From Out of the Shadows
Along the Interstate 12 corridor from Baton Rouge to Slidell, parishes are joining in the bicentennial celebration of a little-known revolt and the subsequent declaration of an independent nation. “The event is virtually ignored in Louisiana history,” says Sam Hyde, director of the Center for Southeast Louisiana Studies at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond. “People tend to think that all of present-day Louisiana was part of the Louisiana Purchase.
It was not.”
Seven years after the Louisiana Purchase, subjects became rebels when, in the early morning hours of Sept. 23, 1810, they stormed the Spanish fort at Baton Rouge; overwhelmed still-sleeping soldiers; and claimed all territory east to the Pearl River, the Independent Republic of West Florida. “This area, from Baton Rouge north of Lake Pontchartrain to the Pearl River, was part of the Spanish colony of West Florida for about 20 years before being annexed by the United States,” Hyde says. “It was an area of such strategic importance that when Spain returned Louisiana to France (just prior to the Louisiana Purchase), it did not include the West Florida territory.” Events showcasing the history of the Florida parishes will be presented throughout the eight-parish area.
The Independent Republic of West Florida stood for only 74 days, yet within that time it enacted a constitution and named Fulwar Skipwith as president. “I remember seeing streets in Baton Rouge named Fulwar Skipwith and Philemon Thomas,” says Louisiana Secretary of State Jay Dardenne. “Thomas was the leader of the rebel forces.
These are not common names.”
During the next months, people will be made aware of the fact that within Louisiana, a republic existed and that it has a very unique place in history, Dardenne says. “When you think of those components of Louisiana that are now the crux of the Florida parishes –– the history of St. Francisville, the relative wealth of West Feliciana and East Baton Rouge, the timber and dairy industries and the growth in Livingston and St. Tammany areas –– obviously, not being part of Louisiana today would have had a profound effect,” he says.
Series of lectures and exhibits at the Audubon State Historic Site in St. Francisville will explore the people and challenges of frontier life in 1810.
In February, the Louisiana State Archives will showcase the original constitution of the West Florida Republic, including a historic chronology of the development of each of the eight parishes since 1810. In March, a living history exhibit in Jackson will introduce those involved in the revolt.
In May, a re-enactment of the seizing of the Spanish loyalists’ garrison will take place in Springfield. Flag-raising ceremonies will unfurl for the first time in 200 years the Bonnie Blue Flag of the Independent Republic of West Florida, a single white star on a field of blue and the predecessor of Texas’ own symbol of independence. “There are only two other places in America where independent nations were created out of revolt prior to becoming part of the United States, and that was in Texas and California,” Hyde says.
The Reasons for Revolt
Understanding the reasons for revolt begins with examination of the people who settled within the West Florida parishes, Hyde says. At the end of the French and Indian War in 1763, France ceded possession of its Louisiana territory to Spain and Britain. The Louisiana territory then stretched from the Perdido River just east of Mobile Bay to the Rocky Mountains. Spain gave over to Britain East Florida and received instead Louisiana’s territorial land from the Mississippi River west, including the Isle of Orleans. Britain claimed the remaining portion of the Louisiana territory and so possessed both East and West Florida.
Following the American Revolution and defeat of the British, Spain received both East and West Florida, giving it possession of all of the Louisiana territory and both Florida territories. A boundary was agreed upon, making lands north of East and West Florida the property of the United States.
Hyde says it was during this time that the Spanish began giving out substantive land grants in exchange for a pledge of loyalty to Spain. The opportunity for ownership drew families from the east seeking to better their lives and British loyalists looking to escape persecution from within the United States. Also drawn to the area were outlaws and army deserters, as the Spanish maintained few outposts in what was still open frontier.
Hyde credits this mix of characters as vital to “the emergence of a volatile melting pot” and resulting revolt. By secret treaty in 1800, Spain returned to France territory ceded following the French and Indian War –– but not West Florida; it kept that for itself.
It was after the 1803 purchase of Louisiana that various factions of political thought began to form within the populace of West Florida. Hyde identifies these as: the American party, wanting union with the United States; the Independents, opposed to either American annexation or continued allegiance to Spain; and the Loyalists, supportive of Spanish rule.
In 1804, three brothers named Kemper became angry with Spanish authority in West Florida when ordered evicted from land along Bayou Sara in the Feliciana District. The brothers resided in the United States’ Mississippi territory just across West Florida’s northern border.
They demonstrated their displeasure with the Spanish court’s decision by raiding and pillaging West Florida homesteads while declaring themselves liberators. A failed attempt to take the Spanish Fort in Baton Rouge ended the so-called Kemper Revolt, but in its wake, Spain’s ability to provide protection was seriously questioned, Hyde says.
