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West Florida

by Ann Gilbert

Have you ever wondered why a certain section of southeast Louisiana is called the Florida Parishes? What could this land east of the Mississippi River and north of Lakes Pontchartrain and Maurepas have to do with Florida, three states away?

As we prepare to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the purchase of Louisiana by the United States from France, would you be surprised to learn that St. Tammany and Tangipahoa, as well as the neighboring parishes of Washington, St. Helena, Livingston, East and West Feliciana and East Baton Rouge, were not included?

The prevalent impression is that, when President Thomas Jefferson completed his famous land deal in 1803, all the lands in present-day Louisiana were a part of the sale. Such was not the case. It would be seven years (1810) before they became part of the Louisiana Territory. And when Louisiana became a state on April 30, 1812, those eight parishes were still not included. They were added four months later.
It all sounds rather confusing, this blip in the history of the northshore.

In fact, this part of Louisiana’s history has been so ignored, misunderstood, and overlooked by historians that even some of those in the state capital who planned for the bicentennial included the Florida Parishes in their first map of the Louisiana Purchase territory. “We had to call them. We couldn’t believe it,” says Samuel Hyde, Ph.D., the Ford Professor of History at Southeastern Louisiana University, and director of the SLU Center for Southeastern Louisiana Studies. He is also the author of a book on West Florida, “Pistols and Politics.”

It’s a shame Hyde wasn’t asked to approve the Louisiana Commemorative Quarter, which carries the wrong map of the Louisiana Purchase. It seems someone high up in state government insisted on the boot shape - even today, the Florida Parishes cause controversy.

A native of Amite, Hyde has been fascinated with the development of this area between the Mississippi and Pearl Rivers. During an interview at his office on the SLU campus, Hyde noted that West Florida is unique for several reasons. The major European powers active in the New World - France, Spain and Britain - all ruled here. It was the site of an armed insurrection against the government. Here flew the first Lone Star Flag. “Texas stole the title and the flag, but don’t tell a Texan that.” Even the pattern of settlement was different in West Florida. “We had pure-blooded Englishmen here,” says Hyde.

The English

The area was first set apart in 1763, when France ceded most of Louisiana to Spain, but gave Canada and West Florida to England. For 16 years, the Union Jack flew over the area, and retired British soldiers were given land grants in the rolling hills. Immigration picked up when Tories (English loyalists) fled persecution by the revolutionaries on the east coast.

King George named the section West Florida, and, almost 250 years later, the eight parishes are still designated as such geographically and in government documents and cultural references. British hold was short-lived, as Spain supported the United States against Britain. Louisiana’s Spanish governor, Galvez, routed the British out of West Florida in the only American Revolution battle fought on Louisiana soil.

The Spanish

The incoming Spanish told the landowners they could remain if they swore loyalty to the Spanish crown and embraced Catholicism. “That was a bitter pill for the Protestants, but there was minimum effort to enforce the decree,” says Hyde. The area was divided into Baton Rouge, St. Helena, Chifoncte, and Feliciana, after Felicite, the wife of Galvez.

There was great instability and rampant crime in West Florida. The Spanish did not set up courts to handle disputes, and the forts had small garrisons. “Army deserters and desperadoes came here, exploiting the absence of an effective justice system,” writes Hyde in his book. Even the planters in the Territory of Mississippi were anxious about getting their crops to New Orleans. “All roads south crossed some part of West Florida,” Hyde points out.

The planters had expected to become part of the American territory with the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, and were angry they were left out. The Spanish claimed Napoleon could not sell what he did not own. Jefferson, however, felt that “navigation of the Mississippi could not be secure as long as West Florida remained under Spanish rule.”

There was an abortive attempt, called the Kemper Rebellion, to overthrow Spain in 1804. Hyde says it failed because “they failed to recognize the pro-British, pro-French and pro-Spanish feelings among the people.” They were also ill equipped.

The Republic of West Florida

For seven long years, social chaos, crime and political unrest continued in West Florida. Then on June 23, 1810, some 500 inhabitants of Feliciana, all Spanish subjects, gathered at Egypt Plantation. Newspaper reporter Stanley C. Arthur wrote in his 1935 book, “The Story of the West Florida Rebellion,” that there were only 11 dissenting votes on the decision to assume self-government.

The group elected representatives, and, with the rest of West Florida, they determined that “Spanish officers then governing the territory would be empowered to continue in office, provided they would submit to the new authority of the people.”

The rebels knew they faced the hangman’s noose or incarceration at Morro Castle in Havana, Cuba, if accused of treason, suggests Arthur. President James Madison’s papers reveal that several planters wrote to plead with him to take West Florida - or else the French or the British would return.

