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Tuesday marks big Florida milestone

Special correspondent
Published:   |   Updated: March 19, 2013 at 05:58 PM

Today marks the 190th anniversary of Florida becoming a U.S. Territory. That fact is important for at least two reasons. First, many people think that Florida is only as old as Walt Disney World. But the Mouse has been here just 40 years.

Second, as esteemed historian Michael Gannon is fond of reminding his fellow Floridians, the state had a Spanish flag flying above it longer than it has had the Stars and Stripes. The two "Spanish periods," 1513 to 1763 and 1783 to 1821, total 288 years. We will have to wait until the year 2109 until we match the Spanish, and that includes the four years of Confederate rule during the Civil War.

Why did the Spanish rule Florida for so long and why did they eventually sell the territory to the United States? I'm glad you asked.

Spanish dominion over Florida started with the arrival of Juan Ponce de Leon in the spring of 1513. He gave Florida its name, and that name covered most of today's North American continent. Over the years, with other countries getting involved in settling the New World, Spanish Florida was whittled down to include modern Florida plus an extension of the Panhandle past Mobile Bay.

East and West Florida, with capitals at St. Augustine and Pensacola, respectively, remained sparsely populated and largely ignored until the Seven Years War in Europe brought Spain's possessions to the negotiating table. England had captured Havana, and Spain wanted it back.

A trade was made - East and West Florida for Havana. England gained two new American colonies and returned Havana to the Spanish. East and West Florida would stay loyal to the English crown during the American Revolution, and at the war's conclusion, Spain received its two former colonies as payment for assisting the American colonists in their bid for independence.

The second Spanish period was marked by increasing tension between American settlers on the southern fringes of the new country and Spanish and Seminole people living along Florida's northern border.

Tensions came to a head with the 1818 invasion of West Florida and the brief occupation of Pensacola by U.S. Gen. Andrew Jackson. His soldiers entered Florida in pursuit of escaped slaves and their Seminole allies, but it is also likely that Jackson was acting under orders to force a larger issue with the Spanish. The United States wanted Florida.

American Secretary of State John Quincy Adams and Spanish consul Luis de Onis began negotiations in 1818, which culminated in the Adams-Onis Treaty of 1819. The treaty was signed Feb. 22, 1819, but the unstable political situation in Spain forced both nations to delay ratification.

The Adams-Onis Treaty settled the ownership of Florida and confirmed the boundary between the U.S. and Spanish-held territory in the west. It also reaffirmed that the United States did not have an interest in acquiring Texas.

On July 17, 1821, the American flag was finally raised over Pensacola, a full week later than the flag exchange at St. Augustine and five months after the treaty was ratified by Congress. Spain's old nemesis, Gen. Jackson, was present at the Pensacola ceremony in his official capacity as the military governor of the new Florida Territory.

On Oct. 5, after a summer spent building Florida's governmental infrastructure, Jackson stepped down as provisional governor. William Pope Duval became the provisional civilian governor. The following summer, on June 10, 1822, Duval became the territorial governor and called the first legislative council into session.

Duval remained in the governor's office for four consecutive terms, serving from 1821 to 1834. John Quincy Adams was elected president of the United States in 1824 and served one term. He was immediately followed by Jackson, who was president when trouble with Spain erupted again, this time in the territory that the U.S. government promised to leave alone - Texas.


Rodney Kite-Powell is the Saunders Foundation Curator of History at the Tampa Bay History Center. He encourages your questions and comments. He can be reached by email, rkp@tampabayhistorycenter.org, or by phone, (813) 228-0097.

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