Thayer's Note: The reader can follow the narrative on the author's maps and a modern map, collected in a single webpage: they will open in another window.
It was Saturday, the first day of December, 1810, when William Charles Cole Claiborne, governor of the Territory of Orleans, after a hurried overland journey from Washington, D. C., reached Washington, T. M., the tiny Mississippi village then the capital of that territory. He wrote Secretary of State Robert Smith:
"Near Natchez Dec. 1, '10.
"I arrived here this morning and lost no time in communicating to Gov. Holmes the orders of the President, and in advising him as to the best means of carrying the same into immediate effect. He accorded with me in the opinion that a great majority of the Inhabitants of the District of Baton Rouge, would receive with pleasure the American authorities. But to guard against the intrigues certain individuals believed to be hostile to the United States, and a few adventurers from the Territories of Orleans and Mississippi of desperate character and fortunes, who have lately joined the convention army, it was deemed advisable to order a Detachment of Troops to descend the River close in my rear, and to place the whole effective force in this Territory in a situation to move at a moment's warning & to be used hereafter as the occasion may require.
"In the mean time the proclamation of the president is in the hands of the printer; and I am making the other necessary preparations to depart in the morning of the 3rd instant. In descending the River I shall call at Fort Adams, from whence I shall dispatch messengers to Florida, with instructions to distribute the president's proclamation, to ascertain the general sentiments of the people, and particularly the Leaders."
Governor Claiborne ordered Colonel Leonard Covington to detach for immediate service a force of about 300 effective men, including a detachment of artillerists with two field pieces, to proceed without delay to the post at Pointe Coupée and there await his further instructions. A barge was to be in readiness for him at Fort Adams and two subaltern officers were to be detailed to accompany him on his mission to take possession of West Florida.
On Monday the printer had the proclamations printed. Claiborne immediately saw to the distribution of the printed sheets and left in his barge for Fort Adams. He was not well when he arrived at the frontier post but wrote back to Washington that he was "deeply impressed with the delicacy, the importance of the operation before me, and you may rely on my discretion. The instructions of the president, will be held continually in view, and in obeying them you may be assured that no blood will be shed, if it can be possibly avoided."
After finishing his message to the president, Claiborne dispatched two messengers, Audley L. Osborne to Saint Francisville, and William King to Baton Rouge, with copies of Madison's proclamation. Then he p134crossed the river to Pointe Coupée where he met by appointment William Wikoff, and by aid of other friends prepared to contact the West Florida legislature which, according to information given him, was then in session at Saint Francisville "exercising legislature powers."
The proclamation that Osborne and King carried with them for distribution in the "Republic of West Florida" read:
By the President of the United States of America.
"Whereas the territory south of the Mississippi Territory and eastward of the river Mississippi, and extending to the river Perdido, of which possession was not delivered to the United States in pursuance of the treaty concluded at Paris on the 30th of April, 1803, has at all times, as is well known, been considered and claimed by them as being within the colony of Louisiana conveyed by the said treaty in the same extent that it had in the hands of Spain and that it had when France originally possessed it; and
"Whereas the acquiescence of the United States in the temporary continuance of the said territory under the Spanish authority was not the result of any distrust of their title, as has been particularly evinced by the general tenor of their laws and by the distinction made in the application of those laws between that territory and foreign countries, but was occasioned by their conciliatory views and by a confidence in the justice of their cause and in the success of candid discussions and amicable negotiation with a just and friendly power; and
"Whereas a satisfactory adjustment, too long delayed, without the fault of the United States, has for some time been entirely suspended by events over which they had no control; and
"Whereas a crisis has at length arrived subversive of the order of things under the Spanish authorities, whereby a failure of the United States to take the said territory into its possession may lead to events ultimately contravening the views of both parties, whilst in the meantime the tranquility and security of our adjoining territories are endangered and new facilities given to violations of our revenue and commercial laws and of those prohibiting the introduction of slaves;
"Considering, moreover, that under these peculiar and imperative circumstances a forbearance on the part of the United States to occupy the territory in question, and hereby guard against the confusions and contingencies which threaten it, might be construed into a dereliction of their title or an insensibility to the importance of the stake; considering that in the hands of the United States it will not cease to be a subject of fair and friendly negotiation and adjustment; considering, finally, that the acts of Congress, though contemplating a present possession by a foreign authority, have contemplated also an eventual possession of the said territory by the United States, and are accordingly so framed as in that case to extend in their operation to the same.
"Now be it known that I, James Madison, President of the United States of America, in pursuance to these weighty and urgent considerations, have deemed it right and requisite that possession should be taken of the said p135territory in the name and behalf of the United States. William C. C. Claiborne, governor of the Orleans Territory, of which the said territory is to be taken as part, will accordingly proceed to execute the same and to exercise over the same Territory the authority and functions legally appertaining to his office; and the good people inhabiting the same are invited and enjoined to pay due respect to him in that character, to be obedient to the laws, to maintain order, to cherish harmony, and in every manner to conduct themselves as peaceable citizens, under full assurance that they will be protected in the enjoyment of their liberty, property, and religion.
"In testimony whereof I have caused the seal of the United States to be hereunto affixed, and signed the same with my hand.
[seal] Done at the City of Washington, the 27th day of October, A.D. 1810, and in the thirty-fifth year of the Independence of the said United States.
By the President:
Secretary of State."
By this proclamation, which Henry Adams designated as one of the most remarkable documents in the archives of the United States government, Madison had authorized, by a few strokes of his pen, the seizure of territory belonging to "a just and friendly power", having legislated for a foreign people without consulting their wishes, sent a sharp message to the Conventionalists through Governor Holmes, to the effect that their independence was an impertinence, and that their designs on public lands were something worse.
The news that the United States had claimed West Florida, after seven years of dilly-dallying, reached the members of the General Assembly and came up for consideration immediately. On the 5th of December the members of the whole assembly passed the following resolution:
"Whereas, information has been received that his excellency, Wm. C. C. Claiborne, Governor of the Territory of Orleans, with an armed force is now in the neighborhood of this Territory, and that certain proclamations have been distributed by his orders, bearing the signature of the President of the United States, calling upon the inhabitants of this state to receive and respect the said Wm. C. C. Claiborne as the governor and to consider themselves to owe allegiance and subjection to the government of the United States: Resolved, that the governor be requested to dispatch an agent immediately to the headquarters of the said Wm. C. C. Claiborne, with instructions to demand of him an explicit avowal of his views and intentions, and of the orders he may have received from the President of the United States with regard to this state, and by what authority he has given orders for the distribution of the aforesaid proclamation within the same.
