The Battle for Florida – Part 1

Florida was a battleground state long before it became the 27th State in 1821. The fight began in 1513 after Ponce de Leon landed near modern day St. Augustine, Florida and claimed if for Queen Joanna of Spain. He named the land after the Spanish Easter feast Pascua Florida and from that point on it became La Florida.

Catholic missionaries used St. Augustine as a base until it was burned to the ground in 1586. Pirate and British attacks on the colony continued forcing the Spanish to build the Castillo de San Marcos in 1672. British colonists in Virginia, Georgia and the Carolinas kept pushing south, claiming the territory they claimed for the British crown. In 1704, English Colonel John Moore along with the Yamasee Indians burned St. Augustine again, but could not capture the Castillo de San Marcos.

Instead, they began to raid the 100+ Catholic missions scattered around the territory. The collapse of the Spanish missions as well as the defeat of the Spanish and their Indian allies the Apalachees enabled pirates to use the sheltered harbors along the coast as bases. Yamasee Indians, now pushed out of their native lands in Georgia and South Carolina moved to northern Florida. During the Queen Anne’s War that raged between 1702 – 1713 the French, Spanish and their India allies fought the British and their Indian allies in battles near Pensacola and Mobile.

The Spanish angered the American Colonists by making it known that slaves who escaped plantations would be given refuge in Florida if they converted to Catholicism. This led to a British invasion in 1742 that again destroyed St. Augustine.

At the end of the Seven Years War, Spain ceded Florida to the British. Both agreed that the western border of Florida was the Mississippi River but did not agree on the norther border. If one visualizes the current northern border running from the Atlantic to the Mississippi River, it is a close approximation of what the British and Spanish put on their maps. However, in 1767, the British claimed what is now the lower third of Mississippi and Alabama and southwest Georgia as part of their Florida territory. Other than dispute the claim diplomatically, Spain did nothing about the claim.

To their credit, the British built roads, schools, and encouraged settlements particularly on the east coast and the panhandle. Their interest was strictly commercial because they saw the area as a source of sugar and rum.

When the rebellion broke out in 1775, it took two years for the fighting to reach the territory of Florida which both sides wanted to control. Between the Battle of Thomas Creek in May 1777 to the last action, the siege of Pensacola that ended on May 8th, 1781, there were nine separate battles fought from what is now Baton Rouge and Lake Pontchartrain to Mobile to  Pensacola and of course on the east coast. Most of the citizens in Florida were Loyalists and never sent a representative to the Continental Congress.

However, when the war ended, Britain ceded Florida back to Spain as part of the Treaty of Paris signed in 1783. The northern border was established as the 31st parallel (where it is currently located) by the 1795 Treaty of San Lorenzo.

Unfortunately, the battle for control of Florida was not over. To be continued next week!

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