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This webpage reproduces an article in the
Florida Historical Quarterly
Vol. 39 No. 2 (Apr. 1961), pp378‑386

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though, please let me know!

p378 Philemon Thomas and
the West Florida Revolution

by Henry Eugene Sterkx and Brooks Thompson

During the first decade of the nineteenth century many Americans moved into the Spanish province of West Florida. Some came to establish new homes or to engage in conspiracies against the weak Spanish government. Others came to escape justice or seek asylum from slavery. The province had a strange population made up of Englishmen, Frenchmen, Americans, traders, land speculators, army deserters, fleeing debtors, fugitives from justice, filibusterers, and others of infamous background. Moving into this milieu in 1805 was Philemon Thomas. This native of Virginia and ex-Kentuckian had led an interesting and exciting life. He was born in Orange County, Virginia, February 9, 1763,1 his family having come over from England shortly before his birth. He died in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, November 17, 1847.2 Between these dates he was to make notable contributions to the history of three states. Generally neglected today as an historical figure, Thomas deserves re-hearing if for no other reason than his participation in the West Florida Revolution.

Philemon Thomas was not a literary man, having secured no more than a common school education.3 Before he had attained manhood he joined the Revolutionary army from which he was discharged an officer. While serving in the army he learned to like military life and was to use this vocation whenever the occasion demanded it.4

After the war he went west in search of land and in 1783 settled in the Kentucky territory. Shortly after he was established p379in his new home, Thomas volunteered his services in the Indian uprising of 1791. He served with distinction in General St. Clair's campaign against the Indians at the Battle of Wabash River. Thomas, and others, suggested opening a passage through the Indian line. It was this strategy that saved part of the St. Clair expedition. Thomas later served in the Kentucky state legislature — in the House from 1796 to 1799 and in the Senate from 1800 to 1803. He also served as delegate to the Kentucky Constitutional Convention of 1799.5

In 1805 Philemon Thomas moved to West Florida where he engaged in land speculation and established a grocery business in the town of Baton Rouge.6 The land was rent with discord. For a number of years discontent with Spanish rule had been manifested in the region.7 However, beginning in 1808 with the accession of Joseph Bonaparte to the throne of Spain, fear of French intervention compelled the Feliciana and Baton Rouge planters to action. They concluded that the time had come to exchange the peaceful somnolence of Spanish rule for democracy.8 The patriots concluded that what they needed was a better-organized local government but realized that their efforts to obtain one would have to be carried out in such a way that there would be no suspicion of treason. During the months of p380June to September, 1810, a great deal of clandestine activity among the planters took place.9 A number of secret meetings were held. Then, on Saturday, June 23, 1810, more than five hundred Spanish subjects of Feliciana met at the "Egypt" plantation of Lewis Stirling "to secure themselves against foreign invasion and domestic disturbance."10 This innocuous resolution marked the beginning of the systematic stripping of all authority from Don Carlos de Hault de Lassus, the Spanish governor. Although Philemon Thomas did not actively participate in the activities of the "Egypt" assembly he did sign a petition drawn up on that occasion asking for permission to call a similar convention in the Baton Rouge district to elect delegates to a great convention to be held.11

On August 22 the elected delegates met and with only one dissenting vote passed the ordinances and resolutions which they had been engaged in framing for the last several weeks. The appointment by the convention of a colonel commandant who should command, when formed, the militia from the four districts was provided for, and was, ultimately, to involve fully Philemon Thomas.12

Governor de Lassus, playing for time, signed the ordinances. On August 29, 1810, the delegates turned their attention to the problem of selecting the officers who should govern the region. The Governor had already informed the assemblymen of his refusal to give Philemon Thomas the title of brigadier general on the grounds that, "as there does not exist, and I myself do not recognize in our militia ordinances, the post of brigadier general, it seems to me that Mr. Philemon Thomas can take the same post with the title of colonel commanding the whole militia of this jurisdiction with the approbation of his Excellency the Captain p381General" of Cuba.13 Thus it was that Thomas settled for the less grandiose title of militia commander, and he now entered the West Florida scene and began to play an important role in the course of events.14

About the middle of September Captain Louis Piernas, a Spanish army officer, arrived in Baton Rouge from Pensacola to bring money to pay the garrison troops and to observe and report on conditions in the Baton Rouge area. When Piernas left Baton Rouge he carried a letter written by William Cooper, a delegate to the convention from the Chifoncte region. In that letter Cooper indicated that he felt it his duty to report the dangerous situation at Baton Rouge and enjoined the Spanish executive, Governor Folch, to hurry with a considerable force to the troublesome spot, before the November meeting of the convention should rob the Spanish of the last vestiges of authority.15

At this juncture Colonel Philemon Thomas, John Ballinger, and a few more resolute spirits decided to act before Folch could arrive with the troops. They raised volunteers for the capture of the fort at Baton Rouge, and insisted upon immediate occupancy of the fort even if it had to be without official sanction from the convention.16

Then on the night of September 21, a meeting of six members of the convention occurred at which it was decided that the farce of their pretended allegiance to Spain must immediately come to an end. Messengers were sent to Philemon Thomas with orders to arm all available men and to storm the fort at Baton Rouge as soon as sufficient forces were assembled. Colonel Thomas was assured that he could expect armed assistance from Feliciana. War had come.