John W. Leonard,
President pro Tem. of the Senate.
Skipwith designated John H. Johnson as the messenger of the West Florida Assembly and addressed the members with a stirring speech p136in which he referred to their previous willingness to be received as a separate state or territory or to become a part of either Orleans or Mississippi, and he resented the fact that Madison had shown such little deference to the already installed authorities. He declared that in the steps they had taken they had acted wholly within their rights and, so they felt, in accord with the wishes of the American people. In bitterly resenting the president's proclamation Skipwith asked the members of the Assembly to unite with him "in expressing towards the proclamation the mutual sentiments and honest feelings of freemen." He declared they had a right to "self-government, despite the imperative tone in which the president summoned them to submit to the Orleans governor."
The members of the General Assembly thereupon declared that the form of annexation that had been proposed by the Convention was the only one that could give the United States a perfect title to the territory and, while they were ready to unite with the people of Orleans Territory, they would not betray their constituents and dishonor their cause by accepting President Madison's proposals. They assured Governor Skipwith that they were ready "to unite with him in proper resistance."
While the assembly was fuming and calling Jimmy Madison harsh names, Governor Claiborne arrived in a barge at Pointe Coupée with two army officers and 33 regulars, where he was joined by Governor Holmes and Audley L. Osborne, the latter his messenger to the Feliciana country with the presidential proclamation. Holmes had passed through Saint Francisville and told Claiborne that his arrival and contemplated action was the subject of general conversation. Many had sided with Skipwith in being dissatisfied with the tenor of the proclamation and while he, Holmes, had explained it satisfactorily to some, Governor Skipwith refused to be mollified and, accompanied by three or four members of the Assembly, had left Saint Francisville for Baton Rouge.
When John Johnson greeted Claiborne at Pointe Coupée the Feliciana leader said that he, personally, was gratified with the terms of the proclamation but said, so Claiborne wrote Madison, "he was charged with a message from Governor Skipwith which he held in his hand and gave me. I told John that, as a citizen, Skipwith would be respected but I would not recognize him as governor and commander in chief, nor enter into correspondence with him but that he, Johnson, had my permission and was requested to say to the people that I came among them with views most friendly. The president's proclamation, which they had seen, was my authority, and that I would proceed immediately to discharge my duties required of me."
To this Johnson replied: "Governor Skipwith has charged me verbally to inform you that he has retired to the fort of Baton Rouge, and rather than surrender the Country unconditionally and without terms, he would, with 20 men only, if a greater force could not be procured p137surround the Flag Staff and die in defense of the Lone Star flag!"
Claiborne says he made no reply to this verbal message from Skipwith but requested Johnson to repeat the words. After he had done so, Johnson again took the opportunity to express his devotion to the United States government and urged Claiborne to cross to Saint Francisville where he would find a troop of militia cavalry, a company of Riflemen and a concourse of citizens who would welcome his arrival in the territory and would, with pleasure, recognize Claiborne as their governor.
Audley L. Osborne was sent across the river to ascertain whether or not Johnson had correctly felt the public pulse. On his return he reported that the presence of Governor Claiborne would give the inhabitants great satisfaction. "I will further state to your excellency," said Osborne, "that the great point, at which the disaffected seem to stickle, is that the State of Florida should be treated with as an independent nation, and that certain terms should be granted to them by your excellency before they could submit to become citizens of the United States, and come under your authority." Thereupon, accompanied by Governor Holmes, John H. Johnson, Colonel Covington, and his armed escort, Claiborne crossed the river. From his own pen we can learn how he was received and what he did:
"I was met by citizens at the beach and escorted by cavalry and militia to the town. There I saw a pavilion waving which was said to be the Colors of the State of Florida. The militia formed around the staff, I appeared in center and the proclamation being read by a citizen, I said to militia, 'that having come among them as their Governor and Commander in Chief charged by the President of the U. S. to protect them in the enjoyment of their liberty, property, and religion, I had only to observe that it would be my pride and glory to discharge with fidelity so high a trust.' The flag of Florida was then ordered by me to be taken down, which was done, the Militia and Citizens cheering (as a mark of respect) as it descended. I then ordered a flag of the United States, which I had taken from my barge, to be reared, which was also done amid the huzzas of the Militia and Citizens."
And so the Star fell in Feliciana at the very spot that witnessed its rising, and for the first time, December 7, 1810, the stars and stripes of the United States flew over West Florida soil.
Independence was lost but independence was gained — if such a paradoxical situation can be so expressed.
Once established in Saint Francisville, Claiborne set about to prove himself the chief executive and boss of this new United States possession.
His very first official act was the drawing up and making public an ordinance designating the late Spanish holdings below the 31° line, from p138the mighty Mississippi eastward to the purling Perdido river, its shores on the south lapped by the blue green waters of the Gulf of Mexico — the County of Feliciana. Let us read it:
By William Charles Cole Claiborne, Governor of the Territory of Orleans.
To all who shall see these presents greeting:
Be it known by the virtues of the powers in me vested, I do hereby order and ordain that so much of the Territory of Orleans as lies 'south of the Mississippi Territory, and Eastward of the river Mississippi, and extending to the Perdido' shall constitute one county, to be known and called by the name of Feliciana.
Given under my hand and the seal of the town of St. Francisville, in the territory aforesaid, one thousand eight hundred and ten and in the thirty-fifth year of the Independence of the U. States of America.
Wm. C. C. Claiborne.
This accomplished the new governor gave his attention to the more pressing business of conciliating the objecting officials of the now defunct Free State of West Florida. Claiborne wrote the president on this subject the very day he raised the flag of the United States over Saint Francisville and it is interesting to note his reactions to the events of that day. So let us look over his shoulder as he takes crow quill in hand and follow the inked words:
"This part of the District of Florida the most populous, is believed attached to the United States and to be greatly pleased with the event of the day. How far a like disposition may manifest itself at the town of Baton Rouge and its vicinity, remains yet to be seen. No efforts which my Country's honor or my own permit will remain unessayed to induce Mr. Skipwith to abandon his ill-judged and rash purposes; Nor am I without strong hopes of succeeding. But if conciliatory measures should obstinately fail, the troops of the United States will be commanded to take the fort.
