Florida Waterfront Communities' Commercial Fishing Heritage
Two-thousand Spanish soldiers and settlers sailed into Pensacola Bay on August 14, 1559, under the leadership of Don Tristan de Luna. This was the first attempt to place a permanent European settlement in the area. Indeed it was only the second attempt to put a colony of any kind on the land mass that would one day become the United States. The name given to the area by the Spaniards was Bahia Santa Maria de Filipina, but the Indians who greeted the settlers were the Panzacolas and that is the name that stuck. Had the attempt been successful, Pensacola would have become the oldest city in America. Unfortunately, a major hurricane destroyed all but two of the eleven ships of Don Tristan which would be needed for re-supply and exploration. This ill fortune dampened the enthusiasm of the colonists. After only two years, they abandoned the town. Saint Augustine, settled 6 years later, became America's oldest city.
Almost 140 years later, Pensacola was once again settled by the Spaniards and from 1698 to the present, Pensacola has grown and prospered. Over the next century and a half, possession of Pensacola would change eight times. Spain, France, Britain, the United States and the Confederacy all flew flags over the port of Pensacola during this turbulent period. Perhaps the most dramatic change of ownership was in 1781 when Spain recaptured the city from England in the Battle of Pensacola. Scholars mark this battle as one of the turning points in the American Revolution. No matter what flag flew over the city, the beautiful Pensacola Bay was a constant and always shared the bounty of its waters with any who took the time to wet a hook or cast a net.
The Bay was home to an enormous number of fin fish such as dolphin, mackerel, snapper, grouper and mullet. The area also provided a home for shrimp, oysters and clams. During the early years of Florida's history, all fishing was done with a hook and line because the technology of netting was not available until the 19th and 20th centuries.
The northern Gulf became a real factor in the commercial fishing industry just prior to the Civil War. A market for red snapper and grouper developed and this area of the Gulf proved to be the most fertile fishery for these species. Many of the men who engaged in the red snapper industry in the early days were New England transplants of Scandinavian origin. There were also Italians, Germans, Nova Scotians, New Foundlanders, other fisher folk from around the globe. Fishing at this time was within the forty-fathom line. Pensacola became the center of the fishery when the first company for handling and shipping red snapper was formed. Owned and operated by by S.C. Cobb under the name of the Pensacola Fish Company it opened in1872 . A.F. Warren was brought in as a partner soon after and eventually became the owner. As the Warren Fish Company, the business operated until the late 1920s. The earliest year for which records remain was 1880 when 1.5 million pounds of red snapper were caught and sold.
During the 1880s, the larger vessels began to fish southward to the Florida Middle Grounds and the Dry Tortugas. All commercial fishing vessels of the time possessed live wells to preserve the catch. In 1895 ice became available from the new ice plants in Pensacola. The vessels used were primarily of two types. "Smacks" were large sailing schooners between 50 and 60 tons and 60 to 100 feet in length. Each could carry 8 to 11 men and had about 20 tons of ice capacity. The hearty fishermen of the day would spend up to a month at sea. There were about 58 of these unique vessels still in use in 1935. "Chings" were smaller vessels that stayed closer to shore carrying a crew of 4 to 5 fishermen and only remained at sea for about 10 days. The fact that a great many of the "Chings" were operated by entirely black crews was observed by many writers of the period.
A snapper fisherman by the name of Fred Hunt wrote, "A number of the skippers had wives, children and homes. They had an active domestic life between trips. The foremost hands, with very few exceptions, had no domestic ties. They worked hard, bore great hardships and risked their lives to earn a few dollars which they threw away on riotous living."
The Florida Times-Union newspaper of January 1890 noted that on the fishing vessels of the day, "the average catch ranges from 2,000 to 30,000 pounds, or from 500 to 3,000 fish. As soon as landed at Pensacola, the fish are packed in ice and sent off by rail in every direction far and near. The red snapper fishing has grown very rapidly in the last five years and now stands next to the sponge fishery in importance. It seems safe to predict that it will, in a few years more, stand at the head of the list of Florida's fishing industries."
The Fishing Gazette dated February 5, 1913, informed its readers that during 1912 the E.E. Saunders Co. and the Warren Fish Company unloaded 10,749,191 pounds of red snapper and grouper from the 50 fishing smacks controlled by the two large companies. Only about 20 percent of the catch was grouper. From about 1915 and into the 1920s, the local fish houses operated the nation's last and only all sail fishing fleets. Pensacola fishermen were among the very last to convert to the diesel powered engines which would eventually make their lives so much easier and more productive.
1850s - Northern Gulf becomes a factor in the commercial fishing industry.
1872 - Pensacola becomes the center of the Red Snapper fishery in the gulf.
1880 - Red Snapper landings are recorded at1.5 million pounds
1880s - Larger vessels began moving South towards the middle grounds.
1895 - Ice becomes available in the area.
1906 There were at least seven privately owned wharves shipping a significant amount of Pensacola.
1915 to 1920 - Local fishermen operated the nation's last and only all sail fishing fleets.
The major fish houses built large wharves to better service the fishing fleet. Wharves seemed to become an attractive investment or useful tool for shippers and railroads. In the early 20th century, Pensacola was home to the three largest piers on earth. In 1906 there were at least seven privately owned wharves which qualified as significant because of their size or quantity of goods shipped. The three largest were owned by the L&N and St. Louis railroad who had tremendous grain elevators and coal shipping facilities right on the piers, one of which stretched into the bay for more than a mile and a half. These mighty wharves were destroyed mysteriously in the 1950s and 1960s by fires of unknown origins.
S.C. Cobb opened the Pensacola Fish Company in 1872. Shortly after he brought in A.F. Warren as a partner, who eventually became the owner. Warren operated the business through the late 1920s.
In the early 1900s the E.E Saunders Company was a significant player in the local seafood industry.
Pensacola still maintains a fishing fleet but since a public referendum imposed a net ban on the industry, almost all of the activity is limited to sport and recreational fishing.
Information provided by:
Museum of Florida History
R.A. Gray Building
500 South Bronough Street
Tallahassee, FL 32399-0250
- Museum of Florida History