Pánfilo de Narváez in 1528 and Hernando de Soto in 1539 both visited Pensacola Bay, the latter of which documented the name "Bay of Ochuse".
In 1559, Tristán de Luna y Arellano landed with some 1,500 people on 11 ships from Veracruz, Mexico. The expedition was to establish an outpost, ultimately called Santa María de Ochuse by Luna, as a base for Spanish efforts to colonize Santa Elena (present-day Parris Island, South Carolina.) But the colony was decimated by a hurricane on September 19, 1559, which killed an unknown number of sailors and colonists, sank six ships, grounded a seventh, and ruined supplies.
Pensacola is the site of the first Spanish settlement within the borders of the continental United States in 1559, predating the establishment of St. Augustine by 6 years, although the settlement was abandoned due to a hurricane and not re-established until 1698. Pensacola is a seaport on Pensacola Bay, which is protected by the barrier island of Santa Rosa and connects to the Gulf of Mexico. A large United States Naval Air Station, the first in the United States, is located southwest of Pensacola near Warrington; it is the base of the Blue Angels flight demonstration team and the National Naval Aviation Museum. The main campus of the University of West Florida is situated north of the city center.
The area was originally inhabited by Muskogean-speaking peoples. The Pensacola people lived there at the time of European contact, and Creek people frequently visited and traded from present-day southern Alabama. Spanish explorer Tristán de Luna founded a short-lived settlement in 1559. In 1698 the Spanish established a presidio in the area, from which the modern city gradually developed. The area changed hands several times as European powers competed in North America. During Florida's British rule (1763–1781), fortifications were strengthened.
The survivors struggled to survive, most moving inland to what is now central Alabama for several months in 1560 before returning to the coast; but in 1561, the effort was abandoned. Some of the survivors eventually sailed to Santa Elena, but another storm struck there. Survivors made their way to Cuba and finally returned to Pensacola, where the remaining fifty at Pensacola were taken back to Veracruz. The Viceroy's advisers later concluded that northwest Florida was too dangerous to settle. They ignored it for 137 years.
In the late 17th century, the French began exploring the lower Mississippi River with the intention of colonizing the region as part of La Louisiane or New France in North America. Fearful that Spanish territory would be threatened, the Spanish founded a new settlement in western Florida. In 1698 they established a fortified town near what is now Fort Barrancas, laying the foundation for permanent European-dominated settlement of the modern city of Pensacola. The Spanish built three presidios in Pensacola:
After years of settlement, the Spanish ceded Florida to the British in 1763 as a result of an exchange following British victory over both France and Spain in the French and Indian War (the North American theater of the Seven Years' War), and French cession of its territories in North America. The British designated Pensacola as the capital of their new colony of West Florida. From 1763, the British strengthened defenses around the mainland area of fort San Carlos de Barrancas, building the Royal Navy Redoubt. George Johnstone was appointed as the first British Governor, and in 1764 a colonial assembly was established. The structure of the colony was modeled after the existing British colonies in America, as opposed to French Canada, which was based on a different structure. West Florida was invited to send delegates to the First Continental Congress which was convened to present colonial grievances against the British Parliament to George III, but along with several other colonies, including East Florida, they declined the invitation. Once the American War of Independence had broken out, the colonists remained overwhelmingly loyal to the Crown. In 1778 the Willing Expedition proceeded with a small force down the Mississippi, ransacking estates and plantations, until they were eventually defeated by a local militia. In the wake of this, the area received a small number of British reinforcements.
British military resources were limited and Pensacola ranked fairly low on their list of priorities. For this reason only small token amounts of British military forces were ever sent to defend Pensacola. This was in contrast to colonies such as South Carolina, where large numbers of British soldiers were sent. After Spain joined the American Revolution in 1779 on the side of the rebels, Spanish forces captured the city in the 1781 Battle of Pensacola, gaining control of West Florida. After the war, the British officially ceded both West Florida and East Florida to Spain as part of the post-war peace settlement.
In 1785 with the founding of the Panton, Leslie Company here, many Creek from southern Alabama and Georgia came to trade, and it developed as a major center. It was a garrison town, predominantly males in the military or trade. Americans made raids into the area, and settlers pressured the federal government to gain control of this territory.
In the final stages of the War of 1812, American troops launched an offensive on Pensacola against the Spanish and British garrisons protecting the city, which surrendered after two days of fighting. In 1819, Spain and the United States negotiated the Adams–Onís Treaty, by which Spain sold the Floridas to the United States for US$5 million. A Spanish census of 1820 indicated 181 households in the town, with a third of mixed-blood. The people were predominantly French and Spanish Creole. Indians in the area were noted through records, travelers' accounts, and paintings of the era, including some by George Washington Sully and George Catlin. Creek women were also recorded in marriages to Spanish men, in court records or deeds.
