The creation of the modern United States of America was a long, messy, and largely unplanned process. Nobody in 1776 could have imagined that the union formed by the original thirteen colonies, all clustered against the Atlantic coast of North America, would grow by the 1840s into a land mass stretching all the way to the southern coast of the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific coast thousands of miles to the west. Some of this territory was seized through war (namely the massive Mexican cession of 1848, which included California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah) but much more of it was obtained by purchase or treaty. The US was effectively able to take advantage of the changing situation in Europe and the great powers’ shifting interests to expand its territory.
A few US acquisitions, however, were especially unplanned and came up as the result of local rebellions that resulted in a few short-lived North American republics. The most famous and the longest-lived of these by far was the Republic of Texas1, but it was not the first: that honor goes to the Republic of West Florida, which existed for a few months in 1810.
The Spanish province of La Florida was founded in the early 16th century at the dawn of the Age of Exploration. This dawn for the European powers was of course a dusk for the native peoples of the new Florida territory, who were gradually killed off by warfare and especially by strange European diseases. As a result, soon enough the Spanish colonists had a conveniently unpopulated Florida to settle. While they did found several important settlements like St. Augustine (famed as the oldest European settlement in North America) and Pensacola, the diseases that infested the swamps of much of Florida made large-scale colonization impossible at the time.
Florida would continue as a possession of the Spanish crown until 1763, when Great Britain swiped it as a condition of their licking of Spain in the Seven Years’ War. Britain would hold Florida for another 20 years before passing it back to Spain at the end of the American Revolution. Before the return to Spain, however, Britain divided Florida into two parts, West and East Florida, as a way to improve administration of the vast colony. West Florida had its capital in Pensacola and was augmented by slices of modern Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana that the Brits carved off of French North America2, while East Florida remained mostly a bunch of swamp-filled disease-ridden land that nobody wanted to touch.
The newly won independence of the United States put the restored Spanish Florida in something of a bind. Florida was now home to many American and British nationals, some of whom were Loyalists who had traveled there during the Revolution because of the colony’s continued control by King George III. These residents were for the most part not crazy about Spanish overlordship, however, and would play a large role in transferring both West and East Florida to the United States.
However, there’s another man to thank for giving the US the opportunity to continue the process of carving pieces of Florida off of Spain, even though he never really intended to do so: Napoleon Bonaparte.
In 1800, Spain made a secret treaty with France, newly under the control of First Consul Bonaparte. According to the terms of the treaty, the land comprising the massive Louisiana territory, since the 1760s controlled by Spain, was returned to France with the caveat that if France ever decided to give Lousiana up, it would sell the territory back to Spain. The Spanish may have been satisfied with this option at the time, but they didn’t count on the fact that Napoleon was either an opportunist or a damn liar. Three years later, the First Consul stabbed Spain in the back and sold the land to the United States after negotiating a price with President Thomas Jefferson. Spain was not in much of a position to enforce its contract with France, so the matter was settled.
But it wasn’t settled as to West Florida. What seemed to be a simple land transfer turned out to have a snag: the United States considered the part of Spanish-controlled West Florida from the Mississippi to the Perdido Rivers to have been part of French Louisiana and therefore part of the Purchase, whereas Spain did not. Spain had a strong argument on her side: the 1800 return of Louisiana to France did not include any part of West Florida, which was understood to remain under Spanish control. Robert Livingston, the American envoy to France during negotiations over the Louisiana Purchase, even referred to the fact that the French did not hold West Florida in his reports.
The United States momentarily gave up pursuing its claim, but this did not stop a group of Anglo settlers in West Florida from deciding in 1810 to throw off Spanish rule on their own. The rebellion, which began in September in Baton Rouge with the almost-bloodless capture of a Spanish fort, spread throughout the western districts of West Florida that today comprise the northern parishes of southeastern Louisiana (that is, the modern state of Louisiana.) The Republic of West Florida declared independence from Spain on September 26, three days after the rebellion began. The following month, a constitution was made establishing a bicameral legislature based in St. Francisville, the capital of the new republic, and American diplomat and politician Fulwar Skipwith was elected governor.3
Unfortunately for the new masters of the western part of West Florida, this was about as far as their enterprise got. An attempt to capture Mobile, a coastal city to the east of the American/British-controlled territory in eastern West Florida, was repulsed by a Spanish garrison, and the Republic remained boxed up in the western quarter of the province. Meanwhile, President James Madison had received word of the rebellion and decided that now was the time to pounce on West Florida. By the beginning of December, the governors of the Orleans and Mississippi Territories were marching with forces to subdue the rebellion and annex the Republic of West Florida on the President’s orders. When David Holmes, the Mississippi Territory governor, arrived in St. Francisville with federal troops, most of the West Florida leadership folded save Skipwith and a few others, who held out for a conditional surrender. Skipwith argued – rather convincingly, in fact, looking at it today – that the US had no right to West Florida because it had abandoned the territory to Spanish dominion years before.
But this argument would not avail the badly outgunned and outmanned West Floridians. Skipwith and co. left St. Francisville down the Mississippi River for the fort at Baton Rouge, where they finally gave up, along with their troops, on December 9. Accounts described a peaceful and honorable surrender to US forces, which a significant part of the largely pro-American annexation West Florida residents wanted anyway. The Republic was subsumed into the new state of Louisiana, an act that was finalized in 1821 when Spain signed a treaty with the US giving up Florida and formally transferred power.
Although the Republic of West Florida only lived for 74 days, it left some legacy behind. The flag flown by the West Florida rebels, a blue banner with a single white star, was readopted 50 years later as the “Bonnie Blug Flag” at the beginning of the American Civil War by Confederate forces in memory of the West Florida rebellion (before it was replaced by the Confederate state and battle flags.) And the same flag is still flown as a sort of semi-official flag of the Florida Parishes, the section of modern Louisiana that comprised the old Republic.
West Florida is also arguably where the Manifest Destiny ball started rolling for the United States, since it was the first territory outside of the original 13 colonies taken by the US as the result of military action. In that sense, this – the first Lone Star Republic – deserves to be better known than it is.
1 If you’ve ever talked to a Texan for more than five minutes in your life, you’re sure to have heard of the Republic of Texas. Many Texans are proud of their brief period of independence and some even maintain that it provides them a legal exit from the Union in the future if they ever desire it – but that’s a subject for another day.
2 This land north of the original pre-1764 border between West Florida and French Louisiana was ceded to the US by Spain in 1795 after a dispute over its ownership. It now comprises south-central Mississippi and Alabama.
3 If we had said the governor of West Florida’s name were Guybrush Threepwood it would be about as believable. But “Fulwar Skipwith” was really his name.