East Florida, remnant of the Spanish borderlands. In 1763, when Great Britain acquired the Florida peninsula from Spain and eastern Louisiana from France, the combined territory was divided at the Chattahoochee River into two colonies: East and West Florida. During the American Revolution, Bernardo de Gálvez captured West Florida, and by the Treaty of Paris of 1783, Spain recovered East Florida, to the chagrin of southern loyalists. Both colonies were military governorships, accountable politically to the captaincy general of Cuba and spiritually to the bishopric of New Orleans.
Outlawry was the immediate problem in East Florida. Havana used the presidio as a dumping ground for criminals, and armed bandits mounted slave and cattle raids across the Florida-Georgia border. Settlement was perceived as the solution. For lack of Spanish Catholics, Spain invited British Protestants to take an oath of loyalty and stay. Soon the gates were opened to American backwoodsmen, who avoided the plantations along the Saint Johns River and took the high road from Saint Marys, Georgia, to the Alachua prairie, where they could range their cattle.
Religion took a back seat to trade. The handful of Irish priests who came to convert Protestants reported little success. The Franciscans did not return to the friary, which the British had used for barracks, and the southeastern Indians wanted no more missions. To keep the Indians peaceful, Governor Vicente Manuel de Zéspedes renewed the exclusive franchise of the English firm of Panton, Leslie, and Company, a measure that ran counter to the rising sentiment for free trade in both the British and Spanish empires and was heartily disliked by the Americans. The grievances that prompted the East Florida settlers to rebel in 1795 centered on this issue, which grew worse as Spain declined in sea power. In 1806 only five of the forty-two ships entering the Saint Augustine harbor came from the closest Spanish port of Havana.
When Napoleon's efforts to enforce his continental blockade turned Spain into a battleground and its king into a puppet, the Spanish Empire in America began to dissolve. American settlers in West Florida twice declared sections of their colony republics and turned them over to the United States. East Florida's Patriot Rebellion, during the War of 1812, was a similar bid for annexation. The patriots took the plantations along the Saint Johns but did not attempt the formidable defenses of Saint Augustine. The rebellion fell apart, disowned by President James Madison. Then the Creek War of 1813–1814 conclusively ended dreams of an Indian buffer state under British sponsorship.
In 1817 Sir Gregor MacGregor, a Scot, made one final attempt at an independent republic in the name of the republics of Venezuela, New Granada, Mexico, and Buenos Aires, but with the backing of merchants in Savannah and other U.S. ports. Leading a force recruited chiefly in Georgia, he captured the Amelia Island port of Fernandina, sister city in smuggling to Saint Marys and home of 40 percent of East Florida's civilian population. When East Florida's Anglo settlers failed to flock to his Republic of the Floridas, MacGregor left. The French corsair Louis Aury, with a force of free black Haitians, opened the port to privateers and slave traders, triggering a peacekeeping intervention by U.S. forces. General Andrew Jackson sparked a series of international incidents in 1817 and 1818, when he crossed the border of West Florida to capture Pensacola, then entered East Florida to execute two British subjects trading with the Seminoles.
Having lost an empire, Spain lost the will and the means to maintain a lone military colony on the North American mainland. The Adams-Onís Treaty in 1819 transferred ownership of East and West Florida to the United States. Two years later, when the treaty was ratified, the flag of Spain came down from the Castillo de San Marcos.
Rembert W. Patrick, Florida Fiasco: Rampant Rebels on the Georgia-Florida Border, 1810–1815 (1954).
Helen Hornbeck Tanner, Zéspedes in East Florida, 1784–1790 (1963).
Pablo Tornero Tinajero, Relaciones de dependencia entre Florida y Estados Unidos (1783–1820) (1979).
David Bushnell, La República de las Floridas: Texts and Documents (1986).
David J. Weber, The Spanish Frontier in North America (1992).
Amy Turner Bushnell