One figure of importance at that time was Judge Fulwar Skipwith, an American who served in France as consul general under Jefferson. He and his wife, a Flemish countess, settled in Spanish West Florida. He was named president of the new nation. Arthur says Skipwith supported the West Florida declaration of independence because “this was the best way to turn the captured province over to the United States.”

Philemon Thomas was appointed brigadier general of the West Florida troops. Governor William Claiborne would call him the “ajax of the revolution.” When the representatives gathered in July, a proposed constitution written by Skipwith was accepted. The delegates pledged loyalty to Spain’s king and governor, but also drew up a list of grievances. When they learned that the local Spanish governor had called in troops, they authorized Thomas to attack Fort San Carlos as the first step in declaring the independent Republic of West Florida.

The fort was located where the Pentagon Barracks are today, in the shadow of the state capitol building in Baton Rouge. Hyde says the insurrectionists learned there was a gap in the cypress palisades for the garrison’s dairy herd to go out to pasture. “Under cover of early morning darkness and fog, the 75 rebels caught 28 sleeping Spanish soldiers literally with their pants off and quickly forced their surrender after a fight that left two dead and five wounded,” according to a current exhibit on West Florida at SLU.

The rebels lowered the Spanish banner and raised the flag of the Republic of West Florida, a single white star on a blue background. It was Sept. 23, 1810. On Sept. 26, the convention met and declared West Florida a free and independent state.

The United States

When Madison learned of the takeover, he wrote a proclamation asserting the U.S. claim to the region, and dispatched Claiborne “to negotiate with the fledgling government if possible, but ... seize the territory by force if necessary.”

Claiborne left Washington and took the quick overland route back to Louisiana, arriving Dec. 1 near Natchez, at Washington, the capital of the Territory of Mississippi, where he enlisted the aid of Gov. Holmes. The two raced to St. Francisville to spread word of Madison’s proclamation. Claiborne met his troops, commanded by Col. Leonard Covington, for whom the St. Tammany town would be named.

Arthur describes in exciting detail the events of the next few days. The West Florida legislature was convening at that very time. The planters resented Madison’s authoritative tone and demanded that the United States recognize all previous land grants and pardon all deserters living in the territory. Claiborne would agree.

President Skipwith left the convention with a group “reluctant to American absorption and prepared to defend the fort against the American invaders.” On Dec. 5, the delegates sent a letter to Claiborne asking his intentions and “by what authority” was he disseminating that proclamation. Skipwith sent word to the governor that he would be at Fort San Carlos “ready to die in defense of the Lone Star Flag.” But when Claiborne entered St. Francisville, the residents cheered, and he ordered the flag of Florida lowered and the U.S. flag raised.

Meanwhile, at the fort in Baton Rouge, Skipwith dashed off a letter to Madison that he wanted “the honorable return (of West Florida) to the bosom of the parent country.” Yet he wrote a note to Claiborne that he “protested his methods as an outrage against the Lone Star Flag and the constitution of West Florida.”

Claiborne sent a request that the fort be vacated at 2:30 p.m. on Dec. 7. Skipwith reluctantly complied, and the 400 troops there watched the Lone Star Flag descend, and then marched out. The United States had taken possession of West Florida. The little nation had survived 74 days.

Claiborne, Holmes, Col. Covington and Lt. Col Zebulon Pike (who, under orders from Jefferson, would begin to explore the West) entered the fort and raised the U.S. flag with 15 stars and 15 stripes to a musket volley.

“The incomplete Purchase was complete,” writes Arthur.

But Claiborne had lots of administrative tasks to handle. Just three days before Christmas, he gave the name St. Tammany to the area that had been called Chifoncte and then St. Ferdinand. Tamanend was a renowned Delaware Indian chief, and historians are puzzled as to why Claiborne picked it. The Protestant American governor then tacked on “saint” in the fashion of the French and Spanish regimes, who had named parishes after Catholic saints.

Claiborne delayed naming a judge for St. Tammany, writing to Congress about the territory, “There is in that quarter a great scarcity of talent and the number of virtuous men (I fear) is not as great as I could wish.” Claiborne offered Skipwith a post, but he declined.

But there was still unrest in the Florida Parishes. Congress made provisions to admit the Orleans Territory (Louisiana) as a state without West Florida. Emotions flared anew, and the Lone Star Flag went up the pole on March 17, 1811.

Claiborne was forced to send in soldiers, again. He wrote to the U.S. Secretary of State: “The people of Feliciana are greatly dissatisfied at the proposition made in Congress to separate them from the Territory of Orleans. Many good citizens believe their destiny is uncertain.”

Louisiana became a state on April 30, 1812. Four days later, Congress passed an act to enlarge the state to include West Florida. Four months later, that was made official by the state legislature.
Finally, West Florida was home.


Copyright 2003, M&L Publishing, all rights reserved.