"I am not advised of the terms which Mr. Skipwith would propose, but among other things it is said he would wish a formal recognition of all the sales of lands under Spanish authorities; the payment of debts contracted by the constitution;º and not only a pardon for the deserters, but their discharge from the service of the U. S. The fort at Baton Rouge is garrisoned for the most part by Deserters, with them Mr. Skipwith may hope to make a desperate defense, but he ought not to expect that it is in their power, with him at their Head, to command terms. I have already said, that as related to Deserters, such as were found in the District should meet no punishment, but on the contrary should receive lenient treatment until the will of the president be known and I was full persuaded a pardon would be extended them, but, if they wish mercy, not to remain in arms."
As indicated in this letter to Madison, the new executive did not wish to have his occupation of the Baton Rouge fort bring on trouble. p139The declaration of Skipwith and some of the other members of the West Florida General Assembly that they "were determined sooner to perish under the falling star of Florida than to submit to the sacrifice and disgrace of any of their followers, not even the deserters from the American army, or suffer themselves to be given up to any Foreign Power," determined Claiborne on sending peace messengers ahead of his own armed approach. He wisely chose Governor David Holmes, together with "a few gentlemen of respectability" from St. Francisville, and Isaac Johnson's Feliciana Dragoons as escort, to conciliate those who were loud in their intention of refusing to accept President Madison's sudden and stunning move. So, a‑horseback, the peace party took to the long and dusty road that led over Thompson's Creek, through the Plains, and thence to Baton Rouge where the Lone Star still waved over the fort perched on the banks of the turgid Mississippi.
Skipwith had arrived at the Baton Rouge fort the day before Holmes and his escort got there. The "governor" of West Florida found that Captain John Ballinger, in command of the forces in the fort, had arrested Claiborne's messenger, William King, for distributing Madison's proclamation, Ballinger believing Mr. King was distributing a forgery designed by the Spanish to throw the Floridians into confusion. Skipwith at once ordered that King be released and then sat himself down to crow quill and paper and eased his badly lacerated feeling by a long letter to President Madison, in which he admitted that he personally desired to maintain peace and order in West Florida while working for its "honorable return to the bosom of the parent country" but at the same time he strove to "secure for the United States a fair and legitimate title" to West Florida. He warned the president that he and his liberty-loving associates would resist dishonor, repel any wanton outrage to their feelings," and would assert the rights of their adopted country should circumstances require it.
The next day, however, when Holmes entered Baton Rouge and went into conference with him and Ballinger, Skipwith exhibited a change of demeanor when Ballinger expressed his willingness to surrender the fort to the American forces. As they left the meeting place word was brought to Holmes and Skipwith that five American gunboats carrying Colonel Covington's regulars and Governor Claiborne had been sighted •two miles up the river and the soldiers were landing. When Holmes met Claiborne he handed the Orleans executive a letter from Skipwith expressing his gratification over the prospect of West Florida being annexed to the United States, but he defended his course and again protested against Claiborne's methods as an outrage against the Lone Star Flag and the constitution of West Florida.
Nor would he give an order to the Florida troops to lower their own flag, but he directed them not to resist the American forces: "as a native of United States he would never sign an order that would lead to the shedding of a single drop of American blood!"
Let us again rely upon Claiborne's own words in picturing the p140scene that saw the final "falling of the Star" and the first raising of the flag of fifteen stars and fifteen stripes over Baton Rouge:
"My last letter informed you that peaceable possession was taken on the 10th of the Town, Fort and District of Baton Rouge in the name and in behalf of the United States . . . I had reasons to apprehend resistance, and was prepared to meet it; But on landing near the Town the agreeable intelligence was brought to me that the armed Citizens (called here the Convention Troops) were ready to retire from the Fort, and to acknowledge the authority of the United States. It was not understood by me that terms were insisted on; but a wish was expressed that the Florida flag might be treated with respect, and the deserters unmolested. In answer I requested that the fort be evacuated at half past two o'clock, and that the citizens should march out and stack their arms.
"As to the flag I readily assented that on striking it, such evidences of respect might be shown as the armed citizens of the Fort thought proper. And with regard to the deserters I stated that they should remain undisturbed, until the president's pleasure respecting them should be made known. At three the fort was taken possession of by a Detachment of United States troops.
"Mr. Skipwith's conduct continues correct. When I first apprized him of the proclamation his feelings were, I presume, wounded, and betrayed him into some imprudence of expression. But from what I have since learned, the Union of Florida with the United States has always been his avowed object, and he now professes to be much gratified by the late event, and to be sincerely disposed to contribute to the general welfare.
"I have seen and conversed with Gen. Thomas, the Ajax of the late revolution, & who has always been esteemed an honest man; He declared that the great object he had in view was now accomplished and that no man more than himself rejoiced in taking possession of the Country by the U. S. I find that the most influential among the convention party are very generally the friends of the United States. There are others, who are hand and heart devoted to the British interests and whenever occasion favors it, by their acts evince their dislike of American institutions."
So, after an existence of 74 days,a a short life but a merry one, the stout little republic of West Florida had ceased to be one of the nations of the world. The closing scenes that marked the demise of this Tom Thumb republicb were as dramatic as those that had witnessed its birth. Exactly at two-thirty in the afternoon of December tenth, the whole force of four hundred men (for the expeditionary force that had started eastward to subject the land beyond the Pearl had marched back) with their muskets at shoulder, gathered about the white staff in the center of the parade in the fort. As the Lone Star descended the pole the muskets crashed out a volley. Then, in obedience to low commands the men tramped out of the gates and formed in line in the esplanade, stacked their arms, laid off their accoutrements, and were marched by their officers into the village and were dismissed.
p141 A half hour later, led by Colonel Leonard Covington and Lieutenant Colonel Zebulon Montgomery Pike, the United States troops marched into the deserted fortification and formed a hollow square about the bare staff. Governor Claiborne, accompanied by Governor David Holmes, and a few citizens, raised his hand in command and a color sergeant fixed the halyards to a new banner and a flag of fifteen stars and fifteen stripes rose into the blue of the sky. When it reached the peak a crashing volley from the muskets of the uniformed soldiers, and twenty-one measured blasts from a field piece, mingled with the cheers from the members of the late garrison, saluted the new emblem of sovereignty.
