How Florida became part of the United States

By Brian R. Rucker

Featured image above: Andrew Jackson

Spain lost its colony of Florida to England, in 1763, after the French and Indian War/Seven Years War. By the time it reacquired Florida from Britain 20 years later with the Treaty of Paris, Spain was no longer the great European colonial power it had once been. By 1821, Spain would transfer its colony to the United States. What led to this?

Spain had high hopes for Florida in 1783. Oranges were widely grown in the St. Augustine area. In Pensacola, the deer skin trade proved lucrative: Deer hides became West Florida’s chief commercial export, when England’s Industrial Revolution created a demand for leather for belts and bands for use in textile mills.

Pensacola became the center of the trading operation when Spain contracted with the city’s Panton- Leslie Trading Company. The company thrived, with trading posts in Baldwin County, Alabama; Prospect Bluff on the Apalachicola River; and near St. Augustine, where blankets, guns, and other articles were exchanged with Native Americans for deer skins.

One of the firm’s silent partners, Alexander McGillivray, of mixed Scottish and Creek ancestry, was the perfect go-between between the firm and the Creek nation. After he died in 1793, the Creeks increasingly were taken advantage of, ending up forced to trade their lands to the firm because of debt, causing bitter resentment against the company and Spain.

By 1800, Pensacola and West Florida were experiencing economic and political difficulties. Spain’s slipping world strength led to chronic problems for the small colonial port city. Spanish officials were alarmed by international power struggles, apprehension about Napoleon’s rise to power, the increasing population of expansionist and Protestant Americans on the border of Spanish (and Catholic) Florida, the growing conflict between Great Britain and the United States on the high seas, and the recruitment of Native Americans as pawns in the Gulf Coast borderlands struggle. Pensacola, with its less than vigorous development, was vulnerable in such a volatile environment. The 1803 Louisiana Purchase created a border issue, with the United States and Spain debating whether the extreme western section of Florida from the Perdido River to the Mississippi River was part of the original purchase.

Spain also recognized the lack of any substantial white population in Spanish West Florida, other than around Pensacola. The nearest Spanish presence in Florida was the small fort at St. Mark. Various Native American bands constituted the population of the panhandle’s interior. By the early 1800s, American settlers in southern Alabama, many who raised cattle and hogs, were moving further south to the Spanish border of West Florida, and meeting Creek cattlemen. The competition accelerated the tension between the European and Native American populations there.

Spanish troops at Pensacola 1781. Spanish troops of the Louisiana Regiment (white coats) and the Company of Free Blacks of Havana (in red coats) can be seen storming Ft. George, which concluded the Spanish campaign against British forces along much of the Gulf Coast.
Spanish troops at Pensacola 1781. Spanish troops of the Louisiana Regiment (white coats) and the Company of Free Blacks of Havana (in red coats) can be seen storming Ft. George, which concluded the Spanish campaign against British forces along much of the Gulf Coast.

Spanish officials in West Florida confronted a deteriorating situation as Spain’s hold became more tenuous. Spanish Floridians lacked support from the mother country, which could no longer defend and control their colony. Creeks in the Pensacola area were becoming more aggressive, stealing and killing settlers’ cattle near the town. This may have been a response to a depletion of deer, a result of several decades of intensive hunting, spurred by the Panton-Leslie Trading Company. Spanish officials were also worried about unauthorized Americans traveling back and forth through Spanish West Florida to New Orleans, primarily flatboatmen and raftsmen delivering goods to American-held New Orleans. Spanish officials were concerned Americans would eventually collide with the Creeks and spark a war.

The Spanish were correct. The Americans and Creeks were competing for land, cattle, and cultural superiority, and destined to collide violently. This collision would eventually bring about the abandonment of Florida by Spain.

In 1810, parts of the colony began to fall away.

Americans captured Baton Rouge and declared the western section of Spanish Florida, from the coastal border between Mississippi and Louisiana to the Mississippi River, as the independent Republic of West Florida. By the year’s end, the United States annexed the quasi-legal “republic” and additional land, claiming all the land from the Perdido River westward to the Mississippi was part of the 1803 Louisiana Purchase. All Spain could do was feebly protest.

Three years later, American forces occupied Mobile, and Spain lost its lands west of the Perdido, leading to the state’s present-day boundaries. The confiscated western lands were divided among Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama.

It appeared probable the United States would soon acquire all of Florida. Plus, the War of 1812 had broken out, and Spain feared that Great Britain would seize the entire territory as a base Native Americans and encourage them to raid American border settlements. The British were not the only agitators of the Southern Indians. Tecumseh, the Shawnee leader who for years had struggled to forge a Native American alliance throughout the Midwest and the South, stirred up the Creek Indians in Florida, Georgia, and Alabama. Tecumseh and his followers joined the British and fought the Americans in the north. The Southern Creeks (now fighting an internal civil war between those who wanted war against the Americans and those who didn’t) went on the warpath. On August 30, 1813, they attacked Fort Mims near the junction of the Alabama and Tombigbee rivers and killed several hundred Americans gathered there, setting off the Creek War. The Creeks were eventually met in the field by an obscure Tennessee general named Andrew Jackson, who defeated them at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend in Alabama in March 1814.

