Decisions and destiny
Why early Florida picked the ‘wrong’ side in the Revolutionary War…and paid the price
Florida chose the wrong side in the American Revolution. At the time the Declaration of Independence was signed, Florida was divided into two British colonies: West Florida, centered in Pensacola, its capital and including parts of what is today Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana; and East Florida, centered in the capital St. Augustine and stretching from the Apalachicola River to the Atlantic Ocean. There were some 10,000 colonists and slaves between the two colonies, plus about 30,000 Native Americans. Britain had taken control of the two Floridas from Spain only about a decade earlier as part of the 1763 Treaty of Paris that ended the French and Indian War. Spain had largely ignored La Florida since 1513, and readily traded it away to reclaim Cuba, which it had lost to Great Britain during the war.
Many of the two colonies’ residents were newcomers from Scotland and Ireland, who settled in East and West Florida after Spanish residents deserted the colonies.
“Spain paid for virtually everyone to leave,” says Roger Smith, museum director at the Ximenez-Fatio house in St. Augustine who has a doctorate in history from the University of Florida and specializes in Revolutionary War-era Florida. “They didn’t want people left behind.” While the Spanish had largely ignored Florida, its new rulers saw opportunity.
“The British were looking for what they could export out of here and make it a paying colony,” says Elizabeth D. Benchley, director of the Division of Anthropology and Archaeology and of the Archaeology Institute at the University of West Florida. “They were all looking to make money.’’
The new Florida colonists were lured to settle in Florida with the promise of land and low taxes.“ There was an agreement in East Florida with Parliament: no taxes until they started making money,” says Smith. “They had a free ride.” And in West Florida, he says, the British looked the other way as goods were sold on the black market untaxed.
So the “taxation without representation” rallying cry didn’t resonate in the 14th and 15th colonies. Taxes were low and there was money to be made. They wanted nothing to do with revolution. Simply put, it was bad for business. So they snubbed the first Continental Congress and were not invited to the second.
Florida Loyalists fought for the Crown in raids on Patriot forces in Georgia and South Carolina.
Those East Florida battles were led by Thomas Brown, the son of a wealthy shipping magnate in Britain who obtained a 5,600-acre land grant near Augusta, Georgia, in 1774. “He let it be known he was the king’s man,” Smith explains. On Aug. 2, 1775, 100 sons of liberty from Augusta demanded he sign an oath of loyalty to the rebellion. He refused and was scalped, tarred and feathered, and at least two of his toes were burned off. He survived and managed to make it to St. Augustine, where he soon was leading a Loyalist militia called the East Florida Rangers. He was involved in the Battle of Alligator Creek Bridge near Callahan, Florida, and the Battle of Thomas Creek near Crawford, Florida, the southernmost battle of the Revolutionary War.
When news of the signing of the Declaration of Independence reached St. Augustine on August 11, 1776, angry residents burned effigies of John Hancock and Samuel Adams in the town square.
For the British, the two Floridas formed a bulwark protecting its all-important Caribbean colonies and their most valuable resource, sugar. “Sugar afforded empire. It was like crude oil today,” Smith says. “Their primary interest was, don’t lose any land in the Caribbean. They saw East and West Florida as political barriers and military launching pads to reclaim the South.”
And while Britain didn’t want to lose any colonies, East and West Florida were not its crown jewels. “East and West Florida were often the pawns of what was going on in the European theater,” explains Margo Stringfield, an archaeologist at the University of West Florida.
“For the most part, the general British population of Pensacola was more focused on improving their personal situations,” Stringfield says. “They were newcomers to West Florida and trying to establish themselves in a frontier setting. Rebellion was not the first order of business.”
While Britain was busy attempting to hold onto its 13 rebelling colonies, Spain declared war on its old enemy under the 1779 Treaty of Aranjuez between France and Spain. In return for weakening Britain, Spain sought assistance from France in recovering the former Spanish possessions of Menorca, Gibraltar and the Floridas. Spanish General Don Bernardo de Galvez then launched the biggest military engagement Florida would see during the Revolution. He took control of several British forts on the Mississippi and northern Gulf Coast, including Mobile in 1779. He began a campaign in 1780 to seize Pensacola, culminating in a siege lasting several days that ended when the British surrendered Fort George on May 10, 1781. “Most of the British left town or were imprisoned after the Battle of Pensacola,” Benchley says, “although some did stay behind to try to continue their trading businesses.”
But Spain maintained control of West Florida until the Revolutionary War ended in 1783. Britain let Spain keep West Florida and threw in East Florida in return for keeping Gibraltar, strategically situated at the mouth of the Mediterranean Sea.
The move stunned Loyalists. “The people here were gut punched,” says Smith. “They were horrified. They couldn’t believe they were just tossed over.” To Smith, the two Floridas’ decision to remain loyal shows how “we were always on the wrong side of the fence looking over.”
Florida paid a big price for its decision, he says. “We had a chance to be one of the original 14 states, if we had just joined in the Revolution,” Smith says. Florida would eventually join the United States, of course, but only after it once again served as a convenient pawn, with Spain once again tossing it aside in an 1819 treaty with the young United States to settle disputes about the southern border of the Louisiana purchase. Florida remained a territory until it achieved statehood in 1845.
“Florida developed way behind the other East Coast states,” Smith says. Because Spain didn’t invest in the two colonies after winning them back, vital infrastructure such as roads, bridges and railroads came to Florida much later. “Everything was just frozen in time as far as infrastructure went,” Smith says. Had those investments been made, trade would have “increased dramatically,’’ he says, and Florida would have become more of an economic power instead of a backwater.
Sixteen years after becoming a state, Florida chose the losing side again, becoming one of the first states to secede from the union over slavery.
“We were just always on the wrong side of American history,” Smith says. “It would have made a significant difference if we had joined the Revolution.”
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