The Seventh Flag
The flag that succeeded the Lone Star flag of independent West Florida had fifteen stripes and fifteen stars; the return to the original design of thirteen stripes was not made until 1818. The 15 stars shown on the first "Stars and Stripes" to fly over Feliciana included the original thirteen states plus Vermont and Kentucky
Indecision, strife, delay, bloodshed was over — West Florida was, after seven long years, actually a part of the Louisiana Purchase!
No sooner had Claiborne established himself as governor of this new part of his territory than his other troubles began. He must immediately provide for self-government. His first act was to name the new area and as we have seen he proclaimed everything below the Mississippi Territory's southern boundary from the Mississippi to the Perdido River, "The County of Feliciana."
It was necessary that judges for the different parishes be selected to rule under the judicial system of the United States and, of course, there was a rush of would‑be judges. His selection as judge of East Baton Rouge parish was George Mather, Sr., an Englishman by birth, who for 35 years had been an inhabitant of Baton Rouge and New Orleans. Doctor Andrew Steele was temporarily made judge of Feliciana parish, but for the parishes of St. Helena and St. Tammany (for such was the name Claiborne fastened on the section formerly called Chifuncté and then St. Ferdinand) he did not indicate a choice. "There is in that quarter a great scarcity of talent, and the number of virtuous men (I fear) is not as great as I could wish," he complained.
p142 Nor did the new executive have the privilege of releasing Don Carlos de Lassus from "durance vile," for the day before Claiborne reached Baton Rouge, Skipwith freed the former Spanish governor, and de Lassus immediately went across the river to friends living in Pointe Coupée. "He is greatly chagrined at the loss of the Fort and Country," wrote Claiborne, "and is so apprehensive that his misfortunes will be looked upon as crimes by his Government, that he seems desirous to remain for the present under the protection of the United States."
Don Carlos had reason for such fears, as he was afterwards court martialed and sentenced to death, but he did not die for he refused to attend the court martial and remained in New Orleans, at the home of his sister, the wife of Pierre Derbigny (afterwards a governor of Louisiana). A year after he had been deposed as governor, he married Adélaide Féliciana Mariana Leonard, daughter of Gilbert Leonard and sister of John W. Leonard.c Carlos de Lassus never returned to Spanish soil. He lived for a while in New Orleans, then took up his residence in Saint Louis, where he had once governed, but later returned to the Crescent City where he remained a conspicuous figure until his death in 1842 in his seventy-eighth year. He left a single child, his son, Charles Auguste de Hault de Lassus, who married into the Blanque family and left many descendants in New Orleans bearing his name.
Claiborne, wanting to do something handsome for Fulwar Skipwith, offered him the post of justice of the peace in Baton Rouge, but the later governor of West Florida refused the post. In later years he became registrar of the land office at Montpelier, serving as a clearing house for all land claims west of the Pearl river. Following the events concerned with the days of the West Florida Republic Skipwith recovered the fortune he lost in France. In his late years on the plantation, he and his wife, the Flemish Countess Vandenclooster, were "not living together as harmoniously as two cooing doves," and his children, in these domestic broils, took sides with the mother, so wrote Henry Skipwith, of Clinton, his nephew, who also describes his uncle in the following priceless pen-etching:
"Fulwar Skipwith retained to the last one of the characteristics most essential to a ruler of families or States. He was the most methodical man in his habits I ever met. From early morn to dewy eve he was out on foot attending personally to all the plantation affairs. At candle-light he and his young associate would meet by the parlor fireside, on each side of which was a chair of some fancy model for his nephew, and on the opposite side was a cushioned big-armed, high-backed veritable chair of state, and when the governor reclined himself cosily in his old familiar seat, memories of Marly, Versailles, Paris, Bonaparte, Barras, Siéyès, and Talleyrand flowed from his mouth in polished phrase as smoothly as a water from a gurgling fountain.
"On one side of the chair of state was placed a small round table on which his servants had placed a long candle in a high candlestick, a large decanter of water, a sugar p143dish and tongs, a decanter holding a quart of whiskey, and a large meerschaum, by the side of which reposed a tiny tobacco pouch. On the other side of the chair of state was placed a basket full of seed-cotton and an empty basket to hold the cotton seed when picked. To pick that basket of cotton was the task of the evening. He might engage in animated narratives of interviews with the First Consul or the Emperor, or with some other great men of those days of great deeds, but the cotton picking went on mechanically and monotonously all the same. He never paused in his task while drawing the most fascinating pictures selected from the wildest panorama ever enacted on the human stage. He did not even pause in his task of cotton picking to mix himself a drink. That indispensable part of the drama devolved upon his young relative who had become familiar with the properties of whiskey, sugar, and water by nightly practice in mixing for the old gentleman.
"As the night wore on the results began to be more clearly developed. The candle was flickering in its socket. The water decanter was empty, the sugar dish was empty, the whiskey decanter was empty, the tobacco pouch was empty, and the basket of seed-cotton was empty. But the basket of picked seed was nearly full, and the Governor was quite full!
Nevertheless, after bidding his nephew a ceremonious good night, he would back himself out of room with all the grace of a courier of the ancien régime. When the curtain dropped on this last act of the mighty drama, he was as majestic, dignified, and graceful in his carriage, he was as logical and entertaining in his pictures drawn from memory, as he was at the start; neither time, talk, nor whiskey had the power to unsteady the legs of the late Governor of West Florida!
"To the very last he was in act, in deed, and in graceful carriage the Consul of the Republic and the Governor of the free and independent State of West Florida."
A day or two after Claiborne took charge and West Florida became a part of the United States, the anonymous but verbose correspondent of the "Louisiana Gazette," that very informative "Bayou Sarah Planter," sent the New Orleans newspaper the following resumé:
"When revolutions convulse a country, it is very difficult to trace the cause of its original source; the recent but small revolution in West Florida needs explanation — feeling myself sufficiently furnished with information on the subject, I offer to the public, through your Gazette, a narrative of facts as they have occurred. As I am little acquainted with writing for public prints, pardon will be granted me for the many inaccuracies which may appear in my detail, when I pledge myself for the truth of my statement.
