Decline of indigenous cultures
The original indigenous peoples of Florida declined significantly in number after the arrival of European explorers in the early 1500s, mainly because the Native Americans had little resistance to diseases newly introduced from Europe. Spanish suppression of native revolts further reduced the population in northern Florida until the early 1600s, at which time the establishment of a series of Spanish missions improved relations and stabilized the population.
Raids from the newly-established English Province of Carolina beginning in the mid-1600s began another steep decline in the indigenous population. By 1707, English soldiers and their Yamasee Indian allies had killed, carried off, or driven away most of the remaining native inhabitants during a series of raids across the Florida panhandle and down the full length of the peninsula. In the first decade of the 18th century. 10,000 – 12,000 Indians were taken as slaves according to the governor of La Florida and by 1710, observers noted that north Florida was virtually depopulated. The Spanish missions all closed, as without natives, there was nothing for them to do. The few remaining natives fled west to Pensacola and beyond or east to the vicinity of St. Augustine. When Spain ceded Florida to Great Britain as part of the Treaty of Paris in 1763, the majority of surviving Florida Indians took passage with the Spanish to Cuba or New Spain.
Origin of the Seminole
During the mid-1700s, small bands from various Native American tribes from the southeastern United States began moving into the unoccupied lands of Florida. In 1715, the Yamasee moved into Florida as allies of the Spanish, after conflicts with the English colonies. Creek people, at first primarily the Lower Creek but later including Upper Creek, also started moving into Florida from the area of Georgia. The Mikasuki, Hitchiti-speakers, settled around what is now Lake Miccosukee near Tallahassee. (Descendants of this group have maintained a separate tribal identity as today's Miccosukee.)
Another group of Hitchiti speakers, led by Cowkeeper, settled in what is now Alachua County, an area where the Spanish had maintained cattle ranches in the 17th century. Because one of the best-known ranches was called El Rancho de la Chúa, the region became known as the "Alachua Prairie". The Spanish in Saint Augustine began calling the Alachua Creek Cimarrones, which roughly meant "wild ones" or "runaways". This was the probable origin of the term "Seminole". This name was eventually applied to the other groups in Florida, although the Indians still regarded themselves as members of different tribes. Other Native American groups in Florida during the Seminole Wars included the Choctaw, Yuchi or Spanish Indians, so called because it was believed that they were descended from Calusas; and "rancho Indians", who lived at Spanish/Cuban fishing camps (ranchos) on the Florida coast.
Fugitive African and African-American slaves who could reach the fort were essentially free. Many were from Pensacola; some were free citizens though others had escaped from United States territory. The Spanish offered the slaves freedom and land in Florida; they recruited former slaves as militia to help defend Pensacola and Fort Mosé. Other fugitive slaves joined Seminole bands as free members of the tribe.
Most of the former slaves at Fort Mosé went to Cuba with the Spanish when they left Florida in 1763, while others lived with or near various bands of Indians. Fugitive slaves from the Carolinas and Georgia continued to make their way to Florida, as the Underground Railway ran south. The blacks who stayed with or later joined the Seminoles became integrated into the tribes, learning the languages, adopting the dress, and inter-marrying. The blacks knew how to farm and served as interpreters between the Seminole and the whites. Some of the Black Seminoles, as they were called, became important tribal leaders.
During the American Revolution (1775-1783), the British—who controlled Florida—recruited Seminoles to raid frontier settlements in Georgia. The confusion of war allowed more slaves to escape to Florida. The British promised slaves freedom for fighting with them. These events made the new United States enemies of the Seminoles. In 1783, as part of the treaty ending the Revolutionary War, Florida was returned to Spain. Spain's grip on Florida was light, as it maintained only small garrisons at St. Augustine, St. Marks and Pensacola. They did not control the border between Florida and the United States and were unable to act against the State of Muskogee established in 1799, envisioned as a single nation of American Indians independent of both Spain and the United States, until 1803 when both nations conspired to entrap its founder. Mikasukis and other Seminole groups still occupied towns on the United States side of the border, while American squatters moved into Spanish Florida.
