VOL. 3, No. 4 October, 1920
A Centenary Relation of West Florida and the Treaty with Spain 1819-1821
By Edward Alexander Parsons Member Louisiana Historical Society, etc.
Address delivered at Garic Hall, Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, March 16th, 1921, at the Centennial Celebration, commemorating the Treaty between Spain and the United States transferring the Territories of East and West Florida to the United States of America; and also delivered before the Louisiana Historical Society at the Cabildo, May 24th, 1921.
Out of the genius of Italy, out of the industry of Spain, and out of the indomitable spirit of French and English men was born this new world, called America.
Out of the spirit of the Declaration, out of the serenity of Washington and the courage of his followers, and out of the wisdom nay, prescience of the Fathers of the Constitution, was created these United States.
Out of the dream, audacity and policy of the French, out of the contributions to its law, government and art by the Spanish, and out of the vision, boldness and sound judgment of the Americans was founded the State of Louisiana.
Florida and Louisiana! From the beginning the very warp and woof of their tragic, strange and romantic histories are curiously intertwined.
The tale is geographical and would naturally be prosaic, if it were not for that extraordinary race of men who were its early protagonists.
The Spanish conquistadores, though by no means superior in courage and often inferior in character, to the English and French discoverers and explorers, yet outshown their rivals in inscrutable pride, in mysterious romanticism, and in an amazing picturesqueness, in which latent fires of all their ancestral races of the Iberian peninsula,—the simplicity and savagery of the Celt-Iberian, the prime faith of the Carthagenian, the subtlety and brilliancy of the Greek colonist, the strength and stoic reserve of the Roman, the destructiveness of the Vandal, the love of contest of the Goth, the polish of the Moor and the devotion of the Christian Spaniard,—intermittently blazed forth, forming a vast series of pictures in Venetian colors portraying the history of the discovery and conquest of America in more deathless form, than even that far-famed tale of Greek colonization of the storied shores of the Mediterranean Sea. The new world was indeed a stage for these versatile actors, who were equally in role, whether as a pampered gallant, who to please the ladies of the Court, danced out upon a beam from the Giralda's dizzy height; or as a warrior of iron when fighting the aborigines and wounded with a poisoned arrow could pluck out the dart and taking an iron, red hot, burn out with a steady hand the impregnated part; or who, though master of estates in Spain and accustomed to the best in Europe, could wade for weeks the tractless swamps, sleeping at night huddled on the limbs of trees, like the evil birds in the forests of Hell, hungry and chilled to the bone, and who, after unheard of suffering on at last reaching terra firma would again adventure the savage wilds; or who, with a handful of men and opposition at home could conquer and hold a vast empire; or, who with an enthusiasm suggestive of the mythological ages could search for El Dorado, through pathless forest, crossing vast streams and stopped only by death; or who with romantic mediavialism could seek for the Fountain of Eternal Youth amid the forest and river lands of Florida and, so with illustration without end. It was indeed the Age of Spain. Did not Columbus, Italian though he was, become so imbued with the "atmosphere" or spirit of the time, that when he described his discoveries not only to please his Spanish backers, but naturally it would seem, he takes his metaphors and comparisons from things and places of old Spain. And so Hispania's pageantry passes by, an endless array of monstrous, mighty, cruel, chivalrous, wicked and almost impeccable figures—heroes, like the Cid el Campeador and Isabella the Catholic; monarchs, like the omnipresent Charles (V) and the Tiberian Philip (II); soldiers, like Gonsalvo, the Great Captain, and the iron warriors Cortez and Pizzaro; discoverers, like the unfortunate Balboa and the quioxtic Ponce de Leon; statesmen, like the successful Ferdinand and the astute Cardinal Ximenes; and ecclesiastics, like the zealot Torquemada, the noble Las Casas and the saintly Francis Zavier. Truly, it was the Age of Spain.
And Now for the Florida Chronicle
Although there is geographical data that would suggest a knowledge of Florida before 1513, still, with justice, the elderly cavalier Ponce de Leon is honored as the discoverer of the country where he arrived on that eventful Easter Sunday (Pascua Florida) though he failed to find the fountain of youth. In St. Augustine I was shown the fountain, which somehow has lost its rare quality, though the region is much sought by society's fairest flowers.
Ponce de Leon died from an Indian arrow wound. Then the unfortunate Pamphilo de Narvaez (1528) landed, marched inland, losing many men, returned to the coast to find his ships had vanished and finally in hastily constructed boats, perished in the Gulf near the mouth of our mighty river.
