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Florida man starts country in the 1800s, only lasts a few months

For a brief period in 1810, there was a tiny independent country that existed between Louisiana and Florida. Not many people remember the Republic of West Florida, but you can still find its faded outline on old maps:

A 1903 map showing the changes

A 1903 map showing the changes.

Wikimedia Commons

The republic arose out of a dispute between Spain and the US over who, exactly, owned this small patch of North America. Eventually, the inhabitants rebelled and formed their own independent republic that lasted about 78 days (give or take) before being reclaimed by the United States.

It may not have lasted very long, but the story of the Republic of West Florida reveals a lot about the messy ways in which the United States actually expanded in its early years. I talked to historian William C. Davis, who wrote The Rogue Republic: How Would-Be Patriots Waged the Shortest Revolution in American History, about this odd, short-lived country.

In the 1800s, no one could agree on who owned West Florida

West Florida was the subject of political cartoons.

West Florida was the subject of political cartoons.

Universal History Archive/Getty Images

In the 1800s, West Florida was a confusing mess. France maintained that part of the territory had always belonged to it and was part of the Louisiana Purchase sale to the United States in 1803. Spain disagreed, arguing that it had never lost the land after taking it from the British during the 1780s.

The result? Two imperial nations — Spain and the United States — both laid claim to a single humid patch of land between two rivers. And there were two other countries on the sidelines — England and France — that had previously laid claim to the region. There was no well-defined boundary and no real sense of who owned what.

In practice, many West Florida residents still thought of themselves as belonging to Spain. When they had problems, they'd turn to the Spanish government, which was represented in the New World by the captain general in Havana, Cuba. The Spanish responded in turn, by actually encouraging American settlement of the region, using land grants to form a buffer between the nascent United States and their own more valuable territory.

Over time, the people who actually lived in West Florida got sick of taking orders from Spain. So they did something about it.

A trio of rabble-rousing brothers pushed to make West Florida independent

The Port of New Orleans, circa 1800

The Port of New Orleans, circa 1800.

Kean Collection/Archive Photos/Getty Images

The big push to make West Florida independent came from a trio of brothers, the Kempers, who are the stars of Davis's book.

The Kempers were entrepreneurs and traders who were constantly getting into disputes with the Spanish over their land claims. In 1804, they tried and failed to take over Baton Rouge, but their mission failed, and their fellow West Floridians were largely satisfied with how the Spanish did things. The Kempers evaded prison because as they were being shipped down the Mississippi, the United States Army rescued them.

That led to a more successful strike in 1810, when they fomented a rebellion against Spanish forces. The battle at Baton Rouge was brief and had few casualties — the Spanish weren't willing and didn't have the capacity to fight long for their unusual territory. Soon thereafter, the republic was born. But the Kempers weren't just idiosyncratic rebel heroes — they were, in a way, symbolic of many Americans at the time.

"[The Kemper brothers] were emblematic of the working-class entrepreneurs who had a lot to do with pushing the United States westward," Davis says. "The goal is cheap or free land in an opportunity to exploit land. ... They were much less concerned about national and administrative divisions than they were about running a tavern or a barn and improving their own personal lot. The issues of loyalty and allegiance to any flag are totally fluid."

That fluidity helped the Kempers build a tiny country where they could make their own rules. It didn't last long.

West Florida had the first single-star flag

The flag of the Republic of West Florida (the actual color may have varied, this one is provided by Florida's Department of State)

The flag of the Republic of West Florida (the actual color may have varied; this one is provided by Florida's Department of State).

DOS Florida

The Republic of West Florida was the first to have a single-star flag. It was, like all flags, just a symbol (and the republic's was particularly hastily composed). But the single star became an enduring emblem of the freedom rogue Americans sought, whether in Texas or in the Confederacy, where it was used as a basis for the Bonnie Blue flag.

That flag wasn't the only ritual of nationhood the short-lived republic practiced. Davis excerpts a marching song composed by the volunteer militia:

We can drink and not get drunk.

We can fight and not be slain.

We can go to Pensacola

And be welcomed back again.

From the beginning, this country was a weird one. West Florida had an eclectic mix of residents, including some from Spain, some from France (from before the Louisiana Purchase), British holdovers, and these new people called "Americans." They all spoke different languages and, crucially, came from different cultures.

"That was typical of that region," Davis says. "You'd have found the same thing in New Orleans, you'd have found the same thing in Mobile, and even Pensacola."

The American Babel was short-lived, however. Some suspected that West Florida always sought to be annexed by the United States; others believed it was a misguided flight of fancy from the beginning. Either way, in December 1810, the republic lowered its flag and became part of the United States (with America claiming it had always been part of the Louisiana Purchase). There was no great battle in store for the small country in the face of the United States Army. The full slice of panhandle territory was acquired in chunks over the course of the following decade. After that 1810 surrender, Spanish power on the East Coast continued to wane, and the rest of Florida fell soon after.

A forgotten conflict in a muggy place reveals a lot about American expansion

Baton Rouge in the 1830s, when the Republic of West Florida was just a memory.

Baton Rouge in the 1830s, when the Republic of West Florida was just a memory.

MPI/Getty Images

So is the Republic of West Florida just a historical punchline? For years, it was an anomalous territory that Spain halfheartedly defended, and then it became its own parody of a country before folding into the United States. Does it have any significance beyond that?

Davis explained what drew him to the story in the first place. For one, the mythology of the old American Southwest — which West Florida was in the early 1800s — is particularly fertile. Even if their names aren't remembered, people like the Kemper brothers are part of the American psyche — pioneers who hustled for their future, even when it required an unusual revolution.

Moreover, for Davis, West Florida presents a theory about how American expansion really happened. It wasn't "some grand patriotic, ethnically American drive, the sense of Manifest Destiny," he says. "That's nonsense. It's driven by personal motives of profit and entrepreneurialism, and that's not a criticism at all. It's people moving West, where they're less constrained by law and order."

And in the case of West Florida, that meant making a country in order to make a living.

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