A Brief Introduction to Spanish West Florida
A portion of British West Florida became Spanish West Florida at the end of the American Revolution when Great Britain ceded its territory from the mouth of the Yazoo (present day Vicksburg) south to the Gulf and east to the Perdido River (the natural boundary between the present-day state of Alabama and the Florida panhandle) to Spain. Mother England also ceded the territory from the mouth of the Yazoo to the 31st parallel (Natchez District) to the young United States. Spain, then enthusiastically supporting the rebellious British colonies, had taken that Tory territory in the fall of 1779. Needless to say, Spanish-American relations eroded once their common British enemy threw in the towel.
I’ve already discussed the years of Spanish Intrigue that followed the Revolution in the Old Southwest leading up to 1798 and Spain’s departure from the Natchez District. In the meantime, Spain was having problems at home—and Napoleon loomed ominously in Spain’s near future.
By 1800, Louisiana (and its proximity to the ever-encroaching Americans) had become a drain on Spain’s resources. Desirous to divest itself of Louisiana and still protect its lucrative holdings in Mexico and California, Spain (no doubt under some duress from Napoleon) returned to "Revolutionary” France the territory France had ceded to it in 1763 at the end of the French and Indian War. In return, Spain received (from France) a Spanish kingdom in Italy.
Whatever Napoleon’s grand strategy was for France in North America, a need for cash replaced it, and he made a deal to sell Louisiana to the United States, signed, sealed, and delivered in 1803 during the presidency of Thomas Jefferson. Spain was not pleased and disputed Napoleon’s right to sell the territory, which again left New Spain bordering us rowdy Americans.
Another dispute, which resulted from the Louisiana Purchase, involved Spanish West Florida, the area east of the Isle of Orleans, which Spain maintained was not part of the already disputed Louisiana Purchase and which Thomas Jefferson claimed was always “assumed” part of the deal.
Historical records focus mostly on events west of the Pearl during the summer and fall of 1810 and the establishment of the brief-lived Republic of West Florida. But equally exciting are the seven years between the Louisiana Purchase and that Rebellion and the cast of misfits, malcontents, seditionists and traitors who came and went through what are now Mississippi’s six southernmost counties and the southern portions of Lamar, Forrest, Perry and Wayne counties. Activities in Mississippi’s “Piney Woods” spilled over into what was then the Mississippi Territory and, therefore, the United States, where the disgruntled pirates, thieves, and self-proclaimed patriots found refuge after wreaking havoc inside Spanish territory.
With the possible exception of Aaron Burr, the most infamous of the malcontents were the Kemper brothers, Nathan, Reuben, and Samuel, who between 1804 and 1810 waged a campaign to expel the Spanish from the area.
In the fall of 1810, the rebellion finally took hold and succeeded. For seventy-two days, the Republic of West Florida reigned over what is now the southeastern most parishes of Louisiana and those Mississippi counties cited above. The Spanish held onto the fort at Mobile until after the Battle of New Orleans (yes, the War of 1812 factors into this, too).
I intend to go into the history of this time and place piecemeal in future Newsletters. Spanish West Florida, The Republic of West Florida, The U.S. annexation of the territory, and the War of 1812—along with the lively, disgruntled, and generally unscrupulous characters who wove themselves in and out of the area make a rich and fascinating history.
Before I sign off, I want to note the dearth of published material on Spain’s West Florida holdings and the short-lived republic that followed. The primary source for the history of Spanish West Florida was published in 1918: The West Florida Controversy, 1798-1818 by Isaac Cox. It’s a rare book—selling for over $100.00, if one could find a copy for sale. It was apparently reprinted in 1967, but I can’t find available copies of that edition either—and my Mississippi archives here on the Coast are squirreled away for safe keeping until we get our main library rebuilt. (Though I hope, I don’t know for certain that the archives even has a copy of the book.) Another source, Stanley Arthur’s The Story of the West Florida Rebellion (1935), has proven equally elusive.
On the internet, I found an excellent working paper, titled Not merely Perfidious but Ungrateful: The U.S. Takeover of West Florida by Robert Higgs of The Independent Institute. His sources are Cox and Arthur [at least we can get a taste]—and other less conclusive works.
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