The fort at Baton Rouge was shaped like a star. It had a ditch with a covered way, but had been neglected to such an extent that the covered way had disappeared altogether.17 p382The weak point was to the left, or south, of the fort. Large gaps permeated the stockade while arsenals and storehouses were inadequately supplied. The officers of the fort resided outside of it as did the militia, coming to the fort only when detailed for guard duty. Lieutenants Luis de Grand Pre and J. B. Metzinger were the only commissioned officers within the enclosure.18 On the night of the twenty-second of September the fort apparently contained only twenty-eight men including the two officers, Lieutenants Grand Pre and Metzinger. There were ten militiamen stationed at the guardhouse and only three sentinels were on duty. Artillerymen, who were essential for the defense of the fort, numbered only two. Also present were fourteen noncommissioned officers of the Louisiana Regiment, and two of Estevan's squad were stationed in the citadel. The magazines were locked and the officers in charge of them sleeping in town.19

At midnight, when the attack had not been made, the Spaniards felt secure; seemingly, they did not believe that the patriots would attack on Sunday. Nevertheless, the insurgents were preparing for action.

Upon receipt of the order of the Convention, Thomas had directed Major Johnson to assemble all available cavalry and march to the fort at Baton Rouge. Thomas himself left for Springfield where he found Colonel Ballinger with forty-four men ready for action. During the march to Baton Rouge, a number of patriots joined them.20

At one o'clock Sunday morning, September 23, Thomas and his group merged forces with Major Johnson and Captain Griffith, who had twenty-one cavalrymen from Bayou Sarah, and prepared to strike down Spanish sovereignty in West Florida.21

By four o'clock the insurgents were ready for the attack. Thomas gave orders that his men were not to fire until fired upon, but rather were to call out in both French and English, "ground your arms and you shall not be hurt."22

Fire from the guardhouse of the fort, where the governor p383was staying, ended the peaceful attempt at a solution. The volunteers returned fire and battle ensued in which Lieutenants Grand Pre and Metzinger were wounded. The engagement ended with the insurgents taking twenty-one prisoners, among them being Don Carlos de Hault de Lassus. The rest of the garrison escaped by flight. Thomas was proud of his raw volunteer forces, reporting that their "firmness and moderation . . . was fully equal to the best" disciplined troops.23

The supplies and stores in the fort naturally fell to the rebels, but of far greater importance was the prestige triumph had given to the insurrectionary movement. "Whole companys [sic] are flocking to our standard daily," Thomas reported, "and the Harmony and Patriotism that prevails in the Garrison must be highly gratifying to every friend of his country."24

The members of the convention made plans to issue a declaration of independence following the report by Thomas of the capture of the fort at Baton Rouge. The loyalty of the officers in the fort had been tendered the members of the convention in writing. On September 26, 1810, soon after the pledge of loyalty was received, the convention signed the declaration of independence.25

Rumors were rampant as the members of the convention busied themselves with the task of arranging for the defense of the territory just won by violent means. Reports came that opposition was gathering in Ste. Helena under the leadership of Shepherd Brown.26 The officers of the fort "appointed Genl. P. Thomas to wait on your honors for restoring tranquility in Ste. Helena."27 This suggestion was quickly honored by the convention and on October 1, 1810, a punitive expedition set forth for the district of Ste. Helena. On October 3 Thomas, in command of around four hundred men, crossed the Amite River. As was customary with him, he made an effort to settle the difficulties without battle. He requested a meeting with Michael Jones, a leader in the area. Jones' conduct and proposals were unacceptable p384to Thomas, who ended the negotiations. However, the former seems to have judged his situation untenable and by evening surrendered his forces and signed the declaration of independence.28

In the meantime Thomas dispatched an advance guard of cavalry, under Major Johnson, and infantry, under Major McCastland, on a forced march in an attempt to surprise Shepherd Brown and William Cooper at their fort at Springfield. Upon the arrival of the advance guard at Springfield it was found that the fort had been evacuated ten hours earlier.29

