Florida and Mississippi: Gulf Islands National Seashore

Fort Pickens
Fort Pickens

Courtesy of National Park Service

Stretching miles along the southern coasts of Mississippi, Alabama, and the northwestern corner of Florida, Gulf Island National Seashore helps tell the story of the development of the United States as an independent nation. Though the initial roots of the country lie further north, the area included within the National Seashore was important in the creation and protection of the southern United States. Visitors will find an array of impressive military heritage sites within the park. Gulf Islands National Seashore also offers a wide variety of exciting recreational possibilities including swimming, boating, fishing, and camping. 

Gulf Islands National Seashore reflects many generations of national ownership: from Spanish, to British, to Spanish, to American in the 1500s, 1600s, and 1700s. The sites to see in the park further evolved throughout the American Civil War and many remained in military service through World War II. Visitors have the chance to witness structures and stories from all of these time periods. Interpreted exhibits and tours feature not only military history but also the area’s heritage linked to the Apache, Hispanic culture, slavery, shipbuilding, and the coastal environment. There is much to see and do at the many units of the park to learn about the history of the region and the nation.

In the area around Pensacola, links to Hispanic heritage are especially strong. The Spanish first came to the area in the 1500s as one of the colonizing powers that ruled Florida. The islands were originally regarded as a simple military outpost, and as a result, Spain only sent basic necessities to support its troops, including slaves and workmen to build a military presence on the western coast in order to protect the strategic Pensacola Bay. Today, visitors can see this legacy in Fort Barrancas and its associated structures. The original fort built by the Spanish has been highly altered over time but the colonial-era Bateria de San Antonio (also known as the Water Battery) is still partially visible. The battery, built in 1797, was eventually overtaken by US troops in 1834 and then used during the Civil War. 

The European foothold in this region of The New World was initiated by Spain, but was later continued by a number of other powers. This was not without human cost on a grand scale. The series of conflicts that marked the settlement at Pensacola were mostly between colonizing forces fighting for resources – but native American Indian groups which populated the area were also severely affected. Beyond the struggles of imperialism, each successive wave of colonizers (including Americans) also encountered tribes such as the Apache and, later, the Seminole. 

Relations between the colonists and Indians were not always peaceful, and by the time of the Spanish surrender of Florida to the British in 1763, foreign disease (like the notorious yellow fever) had left many American Indian tribes devastated. Those who survived fled to Cuba with the Spanish. The Seminoles, who began moving into the area in the mid 1700s, also faced conflict with the new American settlers, and few tribe members remained by the turn of the next century. 

Meanwhile, the area around the original Spanish Fort Barrancas continued to be key to the nation’s coastal defense and the local protection of Pensacola. Fort Pickens, for example, was completed nearby in 1834 and during the Civil War played a defensive role as a Union stronghold against nearby Confederate forces at Fort McRee and Fort Barrancas. It is the largest of the four forts built in the area to protect Pensacola. The Advanced Redoubt to the north was constructed between 1845 and 1870 to defend against an enemy attack from the land (unlike the other fortifications whose defensive artillery faced the sea.)

Just west of Fort Pickens in Florida is Fort McRee. Constructed between 1834 to 1839, the fort now lies in ruins after heavy damage during the Civil War and natural erosion of the shoreline on which it sits. Despite this, the US military continued to build artillery batteries here for the defense of Perdido Key and the coastline through World War II. In addition to the site of the former fort, ruins of these batteries are still visible both here and near Fort Pickens. 

Fort Massachusetts on West Ship Island in Mississippi was also originally built for national defense. Starting in 1859, Americans rebuilt what had once been a French base in the early 1700s, to protect the strategic deepwater harbor on the north side of the island. Storms, disease, climate, isolation and the Civil War made construction on the remote barrier island a challenge, however, and construction halted entirely in 1866 (although the fort was not fully completed.)

Visitors to the park today can experience Fort Barrancas and its Advanced Redoubt, Fort Pickens, Fort McRee and Fort Massachusetts through a variety of ranger-led tours, youth programming, and special events. Although the present-day area bears little obvious connection to its Spanish heritage, Spain first realized the strategic importance of western Florida and began the series of outposts that evolved throughout time to protect the nation’s coast. The cultural traditions and customs of the region today still reflect the influences of this early Spanish contact.

Gulf Islands National Seashore includes a number of National Park Service units in both Mississippi and Florida. The William M. Colmer Visitor Center serves as the headquarters for the park and is located at 3500 Park Road in Ocean Springs, MS. In Florida, a major visitor center is located at 1801 Gulf Breeze Parkway in Gulf Breeze, FL.

The Bateria de San Antonio and land occupied by the present-day Fort Barrancas have been designated a National Historic Landmark. Fort Barrancas Historic District is listed in the National Register of Historic Places and includes the fort area, the Bateria de San Antonio, and the Advanced Redoubt of Fort Barrancas. Click here for registration file: text and photos.

Fort Barrancas and the Bateria de San Antonio have also been documented by the National Park Service’s Historic American Buildings Survey. Click here for information on Fort Barrancas, and here for information on the Bateria de San Antonio. The National Park Service has also prepared documentation on the fort area through its Founders and Frontiersmen program. The site may be reached by entering the Pensacola Naval Air Station through the back entrance, off State Route 173.

Visitor centers at Naval Live Oaks Area, Fort Barrancas, and Fort Pickens explore the history of the entire region and regularly present films and exhibits. Fees and hours of operations vary. For more information, visit the National Park Service Gulf Island National Seashore website or call 850-934-2600 for details on sites in Florida, or 228-875-9057, extension 100 for details on sites in Mississippi.

Gulf Island National Seashore also offers primitive campsites, fishing, hiking, swimming, and biking – though some parts of the park may only be accessible by private boat or ferry. Check the website or call the park for more details.

Last updated: August 8, 2017