The Republic of West Florida

Most people in the US today know about the Republic of Texas and the Republic of California. But few people remember that, for a brief time in 1810, portions of what are now Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana were also established as an independent nation, known as the Republic of West Florida.

West_Florida_Map_1767

The Republic of West Florida

In 1803, the United States, under President Thomas Jefferson, purchased the “Louisiana Territory” from Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor of France, doubling the size of the country and beginning the long American march of expansion across the continent.

But as soon as the purchase was made, there was a dispute about the borders. Louisiana had been a Spanish territory, given to it to administrate by the French when they came to politically dominate the Spanish Court, but Napoleon Bonaparte had taken ownership of the territory back in 1800, first hoping to build a large French Empire in North America, then hoping to sell it for much-needed cash to finance the Napoleonic Wars in Europe.

The United States wanted control of a chunk of territory known as “West Florida”, containing the cities of Pensacola, Mobile and Baton Rouge, which would have given the US complete control of both banks of the Mississippi River, and someone in the US Government apparently thought that the Louisiana Purchase also included this desired spot of land. But now Spain argued that this territory had not been a part of Louisiana, had not been transferred to the French, and therefore was not included in the land deal–and it belonged to them. The Jefferson Administration argued over it, but in the end, it had no choice but to accept the border. Jefferson consoled himself with the knowledge that as American settlers moved in to the new territories, they would become Americanized anyway.

And on the ground, things went just as Jefferson thought they would (with, it was whispered in some circles, some surreptitious help from the US Government). American settlers moved into West Florida, and the population there was soon divided between Spanish settlers who wanted to stay in the Spanish Empire and the growing number of Americans who wanted to become part of the US. In 1804, to hurry the process along, a group of Americans from the Mississippi Territory, led by Ruben Kemper, invaded West Florida, hoping to capture the Spanish fort at Baton Rouge and claim the territory for the United States. The Kemper Rebellion failed, but it sparked a three-way political fight within the territory: pro-American, pro-Spanish, and a small and mostly-ignored group who wanted independence from both countries.

In 1808, the Spanish King appointed a new Governor in West Florida, Carlos de Hault de Lassus. While the previous Governor had been popular, de Lassus quickly established a reputation as an indecisive weakling, and the pro-American faction saw its chance. They began openly training a militia and constructing some small wooden forts, preparing for insurrection. It is not clear how actively the US Government was involved with this, although Washington DC certainly supported the goal of annexing West Florida. In July 1810 a delegation from the pro-American faction presented de Lassus with a list of “reforms” that would in effect allow the Americans to govern the territory. De Lassus, who had a grand total of 28 troops at his disposal, met with the delegates at Baton Rouge and agreed to their demands–but at the same time, he sent a messenger to Pensacola for a force of Spanish troops to come and arrest the Americans.

When the rider was captured, however, the Americans realized that the jig was up, and they decided to act first. On September 22, 1810, a force of 50 armed foot soldiers and 25 mounted cavalry, commanded by a Revolutionary War veteran named Philemon Thomas, approached the gates of Fort San Carlos and fired a musket volley that killed or wounded 5 of the 28 Spanish soldiers, who then surrendered. The whole fight lasted less than ten minutes. Thomas hoisted a new flag over the fort–a white star on a blue background–and solemnly declared the establishment of the Republic of West Florida.

Four days later, the rebels sent a message to the Governors of the United States Territories in Mississippi and Orleans offering to allow them to claim the new territory on behalf of the United States. Neither Governor knew what to do, however, and both sent messages to Washington DC to ask President James Madison for instructions. After a few days of hearing no response, meanwhile, the rebels in West Florida thought that their offer to the US had been ignored, and, with the primary goal of their revolution a seeming failure and not knowing what else to do, they set about constructing an actual independent Republic. The town of St Francisville, in what is now Louisiana, was established as the capitol, a Constitution was written, and on October 24, 1810, tobacco plantation owner Fulwar Skipwith was elected President of the Republic. Plans were laid for the new Republic to send militia troops into Mobile and Pensacola to expel the Spanish garrisons that were stationed there.

But just three days later, the United States made its own move. Acting without either Congressional approval or any negotiation with the West Floridians, President Madison unilaterally declared that the United States was annexing the area, and US troops and Navy ships were dispatched from the Orleans Territory to seize the city of Baton Rouge. Most of the West Florida government had originally wanted to become incorporated into the US in the first place, but the actions of the US Government now outraged them; President Skipwith swore that he would give his blood to defend the new Republic. Some minor fighting happened between the US and the Army of West Florida, but the American forces were overwhelming, and the Republic of West Florida surrendered on December 10. Its independence had lasted 74 days.

Madison’s occupation of West Florida was very likely illegal under US law, but now that no longer mattered. In 1821, Spain agreed to sell East Florida to the United States, and the two territories were united into the State of Florida in 1845.

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