The intrepid Hernando de Soto (1539!, companion of Pizarro, who had brought vast wealth from the Inca's hoard, must yet seek for the new El Dorado.
Grandiers and notables of Spain, sold or pledged their estates, asking the privilege to share in the golden enterprise. All could not be taken and many were chagrined at what they deemed their want of good fortune.
The tragic story of that expedition has been told in winged words, how "for month after month and year after year, the procession of priests and cavaliers, cross-bowman, arquebusiers, and Indian captives laden with baggage still wandered on through wild and boundless wastes, lured hither and thither by the ignis-fatuus of their hopes." On through Florida, what is now Georgia, Mississippi crossing the great river, into Arkansas, back to the Mississippi where the chieftain within its waters found his last place of rest,, and down the stream through Louisiana, passed sick, emaciated and desperate men, sad remnant of that proud array, that three years before had set sail for the conquest of golden Florida.
The Dominican Monk Cancer came to christianize the Indians: and was murdered by them; the Huguenots attempted to settle and were killed by the Spaniards.
Spain permanently settled the land and founded St. Augustine,. (1565).
Spain had, outside of the discoveries of Columbus and the grant of the Pope, the best claims to Florida.
But her mighty rivals never slept. France claimed the land in 1628; England claimed a portion of the Eastern part in 1629; the Spanish and French commandants, in 1702, when England was their common enemy, settled the boundary at the Perdido River.
In 1763, by the Treaty of Paris, Spain ceded the Floridas to Great Britain, who promptly took possession. This was the famous settlement, as a result of the Seven Years War.
The formula read: East of the Mississippi, except New Orleans ceded to Great Britain, and West of the Mississippi, with New Orleans ceded to Spain.
The northern boundary of Florida was then (1763) the 31° No.
In 1768 England extended the boundary northward to the parallel (32° 25' N. Lat.) of the mouth of the Yazoo river.
In 1779, Galvez commenced the reconquest of West Florida. With a little army of 1,434 men and a little flotilla of one 24, five 18 and four 4-pounders, in about three weeks he took Fort Bute on Bayou Manchac, the post of Baton Rouge, and Fort Panmure; and finally on May 1, 1781, Pensacola and the whole of West Florida was surrendered to Galvez, who was made captain-general of Louisiana and West Florida.
In 1783 in the Treaty between Great Britain on the one part and the United States and her allies, France and Spain, England acknowledged the independence of her former colonies and recognized "as a part of their southern boundary a line drawn due east from a point in the Mississippi in latitude 31 degrees north to the middle of the Appalachicola, and at the same time she ceded to Spain by a separate agreement the two Floridas but without defining their northern boundaries." This further complicated the growing dispute because Spain contended that the Floridas she received from England was not confined to the original Spanish limits (line of 31° N. Lat.) but embraced the extended English hounds of 32° 30'.
By the Treaty of Madrid (Oct. 27, 1795) however the line of 31° N. Lat. was confirmed.
The ever present question of the navigation of the Mississippi; the discontent of the Kentuckians and Tennesseians, those sturdy frontier Americans, described by one of our historians as men who "spat mightily, swore mightily and shot straight;" rumors of Burr's plots and Wilkinson's intrigues,—all these forces were assumulating like great waves about to engulf the Spanish regime, when Spain, perceiving the dangeis of her position, retroceded Louisiana to France. (Treaty of San Ildefonso, Oct. 1, 1800.)
Then came the great purchase (1803) with its treaty ambiguous as to boundaries.
We purchased Louisiana "with the same extent as when France possessed it," now before her cession to Spain in 1763, France owned to the Perdido river, recognized as the eastern limits of Louisiana and the western present boundary of the State of Florida.
The United States Congress (1804) established a custom district in the Mississippi territory', including portion of West Florida but Spain protested and held up our traders. In 1805 the Americans in West Florida unsuccessfully rebelled; and finally in 1810 a revolution was successful.