A 1790 sketch of Alexander McGillivray by John Trumbull (1756-1843.)
A 1790 sketch of Alexander McGillivray by John Trumbull (1756-1843.)
Andrew Jackson
Andrew Jackson

A group of Creek warriors, known as the “Red Sticks,” refused to accept the harsh surrender conditions imposed by Jackson, and fled south to the supposed safety of Spanish Florida. By May 1814, approximately 900 Creeks had taken refuge in the Pensacola vicinity, creating opportunities for British agents. The Creeks, short on food, resorted to plundering Spanish and American cattle along the frontier border, and the Spanish authorities in Pensacola welcomed British offers of assistance. British ships unloaded supplies at Apalachicola for the Creeks, rejuvenating their spirits and encouraging their hostility toward the Americans.

The situation along the Escambia River and northwest border of Florida deteriorated during the summer of 1814. The scattered settlers suddenly faced marauding bands of Creeks, a helpless Spanish government, an increased British military presence, and an imminent invasion of Florida by American forces. The Red Stick Creeks repeatedly crossed the Perdido and the northern border of Spanish Florida, raiding white settlements east of Mobile and near Fort Mims on the Alabama River. A U.S. military expedition crossed into Spanish West Florida in the summer of 1814 in search of hostile Creeks. Smaller skirmishes continued in the summer along the Alabama/Spanish Florida border.

Matters escalated rapidly in Pensacola with the arrival in the late summer of Captain George Woodbine and Lieutenant Colonel Edward Nicolls, of the British Royal Marines. Nicolls and his troops usurped control of the Spanish town and began recruiting slaves for a Negro regiment. He also organized many of the Red Stick Creeks, even clothing them in red uniforms and drilling them in the streets. This development, along with abuse of the local Spanish by the British interlopers, angered the population, and greatly alarmed the ever watchful General Andrew Jackson. With the Creeks armed and confident, incidents grew along the troubled border, with settlers east of Mobile Bay and along the American border fleeing as the Creeks stole cattle and slaves from the settlements. Jackson arrived in Mobile in August 1814, and alarmed by the actions of Nicolls and Woodbine, requested the entire Tennessee militia be sent. He also suggested a fort on the Escambia River at the Spanish/U.S. border would help secure the frontier.

Jackson’s fears were well founded: on September 13, Colonel Nicoll’s forces attacked Fort Bowyer on Mobile Bay. The British/Native-American/African forces were defeated, and fell back to Pensacola, raiding as they went. This action convinced Andrew Jackson the British intended to take Mobile. The War of 1812 was at a critical point; Washington D.C. had been torched by British forces weeks earlier, and Jackson learned through West Indies newspapers obtained by spies in Pensacola of a plan for a major British strike on the Gulf.

Concerned the British planned to use Mobile or Pensacola as their operation base, Jackson demanded Spanish Governor Manrique drive out the hostile Creeks and prevent the British from using Pensacola as a base.

Efforts were made to curtail the Creek raiders along the frontier. U.S. forces and friendly Choctaws made periodic raids across the Perdido border with orders to take or kill all Creeks discovered.

The Battle of Horseshoe Bend , 1814.
The Battle of Horseshoe Bend , 1814.

At times, these forces scoured the countryside around Pensacola as far as the Escambia River. In mid-October, Colonel Benton of Fort Montgomery in Alabama sent out several hundred Choctaw warriors to Chumuckla Springs on the Escambia River, a river pass the Red Sticks were using in their cattle drives to Pensacola.

When Jackson’s demands to the Spanish governor were ignored, the general decided to attack Pensacola and drive out the British himself. Acting without orders, Jackson assembled some 4,000 troops composed of regular Army, volunteers, and friendly Native Americans. He justified his quasi-legal invasion by citing the harboring and arming of hostile Creeks; the setting up of British forces in Pensacola; the disregard of neutrality by the Spanish, and the threat of an impending Gulf strike by a large British force. By November 7, 1814, Jackson’s forces had descended to Pensacola, and after a small resistance, the town fell and was in American hands.

Jackson’s taking of Pensacola thwarted an elaborate British war plan to divert American troops to the Georgia and South Carolina coasts as the British led an army of Red Sticks Creeks and former slaves in an attack on southern Alabama and the Georgia frontier. And thanks to Jackson’s intelligence network, he was able to gather his forces, head west and beat the British in the Battle of New Orleans in 1815, halting a British plan to capture the city and seize control of the Mississippi.

While Jackson headed for New Orleans, he sent a detachment led by Major Uriah Blue of regular army troops, volunteers, and allied Native Americans, to scour Spanish West Florida for hostile Creeks. In this December 1814 expedition, troops swept from Escambia Bay eastward to the Choctawhatchee River. Tennessee frontiersman Davy Crockett was part of this expedition.

