History of Gulf Islands National Seashore and Fort Pickens

Gulf Islands National Seashore was established in 1971 to provide recreation and to protect the barrier islands, wildlife, salt marshes, historic structures, and archeological sites along the Northern Gulf of Mexico. One of ten National Seashores that rim America’s coastline, Gulf Islands National Seashore is the largest, extending 160 miles along the gulf coast from Cat Island, Mississippi to the Okaloosa area on Santa Rosa Island in Florida.

Protected in Gulf Islands National Seashore Seashore are numerous historic sites, including over a dozen coastal fortifications constructed on the shores of Pensacola Bay, ranging from the Colonial period to World War II.

In the early 1800s, the United States built three brick fortifications to protect the entrance to Pensacola Bay. Fort Pickens, located on the western tip of Santa Rosa Island, was constructed from 1829 to 1834 and was named after Brigadier General Andrew Pickens of South Carolina. Under the supervision of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 400 enslaved laborers constructed the five-sided fort using 21,500,000 locally made bricks. Though built to defend against foreign enemies, the only action the forts would see was during the American Civil War (1861-1865). Fort Pickens remained in Union hands. Federal troops engaged in artillery duels with their Confederate counterparts, who held Fort Barrancas on the mainland and Fort Mcree on Perdido Key. By the end of the war these brick forts were made obsolete by advances in weaponry.

In 1886, Apache warrior and medicine man Geronimo was imprisoned at Fort Pickens, along with 47 other Chiricahua Apache Indians.

The fort was expanded during the Spanish American War (1898) with the construction of concrete steel reinforced batteries. More weaponry advances in World War II (1941-1945) rendered the forts obsolete, and the military eventually abandoned the end of the island for defensive purposes.

In 1947, the area became known as Fort Pickens State Park, and in 1971 it became part of the newly formed Gulf Islands National Seashore.

With examples from over 200 years of coastal fortification history, visitors may gain an understanding of the evolution of America’s coastal defenses. Fort Pickens can be explored and discovered through the passageways under massive arches, a monument to a bygone age of coastal defenses.