To restore credibility, a new governor was appointed to West Florida. Unfortunately, Don Carlos de Hault de Lassus’ appointment proved ineffective. There was corruption of officials. The Kempers continued crossing the border to raid farms and homesteads. American officials entered West Florida without permission in pursuit of deserters.
In the spring of 1810, planters in the Feliciana District gathered under the stated purpose of “secur[ing] themselves against foreign invasion and domestic disturbance,” Hyde says. Petitions were sent to all districts requesting representatives for participation in the creation of a new authority. De Lassus did nothing.
Hyde says that even after being offered the help of 500 Spanish loyalists by Shepard Brown, commandant at St. Helena, de Lassus continued to vacillate. “It appeared, although a decorated veteran of the Spanish army, none of his life experiences prepared him for the chaotic cauldron of circumstances that confronted him in West Florida,” Hyde says.
That summer a convention was called for debate on a course of action.
Hyde says de Lassus was fearful that his small garrison would be slaughtered if he made any attempt to suppress the convention, so he feigned agreement and did nothing to quell the situation.
On Sept. 20, the garrison at St. Francisville was quietly relieved of duty by representatives of the convention, forcing de Lassus to at last take action.
For de Lassus, the timing proved to be too late.
De Lassus sent for the help that Brown previously offered, but the rider was intercepted by a rebel patrol. Now alert to de Lassus’ intent, the convention met on Sept. 22 and directed Philemon Thomas to assume overall command of rebel forces and to immediately march against Baton Rouge, Hyde says. The next morning, under the cover of fog, Thomas led 80 men into the fort through a rear opening by which the garrison’s dairy cattle came and went. The Spanish forces were overtaken while most were still asleep, Hyde says.
Once the fort was secured, the rebels removed the Spanish flag and replaced it with the lone star emblem of the new republic. “Since there was the possibility that Spanish loyalists might attempt a counter-coup, they acted quickly and declared a state of martial law as a means to consolidate their hold on power,” Hyde says.
Thomas was directed to secure the territory to the Pearl River and, if possible, to Mobile, Ala. His forces now counted more than 400.
Of the primary loyalist forces, Thomas requested a meeting with Michael Jones of the Chifoncte District and forced his surrender. Thomas then force-marched his men to Springfield where they defeated the loyalist garrison in a surprise attack.
Brown escaped to New Orleans by boat.
Loyalist William Cooper of the Tangipahoa District was captured and shot, allegedly while trying to escape. Thomas also sent men to disperse other loyalist elements gathering on the upper Tangipahoa and Tchefuncte rivers and then reported to the convention that the territory to the Pearl River was secured. Upon hearing Thomas’ report, the convention proclaimed the Independent Republic of West Florida. Fulwar Skipwith, a former American diplomat who helped negotiate the Louisiana Purchase, was elected president, and St. Francisville was named as the new republic’s capital.
The Republic of West Florida
During the next two-and-a-half months, the Republic of Florida worked at shaping its future. That future, though, was decided elsewhere, when on Oct. 27 U.S. President James Madison issued a proclamation ordering the annexation of West Florida, claiming the region was part of the Louisiana Purchase. Skipwith and the newly formed government of the Republic of West Florida opposed the proclamation, but on Dec. 7 Louisiana Gov. William C. C. Claiborne forcibly took possession of St. Francisville.
West Florida to the Pearl River was incorporated into the Territory of Orleans. The remaining portion of West Florida, including the Mobile District, was annexed to the Mississippi Territory in 1813. Along with bicentennial celebrations, there is a push to locate the descendants of families who settled Louisiana’s West Florida frontier.
It was, after all, through the lineage of Skipwith that the state now possesses an original copy of the Constitution of the Republic of West Florida. That document was donated in 2002 to the state by Leila Lee Roberts, a great-granddaughter of the late president. “We know of some, but there are many more families whose ancestors may have contributed,” says Shirley Newsham, member of The Sons and Daughters of the Provence and Republic of West Florida, 1763-1810. “We have the genealogists to help with the research. We just need people to contact us.”
This year’s celebrations will serve a twofold purpose: Along with informing people about this little-known historic event, “It is our intent to create a regional identity for the Florida parishes,” Hyde says. “When people think of Louisiana, they immediately think of New Orleans and Acadiana. We want to break out from their shadows. We want Louisiana remembered for the place where the original Lone Star Republic stood.”
For information: www.republicofwestflorida.org.