"From the spring of 1808, immediately after the capture of Charles the fourth, and his son, Ferdinand the seventh, by the Corsican tyrant, a general distrust and want of confidence was mutually evinced between the Executive of Baton Rouge and the people. The people had long thought that the Governor, who had all powers, executive and judicial in his hands, like scales inclined to the side from p144which he received most; this opinion was supported by strong evidence. Governor Grand Pre then presided as Governor. He was suspected of favoring the views of the usurper Napoleon, and was ordered to the Havana, where he paid the debt of nature. Here let me say in honor of his memory, that he was a soldier, a man gentlemanly in his manners, and possessed handsome talents.
"Colonel Lassus succeeded Grand Pre, and the people had hopes of some change in their favor, but alas! they were deceived. Lassus had long practiced in the Spanish school of bribery and had studied duplicity, which he practiced like a proficient in the art. He promised everything and performed nothing. Timid, fearful and intriguing; he held out to the people everything, while he was using all his diplomatic powers to crush their hopes and views.
"The public are well acquainted with the different meetings of the convention, all of which General Lassus went with them hand in hand apparently. The new system of jurisprudence was among the first objects of the convention. The judges named to associate with Gov. Lassus were, Fulwar Skipwith, Robert Percy, and Shepherd Brown, the latter named gentleman, it appears, was in all the secrets and intrigues of Lassus; he procrastinated his acceptance from time to time. Nature had done well for this man; fitted him well for intrigue. With a constant smile upon his countenance, he kept the members of the convention in full belief that he was a great admirer of their new measures, that he would most willingly go with them in all the proposed reform. This was in the latter part of the month August or the beginning of September. The members of the convention fully impressed with the belief that everything was tranquil, that all classes of virtuous good citizens were disposed to accede to their regulations, adjourned, leaving a committee at Baton Rouge to attend to the business that immediately related to the reform; such as the organization of the militia, taxation, &c.
"When Gov. Lassus was called upon for his signature in any case by the committee, he always made some plausible excuse of delay — in the meantime his friend Shepherd Brown quit Baton Rouge without accepting his appointment as judge, retaining his old appointment as civil commandant of St. Helena (Footnote: *The day of his departure he observed to Capt. Medzenger 'that the Bayou-Sarah people would be the better of having a little blood drawn,' meaning that they were rather inflammatory.)
"Suspicion was awakened, the committee found they were about to be overreached, that Governor Lassus was corresponding with Governor Folch, that Brown, after his return to St. Helena, was using every means in his power to prepossess the people against the new order of things; and at the same time was preparing for war, making pikes, building forts, &c. The committee, fully convinced of the bad faith of Lassus and Brown, quit Baton Rouge, and on the 21st of September collected such members of the convention as were within a short distance of St. Francisville, mouth of Bayou Sarah. Time at this moment was precious — the members of the convention who had been active in promoting the new system wasº denounced, and well knowing that if force would be collected to oppose the system with effect, that they must either leave their country, abandon their wives and children, and forfeit all their property, p145or be loaded with irons and sent to Morro Castle, at Havana. That night, the 21st of September, six members of the convention were convened at St. Francisville — this was all that could be convened at this all important crisis — let their names be recorded, they shall stand in the front rank of freemen. Firmness and independence that day marked their actions. John Rhea, John H. Johnson, Philip Hickey, John Mills, Thomas Lilley and William Barrow, were the men who gave the order to General Thomas to take the fort at Baton Rouge; and with the zeal and promptitude of a veteran, he executed the order at 3 o'clock on the morning of the 23rd of September, and had to collect his troops and march •forty miles, which he did in the short space of thirteen hours.
"Some plodding mortals may say that there was a degree of hardihood in those men bordering on desperation. This I deny — they acted as honest and firm men ought always to do in a good cause.
"It is obvious that the taking of the fort, and the declaration of independence, roused the administration of the United States from their lethargy — and post haste their messenger came to give that protection which had so long been withheld. Before I close, it is proper that I should state that no disapprobation on the part of the other members of the convention was shewn, on the contrary, they most heartily concurred in the order given General Thomas.
"West Florida is now an integral part of the U. States, The people will be good citizens ever loyal and faithful to the government who protects their rights and administers justice with a steady hand.
A Bayou-Sarah planter."
Three days before Christmas, Claiborne named the parishes of the new County of Feliciana he had established December 7, when at Saint Francisville. His proclamation read:
"Be it known, That 'for the execution of process civil and criminal' I do, by virtue of the powers in me vested, under the Ordinance of Congress, for the government of the Territory of Orleans, Ordain and Decree, that there shall be established within the county of Feliciana four parishes, whose limits shall be as follows, to‑wit: all that tract of country lying below the boundary of the Mississippi Territory, and between the most eastern branch of Thompson's Creek and the River Mississippi, shall form the first Parish, and shall be called the Parish of Feliciana; all that tract of country lying between the most eastern branch of Thompson's Creek and the River Iberville, and extending from the Mississippi to the Amite, shall form the Second Parish, to be called the Parish of East Baton Rouge; all that tract of country lying below the boundary of the Mississippi Territory and between the Amite and River Ponchitoola, which empties into the Lake Maurepas, shall form the Third Parish, to be called the Parish of St. Helena; and all that tract of country east of the Ponchitoola, including the settlements on the Chiffonta, Bogcheto and Pearl Rivers, shall form the Fourth Parish, to be called the Parish of St. Tammany; with the p146residue of the County of Feliciana there shall be formed such other Parishes as may hereafter be deemed expedient.
"Given under my hand and seal at Baton Rouge on the twenty-second of December, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and ten, and of the Independence of the United States of America the thirty-fifth.
William C. C. Claiborne."
