The gravitational pull that New England, the Chesapeake Bay region, and the Old West exert on the American imagination is such that it can be difficult to remember just how much history there is in the rest of the country. This is, perhaps, especially true of Florida, a land of concrete, plastic, and cartoon mice that is popularly conceived to have been discovered around 1960 and swiftly annexed in order to please the Walt Disney Company. Yet, even here, the past is around if you care to look for it. Yesterday, I had a few hours free, so I drove the 60 or so miles from Mobile, Alabama, where I am attending a conference, to the city of Pensacola, the westernmost town on the Florida panhandle.
Since 1559, Pensacola has stood under five flags: those of the Spanish, the French, the British, the Confederacy, and the United States. There, the people have known many masters, often two or three within the space of a lifetime. The Spanish, who boast the longest claim, lost and regained control of the area twice: They lost it for three years to the French, between 1719 and 1722; and again, for an 18-year period, to the British, between 1763 and 1781. In 1821, it was acquired by America — and then lost to the Confederacy in 1861. Stability is not this town’s strong suit.
Pensacola’s five flags are admittedly not as impressive as Texas’s six. (In case you’re wondering: Yes, the theme-park chain Six Flags is so called after the group’s first park, Arlington’s “Six Flags over Texas.”) Nevertheless, while Pensacola cannot boast of having ever been its own republic, the frequent changes in management has contributed to the formation of an alluring little place that, to varying degrees, exhibits symptoms of all five cultures. The signposts at the city limits claim that drivers are entering “America’s First Settlement.” This is a slight stretch, perhaps. In 1559, 139 years before the official founding of the city in 1698, Spanish explorers established a colony at Pensacola Bay. That settlement was very quickly abandoned, as so many in the early days of colonization were. But imperial advocates remembered the site and chose it just over a century later as a useful place from which to defend their expanding Florida territory.
As with much of this part of the Gulf, the architecture is multifarious. The downtown region is predominantly French, with the main drag marked out by well-ordered oak trees and wrought-iron balconies of which Napoleon himself would have been proud. The street names, meanwhile, are almost exclusively Spanish. Off the coast, there are at least six Spanish shipwrecks, which not only provide a compelling environment for the many divers who come to the area for its clear water and white beaches, but serve also as a chilling reminder of how utterly precarious it is to be the primary settlers in any place. In 2006 the federal government deliberately sank in these waters a World War II–era long-hulled aircraft carrier called the USS Oriskany. For a short time, the Oriskany replaced the older wrecks as the primary diving attraction. Then 2008’s Hurricane Gustav pushed the scuttled vessel just beyond the depth at which it was safe to drop down and touch the flight deck, and its appeal diminished overnight.
I have always thrilled to the idea of America as 50 countries — or, perhaps, more. The United States’ critics have a noxious habit of referring to “America” and “Americans” as if it were a monolithic place filled with clones. I remember as a child hearing my father respond to the anti-American jibes that are sadly so reflexive among the British middle class by pointing to the size and diversity (in its proper sense) of the place. “Oh, I don’t like America,” someone would sneer, and my father would calmly ask, “Oh really — which part?” At this, the other person — having visited only New York City or Orlando or Boston, or, surprisingly often, not visited America at all — invariably regressed into incoherent muttering. As well he should. It has always struck me that it is as silly to make blanket statements about “America” as it is to do the same about “Europe.” Would you say you don’t like Italy because you didn’t enjoy your trip to France?
No other country on earth has such wildly varying place names and international influences as does the United States. America is named after a Portuguese-employed Florentine explorer who had almost no impact on its history at all; it operates under a constitution that was written by Englishmen in the Greek-named capital of a colony named in Latin; and the majority of places and people in what is now its most populous state were named during Spanish rule of what was then a neighboring country. It is a living patchwork quilt: California is largely Spanish; upstate New York is ancient Greek and Roman; most of Connecticut, although the state itself is possessed of an Indian name, is filled with names lifted straight from England — as is much of Virginia; Louisiana, obviously, is French, as is Vermont; Pennsylvania is Dutch and German. And then there are the host of odd names, micro-products of those who just happened to settle there. When my friend goes home to Bismarck, North Dakota, I don’t bat an eyelid; if someone lived in a town called Bismarck in England, I would be perplexed. Which other country boasts such a rich nomenclatural tradition?