The British abandoned their sites on the Apalachicola River with the war’s end in early 1815, but left supplies and ammo, encouraging the Africans and Creeks to continue their resistance. The British fort at Prospect Bluff became a site from which to harass and attack the Americans and Spanish river traffic. In 1816, General Jackson sent Colonel Duncan Clinch and a detachment of U.S. military forces to the Apalachicola River to destroy the fort. A hot-shot cannonball went into the powder magazine of the fort, creating a horrific explosion that killed some 270 of the 344 people there.

The “Water Battery” at Fort Barrancas National Park, a landmark from the Spanish period of Florida, is the only brick-built Spanish fortification in the state and perhaps a wider area.
The “Water Battery” at Fort Barrancas National Park, a landmark from the Spanish period of Florida, is the only brick-built Spanish fortification in the state and perhaps a wider area.

The Creeks in Florida (the term “Seminole” was often used interchangeably at this time) continued to make raids into Alabama and Georgia, triggering the First Seminole War (1817-1818). The United States under General Andrew Jackson led 2,000 U.S. troops in early 1818 into Spanish Florida. At the remains of the old Negro Fort on the Apalachicola, they rebuilt a new American fortification called Fort Gadsden. They continued to St. Marks, captured it, raided the Tallahassee area, and made their way to a Seminole village on the Suwannee River.

The American forces under Jackson captured, court martialed and executed Robert Armbrister and Alexander Arbuthnot, British citizens, who were accused of supplying the Seminoles and inciting them to violence. In response to raids along the Escambia River and in the Pensacola area, American troops approached Pensacola, searching for hostile Native Americans. This prompted Jackson to divert forces from Fort Gadsden on the Apalachicola to Pensacola, capturing the city and fort after a brief battle.

By the end of May 1818, the Spanish surrendered. Jackson established a provisional American government under Colonel William King and sent the Spanish governor and his soldiers to Cuba. The U.S. held the Pensacola area until February 1819, when the Spanish once again occupied the city.

In East Florida, conditions for the Spanish were no better, especially at the border between Georgia and Florida, at the mouth of the St. Mary’s River. With the advent of war between the United States and Great Britain in 1812, the British presence was felt along the St. Mary’s River, leading to increased instability. That year, George Mathews attempted to lead a group of Georgia “Patriots” into East Florida to establish the “Territory of East Florida,” but this filibustering expedition turned into a disaster. Buckner Harris’ attempt in 1814 to bring another group of Georgia settlers, this time to the Alachua area, was likewise doomed.

For those who want to learn more about the events leading up to Spain handing over Florida to the U.S., Click here for a reading list from Historian Dr. Brian Rucker

In 1817, Gregor McGregor, who had been fighting with Simon Bolivar in South America, led a band of forces into Fernandina and captured it in the name of the “Republics of Venezuela, New Granada, Mexico, and Rio de la Plata.” McGregor’s hope of American assistance never came and he sailed away that year, only to be replaced by another adventurer, the Galveston pirate Louis Aury, who captured the town of Fernandina on Amelia Island and raised the flag of the “Republic of the Mexico.” The United States responded by sending troops to Fernandina and forcing Aury out. The U.S. troops held Amelia Island in “protective custody” until the Spanish could control it.

These actions convinced Spain that holding onto the Florida colony was a losing proposition, especially after Jackson’s American forces seized control of Pensacola from 1818 to 1819. In early 1819, work began on the Adams-Onis treaty between the United States and Spain to transfer the territory of the Floridas.

Some people erroneously believe the United States paid Spain $5 million for Florida, but that sum actually reflected the United States assuming Spanish debts owed to U.S citizens. The finalization of the treaty was delayed by a revolution in Spain.

The Adams-Onis Treaty was finally ratified by the U.S. Congress on February 22, 1821, and General Andrew Jackson took possession as provisional governor of Florida on July 17, 1821, with a ceremony at Pensacola.

General Jackson arrived in the city for the transfer around 10 a.m. On hand was outgoing Spanish governor Jose Callava. As the Spanish flag was lowered, the American flag was raised to full staff. The artillery company fired a salute, with a gun fired for each U.S. state and territory, including Florida; the USS Hornet in the bay answered. The Fourth Infantry band played the “Star Spangled Banner” to end the ceremony. Florida belonged to the United States, ending Spain’s nearly 250 years of possession.

The next day Jackson created the city government of Pensacola, and on July 21, he formed American Florida’s first two counties – Escambia, from the Province of West Florida, and St. Johns, from the Province of East Florida. In March 1822, Congress officially created the Territory of Florida, and a new era began.

Dr. Brian Rucker is a professor of history at Pensacola State College and teaches Florida history at the University of West Florida. He is past president of the Gulf South Historical Association and has authored or edited more than 30 books and articles related to West Florida history.

Dr. Brian Rucker is a professor of history at Pensacola State College and teaches Florida history at the University of West Florida. He is past president of the Gulf South Historical Association and has authored or edited more than 30 books and articles related to West Florida history.


2021 Summer FORUM Magazine

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2021 Issue of FORUM Magazine. Visit our collection at the USFSP Digital Archive by clicking here.