In 1821, with Andrew Jackson as provisional governor, Pensacola became part of the United States. The Creek continued to interact with European Americans and African Americans, but the dominant whites increasingly imposed their binary racial classifications: white and black ("colored", within which were included free people of color, including Indians). However, American Indians and mestizos were identified separately in court and Catholic church records, and as Indians in censuses up until 1840, attesting to their presence in the society. After that, the Creek were not separately identified as Indian, but the people did not disappear. Even after removal of many Seminole to Indian Territory, Indians, often of mixed-race but culturally identifying as Muskogean, lived throughout Florida.
Tensions between the white community and Indians tended to increase during the Removal era. In addition, an increasing proportion of Anglo-Americans, who constituted the majority of whites by 1840, led to a hardening of racial discrimination in the area. There was disapproval of white men living with women of color, which had previously been accepted. In 1853 the legislature passed a bill prohibiting Indians from living in the state, and provided for capture and removal to Indian Territory.
Pensacola is home to a small (0.2% of city residents) but significant Jewish community, whose roots date mostly to German Jewish immigrants of the mid-to-late 19th century. There were also Sephardic Jewish migrants from other areas of the South, and immigrants from other areas of Europe. The first Florida chapter of B'nai Brith was founded downtown in 1874, as well as the first temple, Beth-El, in 1876. Apart from the Reform Beth-El, Pensacola is also served by the Conservative B'nai Israel Synagogue. Paula Ackerman, the first woman who performed rabbinical functions in the United States, was a Pensacola native and led services at Beth-El.
After the Civil War, Pensacola, like the rest of the South was controlled by Republicans during the Reconstruction era (1865-1877). The Republican government had numerous African American politicians, including several county commissioners, city aldermen, constables, state representatives, and even one African American mayor—Salvador Pons. However, with the 1884 election of native Pensacolian and former Confederate general Edward Perry, a dramatic shift occurred. Perry, a Democrat who actually lost the Escambia County vote during the statewide election, acted to dissolve the Republican city government of Pensacola and in 1885 replaced this government with hand-picked successors, including railroad magnate William D. Chipley. The only African American to remain in city government was George Washington Witherspoon, a pastor with the African Methodist Episcopal Church who was previously a Republican and switched parties to the Democrats. Following Governor Perry's dissolution of the Republican government, the city remained Democratic for more than a century after the Civil War with no African Americans serving in an elected capacity for nearly a century.
Weather statistics since the late 20th century have been recorded at the airport. The city has seen single digit temperatures (below −12 °C) on three occasions: 5 °F (−15 °C) on January 21, 1985, 7 °F (−14 °C) on February 13, 1899 and 8 °F (−13 °C) on January 11, 1982. According to the Köppen Climate Classification system, Pensacola has a humid subtropical climate, (Köppen Cfa), with short, mild winters and hot, humid summers. Typical summer conditions have highs in the lower 90s °F (32–34 °C) and lows in the mid 70s °F (23–24 °C). Afternoon or evening thunderstorms are common during the summer months. Due partly to the coastal location, temperatures above 100 °F (38 °C) are relatively rare, and last occurred in June 2011, when two of the first four days of the month recorded highs reaching the century mark. The highest temperature ever recorded in the city was 106 °F (41 °C) on July 14, 1980. The daily average temperature in January is 51.4 °F (10.8 °C); freezing temperatures occur on an average 13.7 nights per season, with the average window for freezing conditions being from December 13 to February 20. Temperatures below 20 °F (−7 °C) are very rare, and last occurred on January 8, 2015, when a low of 19 °F (−7 °C) was seen. The lowest temperature ever recorded in the city was 5 °F (−15 °C) on January 21, 1985.
In 1907–1908 there were 116 Creek in Pensacola who applied for the Eastern Cherokee enrollment, thinking that all Indians were eligible to enroll. Based on Alabama census records, most of these individuals have been found to be descendants of Creek who had migrated to the Pensacola area from southern Alabama after Indian removal of the 1830s.
The city has been referred to as "The Cradle of Naval Aviation". Naval Air Station Pensacola (NASP) was the first Naval Air Station commissioned by the U.S. Navy in 1914. Tens of thousands naval aviators have received their training there, including John H. Glenn, USMC, who became the first American to orbit the earth in 1962, and Neil Armstrong, who became the first man to set foot on the moon in 1969. The Navy's Flight Demonstration Squadron, the Blue Angels, is stationed there.