Thomas moved on to Springfield after having sent a considerable force under Colonel Kimball to the Tangipahoa and Chifoncte regions. Brown had boasted that he could raise five hundred men but he succeeded in raising but eighty malcontents. Realizing that such a small number was no match for the Convention forces, he advised disbanding of his troops. Thomas, meanwhile, was instructing the people of the principles and aims of the Convention. Sentiment everywhere seemed to favor the Convention forces, which led Thomas to report that "Everything appears Tranquil and the great Body of the People really disposed to defend our Course. . . ."30

A company of volunteers was formed at Springfield with Samuel Baldwin elected Captain. Thomas placed his trust in this force and requested that the Convention confirm as Lieutenants whoever was elected.31 He then joined forces with Colonel Kimball before the stockade at Natalbany. The nondescript Natalbany garrison fled in wild disorder without the least show of resistance, while its leader, William Cooper, was killed in an attempt to escape. With these successes about the middle of October there was an ineffectual attempt to stir up a mutiny at Baton Rouge and release de Lassus.32

After the successful termination of hostilities in the Ste. Helena district the convention got down to the business of creating a new nation. John Rhea, the president of the Convention, p385wrote a letter to President Madison in which he set forth the views of the convention on annexation by asking for "immediate protection to which we consider ourselves entitled."33 While awaiting a reply from President Madison, who had long been interested in annexation,34 the delegates appointed a committee of "Publick Safety" with powers to draft a constitution while the rest of the members were in recess.35 Then on October 24, 1810, the convention reassembled and adopted a constitution, modeled on that of the United States, which provided for a committee of five to conduct the affairs of government.36

On November 10, 1810, Philemon Thomas was elected a member of the newly constituted senate.37 While he was a member of the senate, he was authorized by the executive committee to assemble a force of 618 militia for instant service in any part of the territory.38 This was in accordance with the plans to reduce Mobile and ultimately Pensacola and to incorporate them in the West Florida Republic. Reuben Kemper was placed in charge of the expeditionary forces to besiege Mobile while Philemon Thomas was placed in command of the army.

In the meantime President Madison directed William C. C. Claiborne, governor of the Territory of Orleans, to take possession of the West Florida district as a part of the Louisiana Purchase.39 Fulwar Skipwith, president of the "Tom Thumb Republic," objected to this on the grounds that he had not yet been properly informed in regard to the wishes of the people in West Florida.40 p386Audley L. Osborne, in charge of some of the forces, maintained that opposition to occupation by United States forces was mainly the work of Skipwith and Philemon Thomas.41 However, after little trouble Governor Holmes of the Mississippi Territory and Claiborne took possession of Baton Rouge and, in keeping with Madison's instructions, provided immediately for local government and organized the militia.42

Soon after the Americans had obtained Baton Rouge, Governor Claiborne conversed with Philemon Thomas, whom he dubbed "the ajax of the late revolution, who [has] always been esteemed an honest man." Thomas declared that the great object he had in view was now accomplished, and that he approved of the taking of the country by the United States.43 West Florida had become a part of the United States at last and the stout little republic of West Florida, after a brief existence of seventy-four days, came to an end.


The Author's Notes:

1 The Biographical Directory of the American Congress, 1774‑1927 (Washington: 1928), 1609; Millidge L. Bonham, "A Conversation with the Granddaughter of General Thomas," in Proceedings of the Historical Society of East and West Baton Rouge (Baton Rouge: 1916‑1918), December 14, 1916, 48‑49; tombstone located at the National Cemetery in Baton Rouge.

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2 Baton Rouge Gazette, November 18, 1847.

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3 Francis Robertson, "The Will of General Philemon Thomas," Proceedings of the Historical Society of East and West Baton Rouge (Baton Rouge: 1916‑1918), June 26, 1917, 26‑29.

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4 Ibid. Report from the Secretary of War (June 30, 1834-March 3, 1835), Pensions 3, Louisiana (Washington: 1836), 6.

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5 Mann Butler, A History of the Commonwealth of Kentucky (Cincinnati: 1836), 200‑203; Lewis Collins, History of Kentucky, (2 vols., Covington, Kentucky: 1882), I, 356; II, 547.

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6 W. P. A. Survey of Federal Archives in Louisiana, Archives of the Spanish Government of West Florida, typescript copy in the Louisiana State University Archives, XVII, 245, for confirmation of sale by Pierre Favrot, dated June 2, 1810. Sold 1000 arpents of land to P. Thomas located near Devil's Swamp for the consideration of 2000 Mexican dollars on June 6, 1805. Secretary Robertson to the Secretary of State, New Orleans, April 8, 1810, in Clarence E. Carter (ed.), The Territorial Papers of the United States, the Territory of New Orleans, 1803‑1812, IX, 880; American State Papers: Public Land (Washington: 1834), III, 70. Thomas in 1808 registered for ten claims in the Baton Rouge district.