In such fashion was the name Saint Tammany fastened on Louisiana. It was the name of a celebrated sachem or chief of the Delaware Indians named Tamanend or "Tammany" as it was afterwards spelled, meaning in the Delaware tongue "the Affable." Even before the American War of Independence there were certain Whig societies called "Sons of Liberty" and "Sons of Saint Tammany" because this Indian sachem had been adopted by these sons of liberty as their patron saint and celebrated his festival on the first of May. They worked their meetings p147with rituals in which Indian words were used to indicate the American character of their lodges. In 1789 an Irishman named Mooney organized the "Society of St. Tammany" or "Columbian Order," as a patriotic, benevolent, and non-political organization, with the avowed intent of counteracting the influence of what was believed to be the more aristocratic "Order of Cincinnati." This St. Tammany society built its own meeting place, which it appropriately called a wigwam, but it was not itself the well-known New York political organization but rents its hall to the "Tammany Hall General Committee", the "Tammany Hall" of political notoriety.
Why Claiborne did not wish to continue the name of the Spanish king on the land lying between the "Ponchitoola" and the Pearl rivers is quite plain, but it is not quite so understandable why he selected the name of an Indian chief of the East when he could have selected a southern Indian, if an Indian name he must have. The probabilities are that he was a member of the Society of Saint Tammany and did not hold membership in the more snooty Order of Cincinnati, and, as there were so many "sons of liberty" mixed up in the revolt that wrested this land from Spain, he believed that a good American, a good Whig name should replace that of Ferdinand the seventh.
It will be noted that Claiborne's proclamation reduced the area of Feliciana to the very territory occupied by the present-day parish of West Feliciana, and enlarged the parish of Baton Rouge so that it ran north to the Mississippi line. Naturally, the Feliciana folk resented p148this and John H. Johnson and Judge John Rhea wrote Claiborne about the sudden shrinking of their prized area. So, on the last day of January the governor promised to do something about it:
"I have heard with sincere regret that in laying out the Parish of Feliciana, I have greatly curtailed its ancient limits and subjected many Citizens to inconvenience by placing them within the Bounds of East Baton Rouge. Will you be pleased to furnish me with your Sentiments on this subject. In prescribing the Bounds of Parishes, my sole object was to consult the convenience of the Inhabitants; and if unfortunately that end has not been attained we must endeavor to correct the wrong as soon as may be practicable."
On January fourth Claiborne had decided on the names and limits of the parishes east of the Pearl River, and he decreed: "all that tract of country which extends from the eastern bank of Pearl River to the River Veloxy and below the boundary of the Mississippi Territory, shall form the fifth parish and be called the Parish of Veloxy; and all that tract of country which extends from the eastern bank of the Veloxy River to the Bayou Batrieº (including all the settlements on the Bayou Batrie and the Pascagoula) shall form the sixth parish, to be called the Parish of Pascagoula."
On the 26th of January, after a series of protests had reached him from the Gulf Coast, Claiborne issued a supplementary note in which he ordained and decreed: "that the Parish of Pascagoula, whose eastern boundary was declared to be by ordinance of Jan. 4 the Bayou Batrie, shall . . . be extended to the Rio Perro, or Dog River, and that all the settlements east of said river shall hereafter be included in the Parish of Pascagoula."
The governor had left Baton Rouge and was at the Government House in New Orleans when he penned these ordinances. He had remained in the new County of Feliciana until the day before Christmas and won many friends and admirers by his exercise of sound judgment after taking possession of the late Republic of West Florida, and his course of conciliation did much to heal wounded feelings and broken heads. A slight insight is given of his character at this period if we read a letter he wrote President Madison just before he left Baton Rouge. "I set out for New Orleans to encounter the ensuing winter, all the intrigues and all the calumny of Clark & Co., who have at their command every newspaper in New Orleans but the Courier, most of the third party men, and the disappointed Office Hunters, and every Burrite in the Territory. But this coalition gives me no concern. It will be in my power, I trust, to maintain my ground against all my enemies."
In New Orleans Claiborne was forced to give serious consideration to a proper judicial system for the County of Feliciana; it was first proposed to attach it to the Pointe Coupée jurisdiction, but on April 10, 1811, the governor established the Seventh Superior Court to include the entire county of Feliciana from the River Mississippi to the Perdido, the same river that today marks the boundary between the states of p149Alabama and Florida, and the act provided that the court "shall be holden in and for the Seventh District, on first Mondays of March and August, at the town of Saint Francisville."
John H. Johnson was appointed by Claiborne as High Sheriff of the Feliciana County, and Dr. Andrew Steele, who had been sitting as judge of the Feliciana parish, was replaced by Judge John Rhea, president of the convention, on January 19, 1811. When George Mather resigned as judge of East Baton Rouge Parish, Doctor Steele was named to that bench. Audley L. Osborne, who had been Claiborne's messenger when the president's proclamation was distributed, was made judge of the Ste. Helena Parish on January 14, and held sway over Saint Tammany as well until July 18, the governor appointed Thomas C. Warren to be judge of the territory between the Tanchipoa and the Pearl.
As the County of Feliciana was now officially a part of the Territory of Orleans it was only meet and proper that its citizens should have a say in the government, therefore they were given, by act of legislature and the governor's approval, the right of representation.
Providing for the Election of Representatives from the Country between the Territories of Mississippi and Orleans, and between the Rivers Mississippi and Perdido, to the general assembly of the Territory of Orleans.
Whereas possession of the said country has been recently taken by the authority and in the name of the American Government; and wherefore we are instructed that it forms a component part of this territory; and whereas all the duties as well as the rights, privileges and immunities of our citizens having been devolved on the inhabitants of that country, it is just and reasonable that they should be fully and fairly represented in the councils of the country by whose laws they are governed.
Sect. 1 Be it enacted by the Legislative Council and House of Representatives of the Territory of Orleans in general assembly convened, That until the population of said tract of country, now known by the name of County of Feliciana, shall be more particularly ascertained, the said county shall be entitled to five Representatives, who shall be elected from the following parishes, according to the laws and regulations in force in this Territory and at such time and places in said parishes as the Governor shall in his writs of election direct, to‑wit:
Three Representatives from the parishes of Feliciana and East Baton Rouge, which comprehends all the country between the lower line of the Mississippi Territory and the Iberville and extends from the river Mississippi to the Amite.
