Editor’s Note: This information contained in this article is drawn from the chapters ‘British Rule in the Floridas’, ‘Free and Enslaved’, ‘The Second Spanish Period in the Two Floridas’, and ‘U.S. Territory and State’ in Michael Gannon’s book The History of Florida.
Why do we consider Florida a Southern state?
What exactly is ‘Southern’ about Florida? If White Southerners are being demographically displaced in Florida, when did our people arrive there? How did Southerners establish their cultural dominance in Florida. The Southernization of ‘La Florida’ begins in the year 1763.
The British Occupation, 1763-1783
In 1763, Great Britain acquired the Spanish colony of ‘La Florida’ in the Treaty of Paris that concluded the Seven Years’ War. The British had seized control of Havana and Spain traded its control of ‘La Florida’ in order to retain Cuba. At that time, Florida and Cuba were backwaters of the Spanish Empire, military outposts whose primary value was their strategic location in the defense of Mexico.
Although black slaves had been introduced to ‘La Florida’ by the Spanish, Florida wasn’t yet a Slave Society in the mold of Barbados or South Carolina. The type of slavery practiced in Spanish Florida before the British occupation was more similar to its counterparts in Cuba, Puerto Rico and Santo Domingo. Almost the entire Spanish population left when Britain took over ‘La Florida’ in 1763.
When the British arrived in Florida, they found a few abandoned buildings in Pensacola and St. Augustine was described as a “New World in a State of Nature.” The territory was so large that it was quickly split into two colonies, East Florida, which is modern Florida east of the Apalachicola River, and West Florida, which stretched from the Apalachicola River west to the Mississippi River and north to the 32° 22′ parallel.
George Johnstone, the first governor of West Florida, sought to populate the new colony with New Orleans creoles and French, German and Swiss settlers while keeping out the American frontiersmen from the north, whom he considered “the refuse of the Jails of great Citys, and the overflowing scum of the Empire.” James Grant, the first governor of East Florida, also wanted to keep out the “crackers” and even German immigrants who “won’t do here. Upon their landing they are immediately seized with the pride which every man is possessed who wears a white face in America and they say they won’t be slaves and so they make their escape.”
In East Florida, it was Governor Grant after 1763 who fatefully invited planters from South Carolina and Georgia to move into East Florida and establish rice, indigo, sugar and sea island cotton plantations. This is how the plantation complex spread to Florida. Soon, virtually all field laborers in East Florida were black slaves, 75 percent of the population was black and East Florida restricted the movement of free blacks and adopted a slave code based on South Carolina’s like other Southern states.
When the American Revolution broke out in 1775, East and West Florida remained loyal to the British Empire like the British Caribbean colonies. The East Florida-Georgia frontier became a warzone with British loyalists and their black and Seminole Indian allies raiding deep into Georgia and South Carolina which were conquered and occupied. Thousands of loyalists from Georgia and South Carolina fled to East Florida after General Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown in Virginia in 1781.
In 1783, Great Britain ceded East and West Florida to Spain in the Treaty of Paris. Many British loyalists evacuated Florida, but lots of Southern planters in East Florida, overwhelmingly Protestants from South Carolina, remained behind and chose to live under Spanish rule.
The Second Spanish Occupation, 1783-1821
Under Spanish rule, ‘La Florida’ (which remained divided into East and West Florida) reassumed its historic role as a military outpost and backwater of the Spanish Empire, which was soon embroiled in the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars that raged across Europe through this period.
The United States took advantage of Spain’s weakness and took the first bite out of West Florida in 1795 in Pinckney’s Treaty which ceded the part of what is now South Alabama and South Mississippi from the 31° to the 32° 22′ parallel. In 1810, rebels established the independent Republic of West Florida, which flew the precursor of the Bonnie Blue Flag between the Mississippi River and Perdido River. The Republic of West Florida was annexed in 1812 and was divided between Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.
The British occupied Pensacola during the War of 1812 and used West Florida as a base to launch attacks on Mobile and New Orleans with their black and Seminole allies. After the British defeat at the Battle of New Orleans, the Seminoles and their black allies continued to launch raids into Alabama and Georgia. This provoked the First Seminole War and Andrew Jackson’s occupation of East and West Florida from 1817 to 1818. Finally in 1819, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams negotiated the Adams–Onís Treaty, which ceded Florida to the United States and which was finally ratified by the Spanish government in 1821.
U.S. Territory, 1821-1845
The end of Spanish rule in ‘La Florida’ removed the last obstacle to the Southernization of Florida.
Southern settlers first arrived en masse in Florida with Andrew Jackson’s army in 1818. Throughout the Spanish and British colonial period, Florida had been divided into two distinct regions, West Florida based on Pensacola and East Florida based on St. Augustine, but soon Middle Florida – the region between the Apalachicola River and Suwanee River – emerged as the demographic center of the territory. Tallahassee, which became the new state capitol, was founded there in 1822.
Middle Florida was settled by planters from Virginia and Maryland who transformed the region into a new part of the Cotton Kingdom. In 1830, 45 percent of Florida’s population was in Middle Florida. By 1840, 63 percent of Florida’s population was in Middle Florida. Migrant planters brought traditional Southern racial attitudes to Florida and passed laws which severely restricted the rights of free blacks over the Spanish period while limiting suffrage to White males.
The Seminole Indians proved to be a major obstacle to the settlement of Florida and the rest of the antebellum period was dominated by the Second Seminole War, 1835 to 1842, the most expensive Indian War in American history, and the Third Seminole War, which lasted from 1855 to 1858 and resulted in the destruction of the Seminole Indians and their relocation to Indian Territory.
In 1842, the Armed Occupation Act was passed to encourage the growth of the White population in South Florida. The act permitted any White single man capable of armed defense to claim 160 acres of land south of Gainesville and north of the Peace River. After 1842, the crackers who had been kept at bay since the British colonial period flooded into Florida from adjacent Southern states and quickly became the majority of the population in the countryside.
U.S. State, 1845-1861
By the time that Florida achieved statehood in 1845, it had been thoroughly Southernized with a thriving plantation belt in Middle Florida and poorer whites settling on farms and grazing cattle on the sandy soils in East and West Florida.
Jacksonville was founded in 1822. In 1860, Whites were 57 percent of the population in Duval County and 44 percent of the population of Duval County were immigrants from either the Northern states or European countries. Florida’s cities have always been full of transplants. South Florida remained a sparsely populated frontier zone until the late 19th century.
Interestingly enough, David Levy Yulee, the son of a Moroccan Sephardic Jew who was born in the Danish West Indies, was one of the most important political figures in antebellum Florida and was leading advocate for Florida statehood. In 1861, Sen. David Levy Yulee joined Sen. Judah Benjamin in withdrawing from the U.S. Senate after the secession of Florida. Yulee served in the Confederate Congress and was imprisoned in Fort Pulaski after the War Between the States.