The West Florida Republic
by Anne Butler
“We learn by an intelligent gentleman from West Florida,” said an early newspaper in the summer of 1810, “that there was a general meeting of the inhabitants of the four districts forming the province of New Feliciana, held at the plantation of the late Mr. Stirling, near St. Francisville, and appointed John Rhea, John Johnson, William Barrow and John Mills, esquires, all men of respectability and influence in this country, deputies to meet at the house of Mr. Duval, St. John’s Plains, some day next week, to take into consideration the peculiar state of the country.”
“Peculiar state of the country?” Whatever might that mean, we wonder 212 years later, and exactly who were these men “of respectability and influence?” Just why were they meeting with some 500 like-minded settlers on June 23rd at the plantation of the late Alexander Stirling, most often referred to in historical accounts as Egypt Plantation?
Newspapers kept regular correspondents in West Florida once the revolutionary movement commenced, for this marked the beginnings of the West Florida Rebellion that would belatedly wrest Louisiana’s lands east of the Mississippi from Spanish control. Called today the eight Florida Parishes, this contested area flanking the United States’ Mississippi Territory was excluded from Thomas Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase of 1803, at least according to the French and Spanish. West Florida encompassed the north shore of the Gulf of Mexico from the Perdido River in Florida to the Mississippi River, north of Lake Pontchartrain and south of the 31st parallel. Not until 1810, some seven years after the Louisiana Purchase, would that meeting of four respectable and influential gentlemen set in motion carefully conceived and executed plans to replace the Spanish regime with the free and independent Republic of West Florida, whose own elected president called the movement “a revolution in miniature” and an infant republic born of a convulsive birth.
The republic lasted for all of 74 days before this contested area rejoined the rest of Louisiana to eventually become a state in 1812. Its capital was in St. Francisville, on the bluff overlooking Bayou Sara where the Spanish commandant, Don Tomaso Estevan, had his headquarters garrisoned by what he called “four unhappy soldiers,” and where, according to early historian Stanley Clisby Arthur, the principle Anglo planters of the region paid a visit after meeting at Troy Plantation with John H. Johnson. Said Arthur, “They found the right arm of Spain in bed, complaining of a sudden illness (which one of the liberty-demanding planters whispered…was probably ‘yellow’ fever).” This did not stop the presentation of a petition for the commandant’s signature in his very bedroom, summoning inhabitants of Feliciana to a people’s convention “to discuss measures to restore public tranquility.” The duplicitous response of the Spanish commander at Baton Rouge, Don Carlos de Hault de Lassus, seeming to support the call for a general meeting while surreptitiously sending for military reinforcements to quash the budding revolt, further soured relations with authorities.
The men of “respectability and influence” mentioned in the newspaper dispatch were indeed leaders of the region. Scotsman John Mills had founded the riverport of Bayou Sara in the 1790s, built the fine brick townhouse called Propinquity and received a Spanish land grant to property upon which Rosedown Plantation developed. John Hunter Johnson was considered the founder of St. Francisville on the bluff overlooking Bayou Sara a few years later; his father Isaac Johnson, an Englishman from Liverpool, had partnered with Mills in a sawmill venture in the Natchez district before moving south to Feliciana. It was on Johnson’s Troy Plantation that much of the substantive planning for the West Florida Rebellion would take place. John H. Johnson was a lawyer and planter, later a state legislator, sheriff and judge; his son Isaac would be the 13th governor of Louisiana.
William Barrow III of Highland Plantation was representative of the substantial Anglo-American planters who’d trickled down from the East Coast following the American Revolution, scion of a plantation dynasty that saw the construction of a large number of exceptionally fine antebellum mansions. And John Rhea was a merchant-planter and alcalde for Feliciana under the Spanish regime; when convention delegates met on July 15 at St. John’s Plains, he was elected their presiding officer.