"The United States claimed, it must be repeated, that the act of cession by which they acquired the whole province called Louisiana included all the territory which, under that name had originally belonged to France and had been ceded by that country, through the treaties of 1763-64, to Spain. The western line had been left purposely vague, as has already been noted. The eastern line was also not definitely marked, but the French had colonized and held West Florida, including the town of Mobile, up to the Perdido River. Beyond this point lay the undoubtedly Spanish Possessions of East Florida. Upon such grounds the United States based their claim to West Florida. The territory in question, however, had been transferred by Spain to Great Britain in return for Havana, and had been held by that power until the American Revolution, when the Spaniards of Louisiana under Galvez had recovered Baton Rouge, Mobile, Pensacola, and the whole country' which they had originally settled as well as the country colonized but abandoned by France. When Napoleon transferred to the United States all the claims of France to its original territory in North America, Spain retained possession, not only of its original colonies of East Florida, but West Florida as well, that is to say, all that Galvez had won from Great Britain and had subsequently been held as Spanish territory, roughly speaking the land lying between the Perdido and the Mississippi and including Baton Rouge and Mobile. Jefferson's concillatory policy had prevented him from attempting to take possession of this territory, though claimed by the United States, and the Spaniards had been allowed to remain. Governor Folch, stationed at Pensacola, ruled both the Floridas for the Spaniards, and Don Carlos Dehault De Lassus governed West Florida, under his orders, and maintained his headquarters at Baton Rouge. In West Florida were many settlers of Anglo-Saxon race and many who had been citizens of other states, and there was a strong public disposition in favor of annexation to the United States. It is impossible here to detail the many disorders which arose in and about this disrupted district. The question of regaining slaves that fled from the Orleans and Mississippi Territories into the Spanish lines, and the rights of Americans to invade this territory and search and seize them, were causes of constant confusion. Within the territory itself, discontent had already manifested itself in an attempted revolution, and finally, in 1810, when the fall of the Bourbons had caused the Spanish provinces all over the western world to think of revolt and freedom, a movement was set on foot in West Florida to establish its independence.'' (Louisiana: A Record of Expansion by Albert Phelps, pp. 247-8; Boston, 1905.)
"There was in the district, however, from the Perdido to Baton Rouge, a large number of the inhabitants who were Americans in sentiment and American by birth; a number, who, in 1779, had organized to join the Spanish forces in the overthrow of British authority; a number who considered that they should have obtained their absolute freedom along with the thirteen colonies, and who boldly declared that they formed the fourteenth of American free States; a number who, apart from any other feelings, chafed under monarchical rule, and a larger number, and the more intelligent, who for years had been satisfied and were willing to let well enough alone."
"In this strait of affairs, a rumor was set afloat to which some credence must be given, that Bonaparte claimed West Florida and intended to exercise therein his jurisdiction. This seems to have been the straw that broke the camel's back, for immediately on the circulation of this remarkable information the citizens met in all the respective districts, at the request of the assembled citizens of Feliciana, and delegates were chosen to meet in general convention at Buhler's Plains. When news of these proceedings came to the ears of De Lassus, despite the contrary advice of his lieutenant, the dashing young De Grandpre, he showed an apparent acquiesence in the preliminaries." (Henry L. Favrot: The West Florida Revolution; Publications, La. Historical Society, Vol. 1, Part 2 and 3.)
The convention met on July 17, 1810, at Buhler's Plains; John Mills was president and Dr. Stelle, secretary.
The result of their deliberations was the drawing up of a sort of projected constitution, to which the preamble read as follows:
"When the sovereignty or independence of a nation has been destroyed by treachery or violence, the political ties which united its different members are destroyed. Distant provinces, no longer cherished or protected by the mother country, have a right to institute for themselves such forms of government as they think conducive to their safety and happiness. The lawful sovereign of Spain, together with his hereditary kingdom in Europe, having fallen under the dominion of a foreign tyrant by means of treachery and lawless power, right naturally devolves upon the people of the different provinces of that kingdom, placed by nature beyond the grasp of the usurper, to provide for their own security. The allegiance which they owed and preserved with so much fidelity to their lawful sovereign can never be transferred to the destroyer of their country's independence."
"We therefore, the people of West Florida, exercising the rights which incontestibly devolve upon us, declare that we owe no allegiance to the present ruler of the French nation, or to any king, prince or sovereign, who may be placed by him on the throne of Spain, and we will always, and by all means in our power, resist any tyrannical usurpation over us of whatever kind, or by whomsoever the same may be attempted, and in order more effectually to preserve the domestic tranquility and secure for ourselves the blessings of peace and the impartial administration of justice, we propose the following."
Then followed a series of 13 articles. A committee presented this document as a memorial to the Governor De Lassus and it was thought all would go well.
But Colonel Thomas, a man of sterling qualities, a good soldier, though illiterate, commanding the militia, becoming suspicious of De Lassus and Shepard Brown, discovered a secret correspondence between De Lassus, Governor of the Post at Baton Rouge, and Governor Folch at Pensacola, in which De Lassus asked for an armed force to quell the insurrection.
