The Surprising History of Fort Pickens

The entrance to Fort Pickens.

I love visiting historic sites, particularly those that are so well preserved by the National Park Service. I’ve been to numerous ones throughout the West that are rich with that western culture and history we love here at Petticoats and Pistols, but you might be surprised that there exists such a place with western ties near where I live in the Florida panhandle.

Fort Pickens, which is part of Gulf Islands National Seashore, has ties to American history going back to three decades prior to the Civil War. After the War of 1812, the U.S. government decided it needed fortifications to defend its major ports. Several were build to protect Pensacola Harbor. Among them were Fort Pickens, which sits on the end of Santa Rosa Island across the harbor’s entrance from Naval Air Station Pensacola, home of the famous Blue Angels demonstration flying team. On days when the Blue Angels are practicing, you can watch them from the fort.

The fort is filled with these types of arches.

Though we all learned that the first shots of the Civil War occurred at Fort Sumter in South Carolina, some say that they actually happened at Fort Pickens on Jan 8, 1861, when U.S. forces at nearby Fort Barrancas fought off a group of local civilians who intended to take the fort. Barrancas was abandoned in favor of the more defensible Fort Pickens. Two days after the attack on Fort Barrancas, Florida seceded from the Union. The fort was one of only four in the South that remained under Union control throughout the entire war.

The tie to the West came after the end of the Civil War, during what was known as the Indian Wars. Native American captives were transported east for incarceration. Apache war chief Geronimo; Naiche, the youngest son of Cochise; and several warriors were held at Fort Pickens, separated from their wives and children, who were held at Fort Marion in St. Augustine.

Band of Apache Indian prisoners at rest stop beside Southern Pacific Railway, near Nueces River, Tex. (Geronimo is third from the right, in front), September 10, 1886. Photo credit: Wikipedia, Public Domain

Part of the reason the men were housed at Fort Pickens was because some in Pensacola felt Geronimo’s fame would enable the city to draw tourists, as horrible as that is to contemplate now. Tourists had to obtain permission from Colonel Langdon and then pay for a boat trip to the island so they could see the Apache prisoners. The Apaches were housed in two rooms that were built to house cannons and worked seven-hour days clearing weeds, planting grass and stacking cannonballs. In April of 1887, the prisoners’ families were brought to live with them at Fort Pickens. Fort Marion saw many deaths of Apache prisoners, but in contrast there was only one death at Fort Pickens. One of Geronimo’s wives, She-gha, is buried in Barrancas National Cemetery in Pensacola.

From the top of the fort, you can look out over the Gulf of Mexico.

A yellow fever scare led to the the move of the prisoners to Mount Vernon Barracks north of Mobile, Alabama, in 1888. Six years later, they were moved to a reservation at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, where Geronimo died in 1909, still a prisoner. In 1913, the prisoners were finally released. Some chose to remain at Fort Sill, but Naiche, the hereditary chief of the Chiricahua Apaches, and his family returned to New Mexico, to the Mescalero Reservation. Between 1850 and 1914, the Apache population had dropped a dramatic 95 percent.

The fort is full of displays such as this telling the long and rich history of the site. There is also a gift shop full of books if you want to learn more about the fort, historical figures and the time periods during which the fort operated.

Fort Pickens received some updates in the years that followed, partially to help guard against the threat of German U-boats, but by the end of World War II it had outlived its usefulness. It spent some time in the state parks system of Florida but has been part of the national seashore since the early 1970s. Today visitors can spend hours walking through the seemingly endless rooms of the fort, climbing to the upper level to look out over the Gulf of Mexico and Pensacola Bay, and imagining all the history that resides at the spot.

Trish Milburn
Trish Milburn is the author of nearly 40 romance, suspense, paranormal, women's fiction and young adult titles. She's a two-time winner of the Golden Heart Award and the recipient of Romance Writers of America's top award for service, the Emma Merritt Award. She's a big sci-fi geek girl, loves seeing new places, and has been known to cosplay on occasion. She's always loved westerns, so considering her other love is sci-fi it's no wonder her all-time favorite TV show is Firefly, which blends the two genres. Check out her books, links to various social media and sign up for her newsletter at http://www.trishmilburn.com/
Updated: April 2, 2017 — 6:28 pm

14 Comments

  1. I shall have to add this to my list of places to visit.

    1. It’s a pretty spot. I’ve been there twice already and plan to go back when I have friends visiting the area later this month.

  2. Fort Pickens sounds like an interesting place to visit.

    1. It is. My writer imagination runs wild there, and it’s a neat place to get great shots if you’re a photographer.

  3. This sounds like a very interesting place to visit.

    1. It is, indeed. Hope you get to see it for yourself sometime.

  4. Such an interesting blog, Trish. I love visiting historical sites like this. My heart aches for the Apache and others who suffered tremendously. It was very cruel to separate the men from their families. We did them so wrong.

    Have a good day, Filly sister!

    1. Thanks, Linda. I was so surprised by that historical connection when I first visited.

  5. Historical sites are fun to visit. I got the chance to visit Rock/Arsenal Island between iowa and Illinois on the mississippi river. Its was an old fort during the civil war and used as a prisoner of war camp. Some of the building still stand and there are 2 cemeteries on the island. The confederate soldiers were never moved from where they still lay. The union soldiers were moved many years ago to a new spot. The Island belongs to the us government but is open to the public.

    1. Oh, that sounds really interesting, Kim.

  6. Fascinating! I had no idea Geronimo was sent to Florida. What an incredible life — and climate — change that must have been for him. Thanks for telling us about Fort Pickens 🙂

    Nancy C

    1. I know. I was surprised, too. To go from such an arid climate to one that is so humid must have been a big change physically, to say nothing of the horrible fact they were captives and many would remain so the rest of their lives.

  7. I love the posts on P&P because I learn so much history here. Thank you, Trish, for another good lesson.

    1. You’re very welcome, Rosie. I love learning interesting bits of history too.

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