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Florida Celebrates 194 Years As U.S. Territory & State


194 years ago Friday, the United States flag was hoisted over the new territory of Florida. One of the ceremonies was in what’s now downtown Pensacola.

Spain had re-acquired west Florida after defeating the British at the Battle of Pensacola in 1781, beginning what’s called the “Final Spanish Period.”

Pensacola historian John Appleyard says the area had been overseen by a series of governors, and the Spanish had become increasingly uncomfortable when the United States entered into the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, effectively boxing in Spanish interests.

“Then the area was further discomforted when the British attempted to use Florida as a stepping stone to invade the American South in the War of 1812,” said Pensacola historian John Appleyard. “That was the first time that Andrew Jackson arrived here.”

Discussions over Florida between Spain and the U.S. began in 1817, the latter led by Sec. of State and future president John Quincy Adams. After months of wrangling, a treaty was confirmed by Madrid and Washington. Appleyard says under it, the Spanish transferred all of Florida to the Americans.

Military Gov. Andrew Jackson accepted the West Florida territory from the Spanish at 10 a.m. on July 17, 1821 at what is now Ferdinand Plaza on south Palafox Street.

“Jackson marched in with two companies of soldiers and a band,” Appleyard said. “On signal, the Spanish drew down their flag; and an American stepped forward and raised the Stars and Stripes.”

The primary exchange was in Pensacola; a separate ceremony was held later in St. Augustine. For Jackson, it was only his third visit to Florida, aside from his duty in the War of 1812 and during the First Seminole War in 1818. Among his various decrees was one that the territory of Florida would be divided in half: one half called “Escambia” and the other “St. John’s.”

Jackson had also won assurances from President James Monroe the he could resign as soon as the territorial government was organized.

Florida spent 24 years as a territory before admission as the 27th state in 1845. Historian John Appleyard says after meeting the requirements for statehood, a constitutional convention was held in 1838 in what’s now Port St. Joe.

But there was one major snag. Florida got caught in the escalating battle between North and South over the expansion of slavery, and the resulting hostile atmosphere.

“Florida did not get approval from the Congress until there was a complementing Northern state not favoring slavery, and that was Iowa,” said Appleyard. “So those two states came into being at the same time.”

As a territory of the United States, Florida was especially attractive to people from the older Southern plantation areas: Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia. People from those states arrived in considerable numbers.

After territorial status was granted, the two Floridas were merged into one with a new capital city. Tallahassee, established in 1824, was chosen because it was halfway between the existing governmental centers of St. Augustine and Pensacola.