The British had divided Florida into East Florida and West Florida in 1763, a division retained by the Spanish when they regained Florida in 1783. West Florida extended from the Apalachicola River to the Mississippi River. Together with their possession of Louisiana, the Spanish controlled the lower reaches of all of the rivers draining the United States west of the Appalachian Mountains. It prohibited the US from transport and trade on the lower Mississippi. In addition to its desire to expand west of the mountains, the United States wanted to acquire Florida. It wanted to gain free commerce on western rivers, and to prevent Florida from being used a base for possible invasion of the U.S. by a European country.
The Louisiana Purchase
In order to obtain a port on the Gulf of Mexico with secure access for Americans, United States diplomats in Europe were instructed to try to purchase the Isle of Orleans and West Florida from whichever country owned them. When Robert Livingston approached France in 1803 about buying the Isle of Orleans, the French government offered to sell it and all of Louisiana as well. While the purchase of Louisiana exceeded their authorization, Livingston and James Monroe (who had been sent to help him negotiate the sale) in the deliberations with France pursued a claim that the area east of the Mississippi to the Perdido River was part of Louisiana. As part of the 1803 Louisiana Purchase treaty, France repeated verbatim Article 3 of its 1800 treaty with Spain, thus expressly subrogating the United States to the rights of France and Spain.p 288-291
The ambiguity in this third article lent itself to the purpose of U.S. envoy James Monroe, although he had to adopt an interpretation that France had not asserted nor Spain allowed.p 83 Monroe examined each clause of the third article and interpreted the first clause as if Spain since 1783 had considered West Florida as part of Louisiana. The second clause only served to render the first clause clearer. The third clause referred to the treaties of 1783 and 1795, and was designed to safeguard the rights of the United States. This clause then simply gave effect to the others.p 84-85 According to Monroe, France never dismembered Louisiana while it was in her possession. (He regarded November 3, 1762, as the termination date of French possession, rather than 1769, when France formally delivered Louisiana to Spain).
President Thomas Jefferson had initially believed that the Louisiana Purchase included West Florida and gave the United States a strong claim to Texas. President Jefferson asked U.S. officials in the border area for advice on the limits of Louisiana, the best informed of whom did not believe it included West Florida.p 87-88 Later, in an 1809 letter, Jefferson virtually admitted that West Florida was not a possession of the United States.p 46-47
During his negotiations with France, U.S. envoy Robert Livingston wrote nine reports to Madison in which he stated that West Florida was not in the possession of France.p 43-44 In November 1804, in response to Livingston, France declared the American claim to West Florida absolutely unfounded.p 113-116 Upon the failure of Monroe's later 1804–1805 mission, Madison was ready to abandon the American claim to West Florida altogether.p 118 In 1805, Monroe's last proposition to Spain to obtain West Florida was absolutely rejected, and American plans to establish a customs house at Mobile Bay in 1804 were dropped in the face of Spanish protests.p 293
The United States also hoped to acquire all of the Gulf coast east of Louisiana, and plans were made to offer to buy the remainder of West Florida (between the Perdido and Apalachicola rivers) and all of East Florida. It was soon decided, however, that rather than paying for the colonies, the United States would offer to assume Spanish debts to American citizens[Note 1] in return for Spain ceding the Floridas. The American position was that it was placing a lien on East Florida in lieu of seizing the colony to settle the debts.
In 1808 Napoleon invaded Spain, forced Ferdinand VII, King of Spain, to abdicate, and installed his brother Joseph Bonaparte as King. Resistance to the French invasion coalesced in a national government, the Cortes of Cádiz. This government then entered into an alliance with Great Britain against France. This alliance raised fears in the United States that Britain would establish bases in or occupy Spanish colonies, including the Floridas, gravely compromising the security of the southern frontiers of the United States.
A 1903 map showing the territorial changes of "West Florida"
By 1810, during the Peninsular War, Spain was largely overrun by the French army. Rebellions against the Spanish authorities broke out in many of its American colonies. Settlers in West Florida and in the adjacent Mississippi Territory started organizing in the summer of 1810 to seize Mobile and Pensacola, the last of which was outside the part of West Florida claimed by the United States.
