Spain's Feliciance County or Spanish West Florida between the Pearl and Perdido Rivers
Even before the ink was dry on the Treaty of Paris ending the American Revolution, Spain was seducing Protestant Anglo Saxons into the territory gained from Madrid’s entry into the conflict. I have already discussed the repercussions of this policy for Spain in the disputed Natchez District, but the immigration policy and the wooing of Anglos already living in the ex-British territory included the land south of the Natchez District. “Mississippi’s” Piney Woods extended to the Gulf and east west from the Perdido River to the Mississippi. The Spaniards named the county, Feliciance.
Westward migration at the close of the eighteenth and into the nineteenth centuries was steady. Americans, many already on the scent of opportunity and “manifest destiny” and others disillusioned with the revolution and separation from the motherland, were on the move, and Spain’s offers of fertile land, clemency for honest debtors, exemption from taxes and military service, and free access to trade in New Orleans proved tempting.
American immigration to the Mississippi Gulf Coast remained constant during this period with a brief hiccup between 1790 and 1792 when the Catholic Church, disturbed by the influx of so many Protestants into Spanish territory, inserted itself into Spain’s colonial policies and insisted new immigrants swear allegiance to the Church. Unwilling to make such an oath, immigrants merely moved farther up the Pearl River into undisputed American territory. In 1792, Spain realized its folly (well, in the sense of encouraging immigrants it was folly) and rescinded that policy.
In 1798, Spain revoked its claim to the Natchez District and retreated south of the 31st parallel. Natchez’ governor Manuel Gayoso de Lemos became governor of Spanish Louisiana, and when a number of his former Anglo-Saxon subjects preferred Spanish rule to that of the United States, he allowed them to settle along the Pearl River in Spanish territory. My take on this particular matter is that the citizens in question were Tory, who may have abhorred the thought of living under the United States. To those of you with only a smattering of knowledge of the British distaste for Spanish “oppression,” this must seem a choice between two evils, but my guess is there was no contest at all. I’ve said it before: Life under the administrators Madrid put in place in Louisiana during the closing decades of the eighteenth century truly was golden. The charismatic Gayoso died in New Orleans of yellow fever the following year. He was fifty-two.
Old British/Tory sentiment for Spanish rule notwithstanding, the young United States and its citizens, many of whom were as antagonistic toward their own government as they were aggressive toward Spain, were a threat to Spanish holdings in the southwest and Mexico. Not a new threat, mind you, but an altered one. No longer restrained by London’s carefully manipulated approach to foreign policy, and not necessarily in full control of its rowdy frontiersmen, the United States was a more dangerous enemy.
Tensions between Spain and the United States continued to strain. As early as 1799, Spain had put out feelers to the Choctaw in the Mississippi Territory, undisputedly American, offering friendship and “presents” in place of American neglect. Mississippi territorial officials suggested Washington counter in similar fashion. Whatever Spain’s plan regarding the Indians (if you recall your history, European powers’ use of Indian tribes against one another and their enemies was standard policy), the new governor of Spanish Louisiana did not pursue it, but Spain had shown its hand.
In 1800, Spain returned to France (read Napoleon here) New Orleans and the land west of the Mississippi, which France had ceded it at the close of the French and Indian War. Twenty days after the “formal” transfer in 1803, Napoleon sold Louisiana to the United States. The seat of the Spanish governor moved from New Orleans to Pensacola.
The United States claimed that the rest of West Florida (that area east of the Pearl all the way to the Perdido River) to be part of that “ancient” territory of Louisiana and was, therefore, part of the sale recently concluded with France. Spain countered that France had not given Spain that territory in 1762, but Spain won it through military conquest during the years 1779-1781. Spain would not budge and maintained strong military forces in Baton Rouge, Mobile, and Pensacola.
In 1803 and 1804, President Thomas Jefferson began monitoring Spanish activity in West Florida. In that year, 18 family homes, by that I assume my source refers to farms/plantations, existed between Mobile and Pascagoula and another 30 between Pascagoula and the Pearl River.
In 1804, the Kemper brothers made their first raids into Spanish territory from their staging ground in the Piney Woods (see my first quarter, 2007 article). That same year, Spain completed the leg of its military road between Mobile and Baton Rouge. El Camino Real was a dirt trail that would eventually unite St. Augustine in Florida with San Diego in California. In the meantime, it, and the Spanish troops that traveled it, drew the wary attention of worried settlers in the Mississippi Territory and justified the creation of a more secure line of communications between Washington and New Orleans.
The new American road bypassed the precarious Natchez Trace, along which official correspondence tended to “disappear” along with its hapless couriers. Vice moving east over the Cumberland and Nashville to Natchez and the Mississippi, then to New Orleans, the new road went south across Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia—then west. For seventy miles it traversed Spanish Florida. Permission to cross Spanish territory carrying U.S. mail proved capricious at best and became another source of friction between the two nations.
By 1809, cotton planting, sugar processing, and the timber industry along with black market trade, piracy, and the trafficking in stolen slaves flourished in Spain’s Feliciance County. At home, the Napoleonic Wars impaired Spain’s ability to control West Florida. Lawlessness became rampant. At one point, less than 100 Spanish soldiers served in West Florida, and they had not been paid in two years. (What you wanna bet they not only couldn’t control the lawlessness but actually contributed to it?) Madrid now sought to discourage further settlement of the Mississippi Territory to the north by placing duties on American trade with Mobile, and we know how those frontiersmen react when someone messes with their markets. Within Feliciance County, the stage was set for revolt and eventual annexation by the United States.
My primary source for this paper is Robert G. Scharff’s Louisiana’s Loss, Mississippi’s Gain, A History of Hancock County, Mississippi.
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