One Representative from the Parishes of St. Helena and St. Tammany, which extends from the Amite so as to include Ponchitoula, the settlement of Chefonta, Bogchito and Pearl Rivers;
And one Representative from Biloxi and Pascagoula, which comprehends all the residue of the said district, the p150said parishes being limited conformable to the ordinances of the Governor.
Speaker of House of Representatives.
Jean Noel Destrehan
Pres. of the Legislative Council.
Approved February 5, 1811.
William C. C. Claiborne,
Governor of the Territory of Orleans.
To date I have found no record of such elections being held nor any names of those who might have been chosen to represent the new country.
However, on April 24, 1811, Claiborne made good his word given Sheriff John H. Johnson and Judge John Rhea and by an act of legislature enlarged the Parish of Feliciana and reduced the area of East Baton Rouge. The act provided that the "County of Feliciana" should be divided into six parishes. "The First shall be called the Parish of Feliciana, lying between the lower line of the Mississippi Territory to the mouth of Thompson's Creek, and a line running thence due East to the River Amite, and its Western boundaries shall be the Mississippi River."
East Baton Rouge was designated as the area lying between "the Parish of Feliciana and the Iberville and between Mississippi and Amite." St. Helena was bounded by the 31° line on the north, its western and eastern boundaries being Amite and Tanchipao, and on the south by Lake Pontchartrain. Everything east of the Tanchipao to the Pearl River, constituted the Parish of St. Tammany. The act went on to state "That the fifth shall be called the Parish of Biloxi, lying South of the Mississippi Territory and extending from the Pearl River to the river falling into the Bay of Biloxi", while Pascagoula was named as "East from the river falling into the Bay of Biloxi, including all the remainder of the County of Feliciana."
And so matters remained for a twelve-month, when the state of Louisiana was formed and the territory east of the Pearl was apportioned to Mississippi and Alabama. However it cost the citizens something to be a part and parcel of the Territory of Orleans for the legislative council decided that the County of Feliciana should pay as a portion of the territorial tax, the sum of $6,000 per annum, and 75 cents a head for each slave a citizen owned.
All went well with the new American Territory and the citizens settled down to their regular pursuits, secure in their belief that strife and trouble were buried in the past. However, in March of 1811, the inhabitants of Feliciana were once more on the verge of insurrection. Congressman Bibb of Georgia, in the national congress, was energetically backing a bill that would make the former West Florida a part of the Mississippi Territory, while Congressman Rhea of Tennessee held that the West Florida that was should be made a part of Orleans Territory. The debate waxed furious and finally, when a bill was passed p151admitting Orleans Territory as a state, no provision was made for West Florida! Although considered a part of Louisiana, it did not figure in that state's admission to the Union!d
To suitably express their resentment the Feliciana folk on Sunday, March 17, once more raised the Lone Star flag at Saint Francisville. Governor Claiborne apprised of this fact wrote Secretary Smith:
"I learn that some of the inhabitants of St. Francisville have lately conducted themselves very improperly and that among other acts of great indiscretion they had reared the Florida flag. It, however, was soon taken down, without producing any serious commotion by the orders of Gen. Hampton, and the pavilion of the United States again displayed. The people of Feliciana are greatly dissatisfied at the proposition made in Congress to separate them from the territory of Orleans. It occasions many good citizens to believe that their political destiny is yet uncertain; and the base and designing are incessant in their efforts to promote discontent."
A fuller account of this "revolt" was printed in the Natchez "Chronicle", which was picked up by the "Louisiana Gazette" for Orleanians who were still greatly interested in everything occurring in the territory that had so lately been the scene of momentous happenings. Said the Crescent City newsprint:
"By a gentleman who left St. Francisville on Tuesday last, we learn that a curious circumstance took place on Sunday. On that morning when the inhabitants arose, they were astonished to find the flag of Florida again waving at the top of the flag-staff; but as there had been many mischievous pranks played for several nights previous, no person in town tho't any more of it than a continuance of those pranks; under the impression, no person attempted to take it down, and more particularly as there was no getting at it, unless by climbing the staff, which was •at least 60 feet high, or by felling it. In the course of the day, however, some gentlemen having rode into the country, found that some uneasy sensations had been created, and a belief was likely to become current that it was reared in opposition to the government. In the evening, on their return, a few persons viewing the thing more serious, resolved on cutting down the staff. The cutting down of the staff was opposed on the ground of it being private property; this contention was likely to produce a serious riot when very happily Gen. Hampton and Lieu. Hukill arrived in town. The general immediately called on the civil officer, and stating that he considered the flag then flying an insult to his government, desired that it might be ordered down. The civil officer accordingly repaired to the flag-staff, where the right of private property was again contended for. The Gen. observed that if the flag was not taken down by the civil power, he would have a detachment of troops to do it the next day. The civil magistrate then ordered the staff to be cut down, which was done instanter.
"The day following at 3 o'clock P.M., a few of those who were at the storming of Baton Rouge, buried the flag p152in a private lot, with great ceremony. A procession was formed, after having placed the flag in its coffin, and marched around the stump of the flag-staff, moved to the grave, where it was deposited, and three volleys of musketry fired over it. Our informant adds that they had written an epitaph for the tomb, which was said to evince some genius, but he could not procure a copy."
The Feliciana folk, or at least a goodly portion of them, continued restless and impatient over the slowness of Congress to act and many movements were suggested to bring about a more prompt action upon admission and, what was more to the point, a settlement of the debts contracted by the Conventionalists by the parent government.
In September of 1811, Governor Claiborne visited the region and persuaded the citizens to remain calm and compel the impatient ones to follow suit. On the second of that month he wrote Secretary of State James Monroe from Saint Francisville:
A news-paper here called 'The Time Piece', has assumed a shape by no means calculated to conciliate the affections of the people toward the government. The Editor possesses Genius, but neither Judgment nor discretion. [This editor was James M. Bradford, who established the first newspaper in Saint Francisville. S. C. A.] This paper teems with abuse of Congress & their conduct toward West Florida is represented as wrongful and oppressive. That these publications have made some injurious impressions is certain, but I have reasons to believe, that the great Majority of the people, remain firm in their Attachment to the Government & the Administration. It is understood that a general meeting of the Citizens is to take place on the 26th of this Month to Celebrate the Capture of the Fort by the Conventionalists, & that the occasion will be embraced by some restless Individuals, to obtain adoption of some inflammatory Resolutions; I however, rely with confidence on the patriotism & good sense of the Cultivators of the soil, & I persuade myself that the Intriguers will not be enabled to do mischief. I have seen at this place Mr. John Rhea, formerly President of the Convention, & at present Judge of the Parish of Feliciana. He is a prudent, judicious, well disposed Man, & seems to be much attached to the Government of the United States. He spoke to me of the Debts of the Convention, & expressed a great desire that the Government would direct their payment. I told him that I had already apprized the President of the Nature of their Debts, & that I sincerely hoped some provision would be made to meet them, but I was inclined to think the present an unfavorable period to press the subject, & that the persons interested, had better wait until the Government had come to some understanding with Foreign Nations relative to the possession of Florida."
