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Bicentennial Spotlight: How Florida Became a U.S. Territory

The painting, "The Battle of New Orleans," by E. Percy Moran shows Andrew Jackson in battle.
U.S. Library of Congress
The painting, "The Battle of New Orleans," by E. Percy Moran shows Andrew Jackson in battle.

In a couple of weeks, the Pensacola-area community will celebrate Florida’s U.S. Territorial Bicentennial and the 200th Anniversary of Escambia County.

Florida officially became part of the United States in July of 1821. But, the transfer from Spain was decades in the making.

“It seems really good in 1783. There’s a lot of promise. The Spanish are optimistic,” says Dr. Brian Rucker, describing the mood at the beginning of Pensacola’s Second Spanish Period, after General Bernardo de Galvez retakes the city from the British.

A small, cosmopolitan community develops. But, the Pensacola State College history professor, who’s also a member of the 200th Anniversary Commission, says Spain soon will start to lose its grip.

“As the decades unroll, we begin to see a string of unfortunate events, really sort of like a perfect storm that Spain was just powerless because of the circumstances to do anything really to stop it from unfolding.”

Looking at the big picture, Rucker points out that Spain previously had been weakened globally by the Seven Years War, which included the French and Indian War in America. It was the 1763 Treaty of Paris that ended the war and resulted in Spain losing Florida and Pensacola to the British.

A map shows the land gains in Florida
A map shows the land gains in Florida

“That really stung them for 20 years,” he declared. “They got it back, though, and by the late 1700’s they were no longer the top dog in Europe and they were beginning to deal with a lot of problems.”

One problematic event was the Louisiana Purchase, which involved the acquisition of the Territory by the United States from France in 1803. In the aftermath, Rucker says Spanish Florida got caught up in a dispute over the border.

“Because Florida went all the way to the Mississippi River at that time. So, that was sort of left vague and nebulous and Spain did not have very tight control over it. You have a bunch of Anglo Americans in that area, who started the Republic of West Florida in 1810 and then just gradually, it made its way to the Perdido, which became the final border.”

The Louisiana Purchase also triggered the migration of Americans to New Orleans, on their way cutting through Creek Indian territory.

“And, you see all these Americans going in Disturbing Creek lands, so that sets up the Creek problem,” stated Rucker. He noted that their deer herds were being depleted and they were no longer as isolated as they had been. There were a lot of changes going on. “The Creeks could see the ‘handwriting on the wall.”

During this same period, Spain gets caught up in the Napoleonic Wars in Europe between 1803 and 1815, and the country is temporarily captured by France. In an unusual alliance, England offers to help Spain. When the war of 1812 breaks out between England and the U.S., the British seek assistance from Spain. According to Rucker, the Spanish wanted to remain neutral, but they were powerless to say no.

Complicating matters is the Creek Civil War (1813-1814) that breaks out in the Southeast, between those who were loyal to the Americans and the rebellious faction of Creeks known as Red Sticks.

“The Red Sticks, who wanted to continue the war, they fled down to the supposed safety of neutral Spanish West Florida, and they are hundreds of them in the Pensacola area,” Rucker said.

“And, what they’re doing is they’re going across the border into Alabama and Georgia, raiding and attacking Americans. And, the Spanish said, “no, don’t do that.” But, they’re powerless to stop it. They don’t have the military capability, they don’t have the budget to do anything in Florida anymore. It’s very sad.”

Enter Andrew Jackson.

“Nobody had even heard of Andrew Jackson until the Creek War,” Rucker declared. “Then, suddenly he was able to take his Tennessee Volunteers down to Alabama and Georgia. They began to defeat the Creeks, the hostile Creeks on the battlefield by 1814.”

With Jackson’s decisive victory at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, he gets national attention as a great Indian fighter. But, instability in the region persists, with British agents in Spanish Florida inciting the Red Stick Warriors to violence in American territory.

“Jackson is watching that and he doesn’t really have much guidance from Washington,” said Rucker, pointing to the fact that British troops had just burned Washington, D.C., including the U.S. Capitol and the White House.

Panton, Leslie and Company, established in 1783 and headquartered in Pensacola from 1785-1830, which dominated Indian trade during the years of the Spanish regime in Florida.
Panton, Leslie and Company, established in 1783 and headquartered in Pensacola from 1785-1830, which dominated Indian trade during the years of the Spanish regime in Florida.

“And, in a military situation, what do you do,” said Rucker in reference to the position Jackson found himself in.

“Jackson, how should I put this diplomatically, didn’t always follow the letter of the law and thought that international borders were just suggestions. He believed in the theory of hot pursuit.”

Finally, after trying to deal with these incursions, Rucker said Jackson finally got fed up, and in November of 1814, without authorization, he took US troops and they come down and captured Pensacola.

While in Pensacola, Jackson got wind of a British plan to attack New Orleans. In the nick of time, he gathered a ‘rag tag’ group of volunteers of regular soldiers, friendly Indians, free blacks, and others who defeat the British in the Battle of New Orleans in early 1815.

For the next few years, Jackson would continue to march his troops across West Florida looking for and squashing rebellions by hostile Indians and British forces.

“By May of 1818, once again he’s in Pensacola. There’s a small skirmish, token resistance by the Spanish, and once again, the Spanish surrender Pensacola to Jackson,” Rucker said.

At this point, in both West and East Florida, the Spanish have lost control. There’s no money to support or defend the territory and the writing was on the wall.

“All these things, by the late “18-teens,” have convinced Spain, ‘Okay, we need to get rid of this,’ and we finally have an international treaty.

The Adams-Onis Treaty was signed in 1819, but because of a revolution back in Spain, it was delayed for two years.

“So, finally this long, drawn-out, decades-long process, finally sees fruition in the summer of 1821, where Florida is officially transferred from Spain to the United States,” which concludes PSC history professor Rucker, is how Florida became the U.S. Territory. Escambia later joined St. John’s as one of its first two original counties.

For more details about the history of the transfer of Florida to the U.S. and the Bicentennial Celebration, visit the Visit Pensacola website.

Sandra Averhart has been News Director at WUWF since 1996. Her first job in broadcasting was with (then) Pensacola radio station WOWW107-FM, where she worked 11 years. Sandra, who is a native of Pensacola, earned her B.S. in Communication from Florida State University.