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7 Governor Claiborne to the Secretary of State, New Orleans, March 26, 1805, 425; February 9, 1806, 604; Secretary Robertson to the Secretary of State, New Orleans, July 6, 1810, 888; passim, in Carter, op. cit. See also Henry L. Favrot, "Some of the Causes and Conditions that Brought About the West Florida Revolution in 1810," in Publications of the Louisiana Historical Society (New Orleans: 1895), Vol. I, pt. 2, pp36‑37.

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8 For fear of the French, see Proceedings of the First Convention of West Florida, July 27, 1810, in Carter, op. cit., 893‑895. For an account of the intrigues see Isaac Joslin Cox, The West Florida Controversy, 1798‑1831 (Baltimore:1918).

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9 The Governor of the Mississippi Territory to the Secretary of State, Town of Washington, 31st July, 1810, 889‑891; passim, in Carter, op. cit.

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10 Stanley Clisby Arthur, The Story of the West Florida Rebellion (St. Francisville, La.: 1935), 37.

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11 July 6, 1810. Fourteen leading citizens signed the petition. Ibid., 38‑39.

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12 For membership of the West Florida Convention see dispatch dated July 26, 1810, 889; Governor of the Mississippi Territory to the Secretary of State, Town of Washington, July 31, 1810, 889‑891; August 8, 1810, 891‑892; in Carter, op. cit.; Arthur, op. cit., 69‑87.

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13 Letter of de Lassuº to Convention, August 25, 1810, in the Felix H. Kuntz Collection, West Florida Papers, in the Department of Archives, Louisiana State University, henceforth cited as Kuntz Collection.

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14 Claiborne to Secretary of State Robert Smith, Dunbar Rowland (ed.), Official Letter Books of W. C. C. Claiborne, 1801‑1816 (Jackson, Miss.: 1917), V, 56‑58.

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15 Cox, op. cit., 387.

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16 Ibid., 388.

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17 Victor Collot, A Journey to North America, 2 vols. (Paris: 1826), I, 77.

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18 Cox, op. cit., 389‑392.

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19 Ibid., 396. Arthur takes an opposite view in regard to the condition of the fort. He states that the Spanish officers in the fort made the place ready for any possible trouble.

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20 Thomas to Convention President, John Rhea, September 28, 1810, Kuntz Collection.

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21 Ibid.

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22 Ibid.

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23 Ibid.

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24 Ibid.

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25 Letter addressed to Convention, September 25, 1810, and signed by Philemon Thomas and other officers under his command, Kuntz Collection.

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26 Cox, op. cit., 411.

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27 Arthur, op. cit., 119.

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28 General Thomas' report to Convention, October 9, 1810, Kuntz Collection.

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29 Ibid.

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30 Ibid.

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31 Ibid.

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32 Cox, op. cit., 412.

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33 Carter, op. cit., 892; see also communication of The Governor of Mississippi Territory to the Secretary of State, Town of Washington, August 8, 1810, 891‑892, in ibid.; Arthur, op. cit., 122.

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34 For the interest of the U. S. President and other governmental officials see Carter, op. cit., 30‑31, 56, 85‑86, 151, 193‑194, 216‑217, 266‑267, 883‑884, 885, 898, passim; Rowland, op. cit. V, passim; Arthur, ºop. cit., 35‑36.

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35 The members of the Committee were John H. Johnson, Edmund Harris, and John Leonard. Arthur, op. cit., 123‑124.

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36 Ibid., 128.

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37 Cox, op. cit., 432.

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38 Orders to Thomas, November 12, 1810, in James A. Padgett, "The West Florida Revolution of 1810, as Told in the Letters of John Rhea, Fulwar Skipworth,º Reuben Kemper, and Others," Louisiana Historical Quarterly, XXI (1938), 34‑35.

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39 The Secretary of State to the Governor of Mississippi Territory, October 30, 1810, in Carter, op. cit., 901‑902.

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40 Skipwith to Madison, in Padgett, "The West Florida Revolution of 1810," loc. cit., 74‑75. The Governor of the Mississippi Territory, David Holmes, implies the same in his report to the Secretary of State. See Carter, op. cit., 909‑914.

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41 Osborne expected trouble in Baton Rouge, as the people wanted to be treated as independent. Rowland, op. cit., V, 51‑53. Governor Holmes verifies this. See Carter, op. cit., 901‑902.

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42 The Governor of Mississippi Territory to the Secretary of State, Town of Washington, January 1, 1811, in Carter, op. cit., 909‑914; Ordinance of Governor Claiborne, January 4, 1811, in ibid., 914‑915.

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43 Claiborne to Secretary of State Robert Smith, December 17, 1810, Rowland, op. cit., V, 56‑58.


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