"Going then immediately to Baton Rouge on the evening of September 21, he called to a secret council, Col. Fulton, Fulwar Skipwith, John Rhea, Philip Hicky, Isaac Johnson, Gilbert Leonard and Larry Moore. The result of their deliberations was the determination to declare the independence of West Florida, for they realized the futility of any attempt to continue in their, allegiance to Spain, with De Lassus at their head, and there was no authority to depose him. His constant refusal to enforce some laws, his dilatoriness in other matters had already opened his pretended sincerity to suspicion, and his present duplicity was magnified the more by circumstances. It was deemed advisable to take and hold the fort at Baton Rouge, and all then would be well. Trusty messengers were sent to Robert Percy, near Bayou Sara, and to St. Helena for Dan'l Raynor. The combined forces met Colonel Thomas on September 22, at 12 o'clock at night, and together they reached the fort in three separate columns at 3 o'clock in the morning. The struggle was short and decisive and the fort surrendered."
The gallant young de Grandpre was killed. The report of Colonel Thomas on the capture of the Port of Baton Rouge is as follows:
"Headquarters Fort of Baton Rouge, "September 24, 1810. "To John Rhea, President of Convention of West Florida:
"Sir: In obedience to the order of convention, bearing date the 22d inst., I directed Major Johnston to assemble such of the cavalry as might be ready at hand, and march immediately for the fort at Baton Rouge. I then proceeded to Springfield, where I found forty-four of the grenadier company, commanded by Col. Ballinger, awaiting orders of the convention. At 1 o'clock in the morning of the 23d we joined Major Johnston and Capt. Griffith with twenty-one of the Bayou Sara cavalry, and five or six other patriotic gentlemen joined us in our march.
"At 4 o'clock the same morning we made the attack. My orders were not to fire till we received a shot from the garrison and to cry out in French and English: 'Ground your arms and you will not be hurt.' This order was strictly attended to by the volunteers till we received a discharge of musketry from the guard house, where the governor was, which was briskly returned by the volunteers. We received no damage on our part. Of the governor's troops Lieut. Louis-de Grandpre was mortally wounded, Lieut. J. B. Metzinger, commandant of artillery, was also wounded, one private killed and four badly wounded. We took twenty prisoners, and among them is Col. De Lassus. The rest of the garrison escaped by flight. The magazines, stores, etc., found in the garrison, have been reported to you by James Nelson, Esq., who was appointed for that purpose.
"The various and complicated duties devolving on me from present circumstances of the moment forbid a more minute detail. The firmness and moderation of the volunteers who made the attack, was fully equal to that of the best disciplined troops. Whole companies are daily flocking to our standard and the harmony and patriotism in the garrison must be highly gratifying to every friend of his country.
"Accept sir, for yourself and your body, assurances of my highest esteem.
"Philemon Thomas, "Commander of Fort of Baton Rouge and Dependencies."
It may be of interest to insert here that when the expedition to capture the post was determined upon, it was noticed that they had no standard, and of course to fight without a flag is unthinkable. The ladies, as usual, came to the rescue, and fair patriotic hands quickly supplied the great defect. When Col. Thomas and his men reached Baton Rouge, they were given the flag that the ladies had made: with a single silver star upon a field of blue. Afterwards the Convention adopted it as the Flag of West Florida.
And later this device became the standard of Texas, the Lone Star State.
On September 26, 1810, the people of West Florida issued a Declaration of Independence:
"By the Representatives of the people of West Florida, in Convention, assembled:
"It is known to the world with how much fidelity the good people of this Territory have professed and maintained allegiance to their legitimate Sovereign, while any hope remained of receiving from his protection for their property and their lives.
"Without making any unnecessary innovation in the established principles of the Government we had voluntarily adopted certain regulations, in concert with our First Magistrate for the express purpose of preserving this Territory, and showing our attachment to the Government which had heretofore protected us. This compact, which was entered into with good faith on our part, will forever remain an honorable testimony of our upright intentions and inviolable fidelity to our King and parent country, while so much as a shadow of legitimate authority remained to be exercised over us. We sought only a speedy remedy for such evils as seemed to endanger our existence and prosperity, and were encouraged by our Governor with solemn promises of assistance and cooperation. But those measures which were intended for our preservation he has endeavored to prevert into an engine of destruction, by encouraging, in the most perfidious manner, the violation of ordinances, sanctioned and established by himself as the law of the land.