In the 2004 presidential election, 65% of Escambia County residents voted for George W. Bush over John Kerry. The Pensacola area has not supported a Democrat for president since John F. Kennedy in 1960. In 1968, Pensacola and the rest of North Florida supported American Independent Party candidate George Wallace.
City voters approved a charter amendment on June 11, 2013 which eliminated the then-nine member council's two at-large seats; one seat was phased out in November 2014, and the other expired in November 2016. Two additional charter amendments were approved on November 4, 2014 which made the position of mayor subject to recall and provided the city council with the authority to hire staff. The current city hall was opened in 1986.
This changed in 1994, when Republican attorney Joe Scarborough defeated Vince Whibbs, Jr., the son of popular former Democratic mayor Vince Whibbs, in a landslide to represent Florida's 1st congressional district, which is based in Pensacola. Republicans also swept all of the area's seats in the state legislature, the majority of which were held by Democrats. Since then, Republicans have dominated every level of government, although municipal elections are officially nonpartisan. In August 2005, registered Republicans outnumbered Democrats for the first time in the area's history. As of August 2005, in Escambia County, 44% of the residents are registered Republicans compared to 39.91% of the population having registered as Democrats, with another 13.21% having no party affiliation.
From early 1993 through August 2005 Pensacola was served by the tri-weekly Amtrak Sunset Limited, but service east of New Orleans to Jacksonville and Orlando was suspended due to damage to the rail line of CSX during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. This was previously the route of the Gulf Wind operated by the Louisville and Nashville Railroad.
Pensacola received only a glancing blow from Hurricane Katrina in 2005, resulting in light to moderate damage reported in the area. The aftermath of the extensive damage from Katrina was a dramatic reduction in tourism coming from Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.
Pensacola's location on the Florida Panhandle makes it vulnerable to hurricanes. Major hurricanes which have made landfall at or near Pensacola since the late 20th century include Eloise (1975), Frederic (1979), Juan (1985), Erin (1995), Opal (1995), Georges (1998), Ivan (2004), Dennis (2005), and Michael (2018). In July 2005, Hurricane Dennis made landfall just east of the city, sparing it the damage received from Ivan the year before. However, hurricane and near-hurricane-force winds were recorded in downtown, causing moderate damage.
The local bus service is the Escambia County Area Transit. In December 2007, ECAT announced that it would cut many of its routes citing poor rider frequency. However, in January 2008, ECAT announced that it would expand service to neighboring Gulf Breeze and change existing routes to more convenient locations.
The city of Pensacola utilizes a strong mayor-council form of government, which was adopted in 2011 after citizens voted in 2009 to approve a new city charter. An elected mayor serves as the chief executive of the city government, while a seven-member city council serves as the city's governing body. A council president is selected by the council from its members, along with a vice president.
Snow is rare in Pensacola, but does occasionally fall. The most recent snowfall event occurred December 9, 2017, and the snow event previous to it occurred on February 12, 2010. The city receives 65.27 inches (1,660 mm) of precipitation per year, with a slightly more rainy season in the summer. The rainiest month is July, with 7.40 inches (188 mm), with May being the driest month at 4.17 inches (106 mm). In June 2012 over one foot (300 mm) of rain fell on Pensacola and adjacent areas, leading to widespread flooding. On April 29, 2014. Pensacola was drenched by at least 20 inches of rain within a 24-hour period, causing the worst flooding in 30 years
The median income for a household in the city was $34,779, and the median income for a family was $42,868. Males had a median income of $32,258 versus $23,582 for females. The per capita income for the city was $30,556 in 2011. About 12.7% of families and 16.3% of the population were below the poverty line, including 26.2% of those under age 18 and 9.2% of those age 65 or over.
The city suffered a major blow on February 23, 2016, when a large EF3 wedge tornado hit the northwest part of Pensacola, causing major damage and several injuries.
On June 1, 2019, the newly-formed Florida Gulf & Atlantic Railroad, a Class III railroad headquartered in Tallahassee, acquired the CSX main line from Pensacola to Baldwin, Florida, near Jacksonville, becoming the Panhandle's only east–west freight hauler. A news report on the new railroad in mid-2019 noted that Amtrak indicated that the Panhandle had a "near-zero chance" of seeing passenger service restored. Pensacola and Tallahassee are the two largest metropolitan areas in Florida without any passenger rail service.
Major air traffic in the Pensacola and greater northwest Florida area is handled by Pensacola International Airport. Pensacola International is the largest airport in Northwest Florida by passenger count and is the second busiest in all of North Florida, just behind Jacksonville. As of November 2019 , airlines serving Pensacola International Airport are American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Frontier Airlines, Silver Airways, Southwest Airlines and United Airlines.