Later Claiborne, in writing John H. Johnson, told the sheriff of the Seventh Superior Court district, something about the progress of the convention that was planning the admission of the Territory of Orleans into the Union, and expressed his personal views and desires. "A decided majority of the Convention is in favor of annexing Florida p153to the New State, & a strong but respectful Memorial will, I suspect, be presented on the occasion to the Congress of the United States. For myself, there is no political event I more desire than that the eighteenth State may extend from the Sabine to the Perdido, & I indulge a hope that during the present or ensuing session of Congress, an Act may pass, which will recognize such Limits.
In December another meeting of the representatives of the people was called to convene again on historic St. John's Plains. John H. Johnson had evidently apprised Claiborne of the gathering, for on the 18th of that month the governor wrote him:
"The proposed meeting of the People at St. John's Plains, will be an interesting one, & I sincerely hope that the result may prove favorable to the welfare of the County of Feliciana. In the contemplated address to Congress, I trust the Citizens will not lose sight of the good old maxim 'Gentleness in the manner, but substance in the thing.' State your wishes, your rights & your grievances with firmness but with all that respect & Confidence due to a free, wise and virtuous government. Believe me, the government are most favorably disposed towards your District. I know the President has nothing more at heart, than the happiness of the People of West Florida and their permanent connection with the American family, nor do I doubt but a like sentiment is cherished by a Majority of the Members of the Senate & House of Representatives of the United States. For myself, you may rest assured of my zealous co-operation in whatever concerns the prosperity of Feliciana."
As a postscript he added that Congressman Magruder was planning to present a memorial to Congress praying that the tract west from the Perdido River under the Mississippi line would be permanently annexed to the Orleans Territory.
Finally, on April 12, 1812, the ninth anniversary of the day that by treaty of cession Louisiana was acquired by the United States, the Territory of Orleans became the State of Louisiana, and thereafter eighteen stars were displayed on the flag of the United States and the number of stripes reduced to the original thirteen. Four days after Congress approved the admission of the eighteenth state it passed an act to enlarge the limits of Louisiana by including that portion of West Florida from the Pearl to the Mississippi River within the new commonwealth.
In such fashion the "Florida Parishes" became a part of Louisiana, although the state's legislative assent to this inclusion bears the date of August 4, 1812, four months after the formal admission.
The raising of the Lone Star Flag at Saint Francisville on Sunday, March 17, 1811, was not the last time this banner was flung to the breeze in the Feliciana country; half a century later, at Jackson, Mississippi, January 6, 1861, the State of Mississippi, in convention assembled, voted to sever her alliance with the Union. No sooner had the clerk announced the vote of the delegates, than a man rushed through the crowded convention hall holding aloft a silken banner and p154thrust this in the hands of the presiding officer, who waved it before the cheering delegates and frenzied spectators.
The flag was a solid blue banner, having in its center a single white five-pointed star! The "Lone Star" of Feliciana and the Free State of West Florida had risen from the grave!
An Irish comedian, Harry McCarthy, by name, then playing at the Jackson theatre, was one of the spectators. Animated by the dramatic scene he had witnessed, McCarthy wrote words so that they would fit an old Scottish choral and sang them from the stage that night.e The words had to do with a "Bonnie Blue Flag." The next day colonel J. L. Power printed the verses in his newspaper, the song was sent to New Orleans for printing, and in another week crowds in New Orleans were singing:
"For Southern Rights, Hurrah!
"Hurrah for the Bonnie Blue Flag
"That bears a Single Star!"f
From that time on the Lone Star Flag of the Feliciana patriots became the best beloved of the many flags of the Confederacy.
Here, abruptly, ends my story of the West Florida Rebellion, one of the brightest pages (if a forgotten one) in Louisiana's book of colorful history, an event crammed with romantic and adventure, of bright deeds and daring, a stirring song sung to the rhythm of clattering horse hoofs, as patriotic Anglo-Saxons, forgetting nationalisms, banded together under the five points of fellowship, wrested their homes from the domination of an Old World power, and with the verve that has always animated true liberty-loving patriots, set up their own establishment. That it did not live long was not their fault.
Long may the Lone Star wave in the hearts and recollections of the descendants of those intrepid Americans, and in the hearts and memories of those now living in "The Florida Parishes."
The Bonnie Blue Flag
A half a century after the Feliciana patriots raised the first "Lone Star Flag" over West Florida, the same blue flag with a five-pointed white star became the best beloved banner of the Confederacy — "the Bonnie Blue Flag that bears a single star."
b Taking just those parts of the West Florida territory that are now in the State of Louisiana, and which were the only parts actually controlled by the Republic (to wit: the "Florida parishes" of Louisiana: East Feliciana, West Feliciana, Washington, Tangipahoa, St. Helena, Livingston, East Baton Rouge, West Baton Rouge, St. Tammany) we have an area of approximately 13,700 square kilometers: larger than Jamaica or Lebanon, neither of which I would want to characterize by the irritating phrase, "a Tom Thumb republic". If the total territory to the Perdido is counted, that area is more than doubled and is about the same as that of Armenia or Haiti; more to the point, it is definitely larger than that of Belize, yet another Caribbean coastal republic.
d For the full details, see L. Richardson, "The Admission of Louisiana into the Union", Louisiana Hist. Q., I.333‑352, passim.
Images with borders lead to more information.
S. C. Arthur:
West Florida Rebellion
A page or image on this site is in the public domain ONLY
Page updated: 8 Oct 10