The state of the country, these leaders wrote to President Madison, “required some reform in the mode of administering justice and defense and safety of the people,” and resolutions were adopted by the residents of West Florida “to assert the Independence of the Country at a moment when treachery and every malignant passion were employed to accomplish their ruin.” John W. Leonard, delegate to the West Florida Convention from the District of St. Helena, wrote eloquently of the coming together of “the good people of this province, especially those residing on the Banks of the Mississippi being by far the most wealthy part of the Community, having been long oppressed by the delay of Justice, the Insolence of office, and the thousand ills and abuses which arise from the exercise of Tyrany and despotism.” Reuben Kemper, who with his brothers had led an abortive revolt against Spain in 1804, was sent to attempt to enlist Mobile and Pensacola in the cause, though nothing much would come of these efforts.
Strong measures were required, wrote Leonard, his spelling incapable of keeping pace with his enthusiasm, “to Secure our lives and property, to bust the Chains of Terany, and establish freedom and Independence by adding a new and a brilliant Star to the greate Consillation which unites this happy Western World.” On September 11, Major Isaac Johnson, an aggressive younger brother of John H. Johnson, and his mounted troop of dragoons joined other forces under the command of Col. Philemon Thomas to capture the woefully inadequate Spanish fort at Baton Rouge, surprising the sleeping garrison by sneaking in at dawn with the fort’s milk cows. Over the rampart they unfurled for the first time the republic’s famous banner, a lone white star on a blue field, hastily sewn by Johnson’s wife Melissa.
Rhea proclaimed on September 26 that the Declaration of Independence of West Florida had been issued that day. He also sent a long letter to President James Madison pleading for annexation to the United States. On November 19, 1810, the new government was organized at the capital of St. Francisville, with John Rhea elected senator from Feliciana, one of five districts in the new state. Its constitution intended a more complete system of criminal and civil jurisprudence, more efficient militia, more equitable apportionment of representation and more extensive basis for levying taxes and other sources of support for the government.
Fulwar Skipwith of Montesano Plantation just north of Baton Rouge was elected governor; a proven diplomat and distinguished leader, he had previously served President Jefferson as consul-general to France. As Governor Skipwith wrote in explaining his acceptance of the position as head of what he called the quondam State of Florida, “The Revolution which succeeded, when called to the office of chief magistrate I supported, because the Patriot Americans of this Country chose to declare their Independence, to which, in my judgment they were as morally and legitimately entitled as any People on the Globe whoever did assert Themselves free and independent, but more especially because I knew that the sole object of those Patriots in proclaiming that Declaration was to procure to the United States an honorable pretext to receiving us into their bosom with a surrender of our Sovereign Rights.”
With Napoleon’s brother sitting on the throne of Spain, a despotic government in the view of Anglo-American occupants of Spanish territory in the New World, “justice was perverted by the influence of passion, prejudice or interest; crimes of the most atrocious nature were suffered to go unpunished, unless at every stage the prosecution was supported by large advances of money,” according to Skipwith. In another speech the governor said, “From the commencement of our Revolution, we anxiously wished and sanguinely hoped, to be incorporated into the American Union, in a way honorable and advantageous to both them and ourselves.”
In his inaugural address, he put it even more eloquently: “We are entitled to independence, and wherever the voice of justice and humanity can be heard, our declaration and our just rights will be respected. But the blood which flows in our veins, like the tributary streams which form and sustain the father of rivers, encircling our delightful country, will return if not impeded to the heart of our parent country. The genius of Washington, the immortal founder of the liberties of America, stimulates that return, and would frown upon our cause, should we attempt to change its course.”
After some wrangling over the rights and respect due an independent republic, Governor W.C.C. Claiborne took possession on December 6, 1810, of St. Francisville and on December 10 of Baton Rouge. He then annexed the area to the United States’ Orleans Territory, acting under the instructions and proclamation of President Madison, which proclamation had actually been issued on October 27, asserting the claim of the United States to this territory under terms of the Louisiana Purchase treaty.
A striking monument, its simple obelisk crowned with a lone star, has been designed by William Barrow’s descendent, artist David Norwood, as focal point of a tiny commemorative space called Republic Park beside the parish courthouse.
Visit the Historical Society Museum for more fascinating information.