This is a story of Independence, of Revolution. Of overthrowing a Spanish-speaking government and creating an Independent Republic in the American South. About a banner bearing a symbol recognizable to this day, depicting a single, five-pointed white star on a blue field. The Bonnie Blue Flag of the original, Lone Star Republic.
The Republic of West Florida.
Spanish colonization of the Americas began when the Crown of Castille, Ferdinand and Isabella, sent an Italian explorer this way in 1492.
Motivated by the promotion of trade and of the Catholic faith throughout indigenous populations, the Spanish Empire expanded across South and Central America and much of North America including the Caribbean, Florida and a strip running through modern day Mexico to the Pacific Southwest.
The French first came to America in 1524, colonizing vast expanses from Quebec to Green Bay in the north, Baton Rouge to Biloxi in the south. They sought wealth, territory and a route to the Pacific Ocean. What they got was endless conflict.
Following the French and Indian War in 1762, Louis XV signed the secret Treaty of Fountainebleu with King Carlos III, ceding “la Louisiane” to Spain.
The Treaty of Paris was signed the following year, ending the Seven Years War in Europe. There lies the crux of the problem. French colonists poured into Louisiana, wanting no part of the Brits. They wouldn’t learn until 1764 they had placed themselves under Spanish rule.
Rebellion was immediate and ongoing. Colonists expelled their first Spanish governor Alejandro O’Reilly (I love that name) in the Rebellion of 1768, and had to be put down by force.
The American colonies were soon convulsed in Revolution, after which both East and West Florida reverted to Spanish control. European Colonial Powers would have their turn ten years later, with the French Revolution and the rise of the Napoleonic Empire. Spain would cede much of the Louisiana Territory back to France during this period, but not all of it.
President Jefferson purchased 828,000 square miles from the French in 1803, doubling the size of the United States, but the exact borders remained, unclear.
Spain claimed title to what they called “West Florida, a territory bounded by the Perdido River in the east, the modern border of Florida and Alabama, south of the 31st parallel, and running west to the Mississippi River.
What followed may be the shortest Revolution in history. Revolutionary War veteran Philemon Thomas led fifty “Americanos” through the early morning darkness of September 23, 1810, through the open gate of Fort San Carlos in Baton Rouge, while another 25 men on horseback rode through a hole in the fort’s wall. Soldados fired their muskets, and Thomas’ men responded with a single volley, killing or wounding five Spaniards.
That was about it. Surviving soldados fled, as the flag of the new Republic was unfurled over the fort: a dark blue field with a single white star. The whole thing was over, in about a minute.
Americanos had revolted back in 1804 without success. This time they would make it stick. Sort of.
The constitution of the Republic of West Florida was patterned on that of the United States, with government divided into three branches, Executive, Legislative and Judiciary.
The first and only Governor was Fulwar Skipwith, whose inaugural address seemed to make room for Union with the United States. “[T] he blood which flows in our veins”, he said, “like the tributary streams which form and sustain the father of rivers, encircling our delightful country, will return if not impeded, to the heart of our parent country”.
Skipwith’s overtures seemed to have been met with a yawn by the Madison administration, soon the new Republic was launching a raid, unsuccessfully, against the Spanish garrison at Mobile.
The Republic soon became accustomed to its newfound independence, a state of affairs President James Madison had no intention of recognizing.
President Madison proclaimed the territory annexed on October 27, 1810, and made part of the Territory of Orleans. William Claiborne, military governor of the Orleans Territory, was sent to take possession.
Governor Skipwith proclaimed himself ready to “die in defense of the Lone Star flag,” though his stance softened considerably when military forces entered the capital of St. Francisville on December 6 and Baton Rouge, four days later.
Florida itself, along with the eastern expanses of West Florida, reverted to United States control with the Onís-Adams Treaty of 1819.
To this day, eight parishes in East Louisiana (“Counties” to the rest of us), are called the “Florida Parishes”.
The taking stood on questionable legal grounds, but it was complete on December 10, when the legislature voted to accept annexation and dissolve the Republic. Twenty-Six years later to the day, the Republic of Texas adopted the “Burnet” or “Bonnie Blue” Flag, all but indistinguishable from that of the original Lone Star Republic.