The Population of British West Florida
Throughout the brief but decisive twenty-year period of British rule, settlers routinely trickled into British West Florida. There were, however two notable periods of European immigration. The first followed the British victory over the French and the Spaniards (mid-1760s) and consisted primarily of British subjects from the American colonies, but some from Great Britain itself. The crown issued land grants to a significant number of British veterans of the French and Indian War (and the Seven Year’s War, implying European Brits). The British also tempted a spattering of Germans to the area. Additionally, a number of French remained in British West Florida—primarily along the Mississippi, in the New Orleans area, and along the Gulf Coast.
The second major wave of immigrants came between 1772 and 1779 and consisted primarily of British loyalists wary of, or just plain hostile to, revolutionary rhetoric. For some, life among seditious neighbors had become intolerable and in numerous cases, animosity had resulted in the loss of property. In British West Florida, the sovereign welcomed loyal subjects and compensated them with land. The standard grant consisted of one hundred acres to each head of household and fifty additional acres for each person the potential landowner brought with him: wife, child, extended family, and slave.
After hostilities erupted with the American colonies in 1775, many British subjects moved into West Florida from the British West Indies. On the surface, this migration appears a natural response to anxiety created with the repositioning of British military forces (most significantly the Royal Navy) to respond to the rebellion. Trade between British West Florida and the West Indies was already significant a decade before open warfare began, but it proved critical to the islands once the shooting started. These loyal British colonies, always dependent upon free shipping, were suddenly vulnerable to not only the French and Spanish navies, but to American privateers as well. Additionally, there was fear of slave revolt (in Jamaica, for instance, slaves outnumbered their British owners twenty-five to one). This latter threat did not materialize.
Looking beyond the obvious risks of staying in the British West Indies, more subtle factors played a role in a wealthy planter’s/business man’s decision to move to the wilds of West Florida, and I’m not speaking of loyalty to Great Britain. There were fortunes to be made on the frontier. Contraband moved easily up and down the Mississippi, and French fur trappers continued to trade among their old Choctaw allies. The Spanish, hungry for whatever goods they could get their hands on, lived right next door. Covert dealings with Spain and American rebels were duty free and conducted at the expense of the British Crown.
Britain not only encouraged the introduction of slaves into British West Florida, but considered them important to the rapid settlement of the territory—a lesson learned over thirty years earlier when the Crown made a policy decision not to introduce slaves into Georgia. For eighteen years, Georgia developed at a snail’s pace. Though non-slave-owning whites moved into Georgia, not enough did so to meet the government’s expectations for growth. Hostile Indians and a hostile environment made the place (and we must assume potential immigrants would have regarded West Florida the same way) a hard sale. Slavery provided not only a significant labor force, but a big boost to the population—and no doubt encouraged the immigration of wealthy landowners better suited for roles in leadership and economic development—as opposed to poor farmers, vagabonds, unprincipled fur trappers, and rebels (the refuse of the defeated highlands, perhaps?). It was generally believed—or maybe just put out—that white Europeans couldn’t work in the Southern heat—the presence of those poor farmers tell a different tale—and that the Negro was immune to yellow fever. Anyone living side by side with him would tell a different story there, too.
As of 1768 the African slave trade, dominated by Liverpool, thrived. Britain’s Atlantic seaboard colonies, however, were saturated with slaves and, with the exception of Georgia did not want any more brought in. Liverpool not only wanted, it needed the West Florida slave market. The potential needs of Spanish Louisiana to the west sweetened the pot. Slaves were valuable, more valuable than land to some. More than one West Indies planter, wary of war and the vulnerabilities of their Caribbean plantations, fled to British West Florida with their slaves where they liquidated their assets.
Despite politically correct, popular opinion, slaves were well cared for. They most certainly did die of yellow fever and a hot summer day was a hot summer day as much to them as their owner—or, for that matter, the poor Scots-Irish family up the road. Did y’all know that as far back as the 1770s there was a smallpox inoculation, which predated the present-day cowpox-derived vaccine? I didn’t. Though risky, it was somewhat effective—and many owners inoculated their slaves to protect them from the disease. Those same owners, according to my source, were not quick to inoculate themselves, probably because of said risks.
