"Not Merely Perfidious but Ungrateful": The U.S. Takeover of West Florida

By Higgs, Robert | Independent Review, Fall 2005 | Go to article overview

"Not Merely Perfidious but Ungrateful": The U.S. Takeover of West Florida


Higgs, Robert, Independent Review


Probably not one American in a hundred knows anything about the short-lived Republic of West Florida (1810). At first glance, it might seem to have sprung from a worthy fight for self-government and independence from Spain.

   West Floriday, that lovely nation,
   Free from king and tyranny,
   Thru' the world shall be respected,
   For her true love of Liberty. (1)

On closer inspection, however, this venture, born of low-level filibuster and high-level intrigue, illustrates the same ingrained American propensity for land grabbing so evident in other U.S. acquisitions of territory. (2)

West Florida under Spanish Rule from 1803 to 1810

After the Louisiana Purchase, the United States and Spain disputed whether that transaction included West Florida, a strip extending east from the Mississippi River and along the Gulf Coast to the Perdido River (the westernmost border of today's Florida State), and Spain continued to rule the area. During the first decade of the nineteenth century, however, many Americans, among others, moved there, and some of those norteamericanos obviously pined for the region's annexation by the United States.

In those days and long afterward, the Gulf Coast served as a sanctuary and foraging ground for outlaws, political refugees, military deserters, buccaneers, fortune hunters, and a great variety of misfits and malcontents. The American writer Walker Percy (1916-90), who resided in the area during much of his life, mentions "American tories who had no use for the Revolution, disgruntled Huguenots and Cavaliers from the Carolinas, [and] New Englanders fleeing from Puritanism," among others (qtd. in Samway 1994, 18). Even more numerous, no doubt, were the ruffians, thieves, and small-scale land speculators who loomed large among the frontiersmen spilling down from Kentucky and Tennessee (Arthur 1935, 29; McMichael 2002). William C. C. Claiborne, the first and only governor of Orleans Territory and later the first governor of the state of Louisiana, once described the people of Louisiana's "Florida parishes," which lie in old West Florida between the Mississippi River and the Pearl River, by saying that "a more heterogeneous mass of good and evil was never before met in the same extent of territory" (qtd. in Cox 1918, 507).

Thus, no matter what, the Spanish administrators in West Florida had their work cut out for themselves amid the prevailing "social chaos, crime and political unrest" (Gilbert 2003). They were, as the historian Isaac Cox notes in his marvelous history of the West Florida controversy, "attempting to control a pioneer population, alien in spirit, custom, and political training, but land hungry and unscrupulous in appeasing their appetite. It was inevitable, then, that charge and countercharge, intrigue and evasion, should finally result in revolt" (1918, 63)." (3)

Among the most prominent troublemakers in West Florida were the Kemper brothers--Nathan, Reuben, and Samuel--an uncouth, boozing, and violent trio once described by a Spanish official in the area as "white Indians and river pirates" (qtd. in Cox 1918, 154). From 1804 to 1811, the Kempers engaged in episodic attempts to expel the Spanish from West Florida and actively sought to engage other Americans in their filibuster. In 1804, the so-called Kemper Rebellion failed, in part, because "its leaders miscalculated the strength of pro-French, pro-British, and pro-Spanish elements, all of whom felt threatened by the pro-American faction the Kempers represented" (Hyde 1996, 20), and, in part, because many residents recognized that the Kempers and their gang were not so much revolutionaries as opportunistic and unscrupulous marauders mouthing political slogans (McMichael 2002, 159). As Cox remarks, however, "affairs along the Florida border ... were not to remain peaceful as long as the Kempers were at large" (1918, 163)--not to mention Aaron Burr and other, less-prominent schemers who kept cropping up. …

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