Settlement and warfare in West Florida explored in a new story
“Fourteenth Colony” is a history book that the ordinary reader can really appreciate.
It is smoothly written, fully researched but not pedantic, and packed with information that is new to the reader and often surprising. Mike Bunn is really the right person for this job. He is the Superintendent of Blakely Historic State Park at Spanish Fort and the author of numerous books and articles on early Alabama.
Bunn reminds us that there were over two dozen British colonies in North America in 1775 and only 13 rebelled. The rest remained in the empire or fell to other European powers.
West Florida was a colony that did not rebel, and in any case, like East Florida, had only been under British control since the British victory in the Seven Years’ War or, as it was called here, the French and Indian, 1754-1763. This is the war that James Fenimore Cooper talks about in “The Leatherstocking Tales”.
The 1763 Treaty of Paris granted Florida to the British, who took over from the Spaniards, who had allied themselves with the French. Finding the territory too large to administer, the British divided it in two, with St. Augustine being the capital of the more populous East Florida.
In this case and several others, Bunn recounts how citizens had to make adjustments. I had always wondered how it worked. Typically, citizens of a given colony or colony were granted a period of time. In the case of the West Florida takeover – three months to pledge allegiance to the British crown or 18 months to sell and move out if they choose not to pledge allegiance to their new king. It must have been very strange for them.
For some in Mobile, Pensacola and elsewhere, it happened three times. Bunn tells us that most settlers chose to stay. They had been given plots of land – which is why they had moved to the border in the first place – and they were so isolated that they tended not to be particularly political. There were no newspapers, little news about events in Europe or the Atlantic coast, and for the most part one king would do as well as another. There was little effective government anyway.
The new rulers wanted the settlers to stay. The settlers were valuable and the Indians were numerous and often terrifying.
West Florida, stretching from the Apalachicola River west to the Mississippi, had Pensacola as its capital. (This colony did not include southern Louisiana and the city of New Orleans, which was still Spanish. The territory of Louisiana, which President Thomas Jefferson would purchase in 1803, was still French.)
Bunn takes some time to describe everyday life in West Florida. Above all, you wouldn’t want it. There were rudimentary military outposts, old and rotten, in ruins.
The weather was, in the days before air conditioning and any other cooling measure, unbearably hot and humid, perfect for fevers and communicable diseases of all kinds. One resident called it a ‘great oven’, another is quoted saying it was ‘a graveyard for Britons. Yet another declared it ‘the most unpleasant and unhealthy place in America’ .
Interestingly for me, many settlers found the winters unbearable, with penetrating and damp cold, and some of these complainers had spent time in Britain or even Canada. And there were hurricanes!
Farming in West Florida has mostly been a disaster. Advertisements intended to attract settlers to the area suggested that the soil was rich, the gulf teeming with fish and the woods teeming with game. These things are partly true. Further inland, the soil is rich. But Bunn reports that settlers around Pensacola found the soil barren and sandy, unsuitable for what they knew how to grow. All wheat had to be imported. Cotton was not yet an important crop.
The main trade was with the Indians for deer skins, traded with the Indians for knives, axes, guns and, unfortunately, rum. These skins, sent to Europe, were transformed into gloves, etc.
In 1763, Bunn reports, there were about 2,000 settlers and the population was growing very slowly. There were 30,000 Creeks, Chickasaws and Choctaws combined. The settlers worried about rogue traders who got the Indians drunk and cheated and generally infuriated them.
The Indians, still worried about land encroachment, could have eliminated the settlers at any time. Bunn notes that one historian believed that in a 90-day period Pensacola trading houses dispersed 30,000 gallons of rum.
Bunn reports that in 1763 up to 400,000 deer were killed each year in the Southeast. As when the skies were darkened by flights of passenger pigeons, no one could imagine that this resource could be wiped out; but it almost was.
As the Indians’ desire for trade goods grew, they organized hunting parties and methodically pursued deer, even burning “tracts of land to drive the deer into areas where they could be harvested more effectively”.
There are many stories here of military campaigns back and forth across the territory, but the star is Bernardo Galvez who, in 1775, after the start of the War of Independence, marched east from the New Orleans and conquered as they went, eventually besieging and taking Pensacola in what would be the “greatest battle ever fought in Florida”.
The ultimately unsuccessful British attack on Mobile was “the bloodiest day of the Revolutionary War in what became Alabama“.
Don Noble’s latest book is Alabama Noir, a collection of original stories by Winston Groom, Ace Atkins, Carolyn Haines, Brad Watson and eleven other Alabama authors.
“Fourteenth Colony: The Forgotten History of the Southern Gulf During America’s Revolutionary Era”
Author: Mike Bunn
Publisher: New South Books
Price: $28.95 (Commercial Fabric)