Residents of westernmost West Florida (between the Mississippi and Pearl rivers) organized a convention at Baton Rouge in the summer of 1810. The convention was concerned about maintaining public order and preventing control of the district from falling into French hands; at first it tried to establish a government under local control that was nominally loyal to Ferdinand VII. After discovering that the Spanish governor of the district had appealed for military aid to put down an "insurrection", residents of the Baton Rouge District overthrew the local Spanish authorities on September 23 by seizing the Spanish fort in Baton Rouge. On September 26, the convention declared West Florida to be independent.
Pro-Spanish, pro-American, and pro-independence factions quickly formed in the newly proclaimed republic. The pro-American faction appealed to the United States to annex the area and to provide financial aid. On October 27, 1810, U.S. President James Madison proclaimed that the United States should take possession of West Florida between the Mississippi and Perdido Rivers, based on the tenuous claim that it was part of the Louisiana Purchase.
Madison authorized William C. C. Claiborne, governor of the Territory of Orleans, to take possession of the territory. He entered the capital of St. Francisville with his forces on December 6, 1810, and Baton Rouge on December 10, 1810. The West Florida government opposed annexation, preferring to negotiate terms to join the Union. Governor Fulwar Skipwith proclaimed that he and his men would "surround the Flag-Staff and die in its defense".:308 Claiborne refused to recognize the legitimacy of the West Florida government, however, and Skipwith and the legislature eventually agreed to accept Madison's proclamation. Claiborne only occupied the area west of the Pearl River (the current eastern boundary of Louisiana).[Note 2]
Juan Vicente Folch y Juan, governor of West Florida, hoping to avoid fighting, abolished customs duties on American goods at Mobile, and offered to surrender all of West Florida to the United States if he had not received help or instructions from Havana or Veracruz by the end of the year.
Fearing that France would overrun all of Spain, with the result that Spanish colonies would either fall under French control, or be seized by Great Britain, in January 1811 President Madison requested Congress to pass legislation authorizing the United States to take "temporary possession" of any territory adjacent to the United States east of the Perdido River, i.e., the balance of West Florida and all of East Florida. The United States would be authorized to either accept transfer of territory from "local authorities", or occupy territory to prevent it falling into the hands of a foreign power other than Spain. Congress debated and passed, on January 15, 1811, the requested resolution in closed session, and provided that the resolution could be kept secret until as late as March 1812.
American forces occupied most of the Spanish territory between the Pearl and Perdido rivers (today's coastal Mississippi and Alabama), with the exception of the area around Mobile, in 1811. Mobile was occupied by United States forces in 1813.
Madison sent George Mathews to deal with the disputes over West Florida. When Vicente Folch rescinded his offer to turn the remainder of West Florida over to the U.S., Mathews traveled to East Florida to engage the Spanish authorities there. When that effort failed, Mathews, in an extreme interpretation of his orders, schemed to incite a rebellion similar to that in the Baton Rouge District.
Patriot War of East Florida (1812)
Most of the residents of East Florida were happy with the status quo, so the U.S. raised a force of volunteers in Georgia with a promise of free land in Florida. On 13 March 1812, this force of "Patriots", with the aid of some U.S. Navy gunboats, seized the town of Fernandina on Amelia Island, which is just south of the border with Georgia, approximately 50 miles north of St. Augustine. Although the seizure of Fernandina was initially authorized by President Madison, he later disavowed it.
In June 1812 George Matthews met with King Payne and other Seminole leaders. After the meeting, Matthews believed that the Seminoles would remain neutral in the conflict. Sebastián Kindelán y O'Regan, the governor of East Florida, tried to induce the Seminoles to fight on the Spanish side. Some of the Seminoles wanted to fight the Georgians in the Patriot Army, but King Payne and others held out for peace. The Seminoles were not happy with the Spanish, comparing their treatment under the Spanish unfavorably with that received from the British when they held Florida. Ahaya, or Cowkeeper, King Payne's predecessor, had sworn to kill 100 Spaniards, and on his deathbed lamented having killed only 84. At a second conference with the Patriot Army leaders, the Seminoles again promised to remain neutral.