"Being thus left without any hope of protection from the mother country, betrayed by a magistrate whose duty it was to have provided for the safety and tranquility of the people and Government committed to his charge, and exposed to all the evils of a state of anarchy, which we have so long endeavored to avert, it becomes our duty to provide for our own security as a free and independent State, absolved from all allegiance to a Government which no longer protects us.
"We, therefore, the Representatives aforesaid, appealing to the Supreme Ruler of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do solemnly publish and declare the several districts composing this Territory of West Florida to be a free and independent state; and that they have a right to institute for themselves such form of government as they may think conducive to their safety and happiness; to form treaties; to establish commerce; to provide for their common defence; and to do all acts which may of right, be done by a sovereign and independent nation; at the same time declaring all acts, within the said Territory of West Florida, after this date, by any tribunals or authorities not deriving their powers from the people, agreeably to the provisions established by this Convention, to be null and void, and calling upon all foreign nations to respect this our declaration, acknowledging our independence and giving us such aid as may be consistent with the laws and usages of nations."
The declaration was transmitted to the President of the United States through Governor Holmes of the Mississippi Territory. And James Madison, the most cautious of Presidents, resolved to take immediate possession of the West Florida District issuing his proclamation on the 27th of October, 1810, starting out with the famous paragraph:
"Whereas, the Territory south of the Mississippi Territory, and eastward of the River Mississippi, and extending to the River Perdido, of which possession was not delivered to the United States, in pursuance of the treaty concluded at Paris on the 30th of April, 1803, has, at all times, as is well known been considered and claimed by them, as being within the colony of Louisiana, conveyed by the said treaty, in the same extent that it had in the hands of Spain, and that it had when France originally possessed it.
"Now, be it known that I, James Madison, President of the United States of America, in pursuance of these weighty and urgent considerations, have deemed it right and requisite that possession should be taken of the said Territory in the name and behalf of the United States. W. C. C. Claiborne, Governor of the New Orleans Territory', of which the said territory is to be taken as part, will accordingly proceed to execute the same, and to exercise over the said territory the authorities and functions legally appertaining to his office. And the good people inhabiting the same are invited and enjoined to pay due respect to him in that character, to be obedient to the laws, to maintain order, to cherish harmony, and in every manner to conduct themselves as peaceable citizens, under full assurance that they will be protected in the enjoyment of their liberty, property and religion."
We might add parenthetically that Congress on January 15, and March 3, 1811, fearing that England might seize Florida, secretly passed acts authorizing the President, in his discretion to take "temporary possession" of East Florida.
Then came intrigues, military aggressions, irregular and regular; Wilkinson took Mobile, 1813; Jackson drove the British out of Pensacola (Nov., 1814) and reinstated the Spanish authorities; and finally (18181 fighting the Seminoles, Jackson again took Pensacola, hanged Arbuthnot and Ambrister. Spain powerless to resist signed the treaty of 1819-1821.
To resume, on April 8, 1912, by act of Congress, Louisiana, in spite of the burning eloquence of the narrow Puritan and Federalist leader, Josiah Quincy, became a sovereign State of the American Union. Six days later, by act of Congress approved April 14,1812, West Florida was incorporated in Louisiana, and our great State was then territorily complete. On May 14, 1812, the eastern portion of West Florida was incorporated into the Mississippi Territory.
But still the title of the United States to West Florida was at least precarious and our best statesmen knew that it must be "cured". And so was concluded and signed on 22nd February, 1819, the "Treaty of Amity, Settlement and Limits" between the United States of America and the Kingdom of Spain, the United States being represented by John Quincy Adams, Secretary of State, and Spain by the most Excellent Lord Don Louis di Onis. The Treaty was promulgated by James Monroe, President of the United States on February 22, 1821—and for all times the question of the American title to West Florida was quieted.
And so was completed territorily the fair domain of Louisiana.
But in annexing the Florida Parishes, Louisiana received more than an acquisition of land.
Even though her ancient post has become the capital of our commonwealth, I cannot but feel that our gains must be measured by higher standards and tests, and that it is to the distinguished men and women that these Parishes have produced and the great seat of learning that flourishes in their midst—these have added to our great store of material, intellectual and moral greatness.
In what might have been the words of the lost ode of Alcaeus:
"What constitutes State?
Not high-raised battlements, or labored mound,
Thick wall or moated gate; Not cities fair, with spires and turrets crowned,
No; men, high minded men,
Men who their duties know,
But know their rights, and knowing dare maintain. **********
And sovereign law, that states collected will,
O'er thrones and globes elate, Sit empress, crowning good, repressing ill."
These constitute a State.