The slave diet consisted primarily of pork and rice—and they had plenty of it. Their owner’s diet included ham, beef, and poultry. How modern historians determined the slave got no beef or chicken, I cannot tell you, and I for one question that assertion. For sure, both populations ate eggs and bread. Vegetables consisted of corn, pumpkins, peas, and [okra]. Yes, I added the latter. Okra was not listed by my source, but I know the slaves brought black-eyed peas and okra with them from Africa—and how much lesser a place the South would be without them! Corn—now that’s a story onto itself. That giant plug of grass—and that’s what it is—fed this entire continent for millennia.
Like the white immigrant, the origin of the slave varied. Some had remained with their French owners on plantations situated primarily along the mouth of the Mississippi and the Gulf coast, but most came with their owners from the other British colonies along the Atlantic seaboard and the British West Indies. It does not appear, despite Liverpool’s push, that a large number of West Florida’s slaves came directly from Africa.
Last, and somewhat overlooked in this day and age, are the Indians. Their presence in the eighteenth century, however, played a significant role in shaping British policy on the frontier and London’s determination to swell the British population and neutralize the Indian threat, which hindered West Florida’s development into a viable colony.
At the onset of the British incursion into what had been the French Indian trade, the French started rumors the British were, to use a cliché, looking for trouble. Personally, I think those rumors had been around for years and the Indians were well versed in them. Mother England’s fomenting hate and discontent among the natives certainly wasn’t unheard of throughout the course of British colonization—no matter which continent she was on. Sometimes that policy served the Brits well, sometimes it backfired, but I think it safe to assume British leaders responsible for British West Florida played each situation as they saw it. Regardless, there were many Indian tribes that did not get along and had not done so since before the British arrived (or the white man, in general, for that matter). In a previous article, I touched upon the conflict between the Choctaw (French) and Chickasaw (British). A more serious threat to Britain’s posture in British West Florida—particularly now that Britain owned the area vice merely encroached into French territory—was the Creek nation, a loose confederation of tribes in eastern British West Florida that did not like the Choctaw. For years during the French era, the Creeks controlled the flow of superior British trade goods to their rival. Now, with the British in Mobile, Britain had direct contact with the Choctaw and the Creeks did not like it.
The Creek chiefs had other bones to pick with the British, the most significant being the issuing of trade licenses to British Indian traders. There were, simply stated, too many of them issued. Britain left licensing in the hands of colonial authorities who issued them indiscriminately to most applicants. Worse, the colonies did not coordinate with one another on the number of licenses issued. The traders (some very unscrupulous) would then go wherever they wanted. In the 1760s and 70s, the place for a trapper to be was British West Florida. British traders not only saturated the Indian villages but some ventured beyond their assigned villages to other villages and/or hunted in Indian hunting grounds, depriving the Indians of what had, by this point in history, become their livelihood. White traders routinely traded rum (vice necessaries) to braves for hides, leaving the Indians unable to feed and clothe their families. The French might have had inferior trade goods, but they did not, as a rule, trade thusly (irresponsibly?) with their Indian counterparts.
The on-scene British authorities responsible for Indian Affairs seemed to have had an astute understanding of the problem. Hindered in no small way by London’s policy toward the Indians (London itself driven by British manufacturers’ demands for North American animal hides), the frontier government was unable to bring the colonies and their trappers under complete control. They did avoid full-scale war with the Creeks (deadly skirmishes were routine) by repeatedly bringing the chiefs to council in conjunction with brief, but fleeting management of their own populace. The fur trade and its adverse effect on Indian affairs, however, remained a source of contention throughout the British period.
Just for fun, I thought y’all might be interested in seeing what those rough-cut, rowdy trappers traded for in what is now Mississippi and Alabama in the mid 1770’s: Black bear; beaver; cat, tyger, and panther (got me—I don’t know the distinction, but it could very well be no more than what one recorder called the beast as opposed to the next man’s choice of words); deer (in 1774 there were 182,000 deer pelts noted in the surviving records); elk; fox; musquash (my guess is muskrat); marten (related to, but bigger than a weasel); and wolf. Conspicuously absent from the list is buffalo, but they’d been around at some point. They’re what made that old “cow path” we now call the Natchez Trace.
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