The blacks living in Florida outside of St. Augustine, many of whom were former slaves from Georgia and South Carolina, were not disposed to be neutral. Often slaves in name only to Seminoles, they lived in freedom and feared loss of that freedom if the United States took Florida away from Spain. Many blacks enlisted in the defense of St. Augustine, while others urged the Seminoles to fight the Patriot Army. In a third meeting with Seminole leaders, the Patriot Army leaders threatened the Seminoles with destruction if they fought on the side of the Spanish. This threat gave the Seminoles favoring war, led by King Payne's brother Bolek (also known as Bowlegs) the upper hand. Joined by warriors from Alligator (near present-day Lake City) and other towns, the Seminoles sent 200 Indians and 40 blacks to attack the Patriots.
In retaliation for Seminole raids, in September 1812 Colonel Daniel Newnan led 117 Georgia militiamen in an attempt to seize the Alachua Seminole lands around Payne's Prairie. Newnan's force never reached the Seminole towns, losing eight men dead, eight missing, and nine wounded after battling Seminoles for more than a week. Four months later Lt. Colonel Thomas Adams Smith led 220 U.S. Army regulars and Tennessee volunteers in a raid on Payne's Town, the chief town of the Alachua Seminoles. Smith's force found a few Indians, but the Alachua Seminoles had abandoned Payne's Town and moved southward. After burning Payne's Town, Smith's force returned to American held territory.
The Patriots were unable to take the Castillo de San Marcos in St. Augustine. With the increasing tensions and the approach of war with Great Britain, Matthew's force withdrew from Fernandina by May 1813, ending the American incursion into East Florida for a time.
District of Elotchaway
After the United States government disavowed support of the Territory of East Florida and withdrew American troops and ships from Spanish territory, most of the Patriots in East Florida either withdrew to Georgia or accepted the offer of amnesty from the Spanish government. Some of the Patriots still dreamed of claiming land in Florida. One of them, Buckner Harris, had been involved in recruiting men for the Patriot Army and was the President of the Legislative Council of the Territory of East Florida. Harris became the leader of a small band of Patriots who roamed the countryside threatening residents who had accepted pardons from the Spanish government.
Buckner Harris developed a plan to establish a settlement in the Alachua Country[Note 3] with financial support from the State of Georgia, the cession of land by treaty from the Seminoles, and a land grant from Spain. Harris petitioned the governor of Georgia for money, stating that a settlement of Americans in the Alachua Country would help keep the Seminoles away from the Georgia border, and would be able to intercept runaway slaves from Georgia before they could reach the Seminoles. Unfortunately for Harris, Georgia did not have funds available. Harris also hoped to acquire the land around the Alachua Prairie (Paynes Prairie) by treaty from the Seminoles, but could not persuade the Seminoles to meet with him. The Spanish were also not interested in dealing with Harris.
In January, 1814, 70 men led by Buckner Harris crossed from Georgia into East Florida, headed for the Alachua Country. More men joined then as they traveled through East Florida, with more than 90 in the group when they reached the site of Payne's Town, which had been burned in 1812. The men built a 25-foot square, two-story blockhouse, which they named Fort Mitchell, after David Mitchell, former governor of Georgia and a supporter of the Patriot invasion of East Florida.[Note 4] By the time the blockhouse was completed, there were reported to be more than 160 men present in Elotchaway. On January 25, 1814, the settlers established a government, titled "The District of Elotchaway of the Republic of East Florida", with Buckner Harris as Director. The Legislative Council then petitioned the United States Congress to accept the District of Elotchaway as a territory of the United States. The petition was signed by 106 "citizens of Elotchaway." The Elotchaway settlers laid out farm plots and started planting crops. Some of the men apparently had brought families with them, as a child was born in Elotchaway on March 15, 1814.
Buckner Harris hoped to expand American settlement in the Alachua Country, and rode out alone to explore the area. On May 5, 1814, he was ambushed and killed by Seminoles. Without Harris, the District of Elotchaway collapsed. Fort Mitchell was abandoned, with all the settlers gone within two weeks. Some of the men at Fort Mitchell who signed the petition to Congress settled again in the Alachua Country after Florida was transferred to the United States in 1821.