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Map of British West Florida

British West Florida.
Courtesy of Mississippi Department of Archives and History

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Map of British West Florida and Indian Nations

British West Florida and Indian Nations. Courtesy of Mississippi Department of Archives and History

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Feature Story

Mississippi Under British Rule - British West Florida

The year 1763 was a glorious one for the proud British Empire. England finally had triumphed over France after fighting to a standstill for almost a century, from 1689 to 1763. As a result of the Treaty of Paris of 1763, following the French and Indian War (1754-1763), England acquired Spanish Florida and French Canada.1 The British divided Florida into two provinces or colonies, West and East Florida. West Florida included the southern half of present-day Mississippi.

Specifically, West Florida was a small rectangular region straddling the Gulf of Mexico from lakes Pontchartrain and Maurepas and the Mississippi River on the west, to the Chattahoochee and Apalachicola rivers on the east, and extending north as far as an imaginary line running due east from the confluence of the Mississippi and Yazoo rivers. It included the old Spanish port of Pensacola and the former French settlements of Mobile, Biloxi, and Natchez.2

Government established in Pensacola

At that time, West Florida was only sparsely settled, and except for a narrow strip of land along the eastern bank of the Mississippi River, the soil was mostly sandy and not especially fertile. In fact, the colony contained considerably more livestock than people.3

The British expected to settle the two Florida provinces quickly and effortlessly. For reasons of security, they had reserved in 1763 the area west of the Appalachian Mountains for American Indians, intending to channel future white settlements into either Canada or one of the two Floridas.4

To attract the anticipated population, the British had to build good relations with the Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Creek Indians. They also had to establish civil governments capable of keeping the peace and promoting justice, and to stimulate the local economy. In 1763, the British Parliament had taken the first step in this direction by creating the Province of West Florida and naming George Johnstone the first royal governor.5 They established Pensacola as the seat of government.

George Johnstone

Although Johnstone, in his brief tenure, laid the foundation for civil government and a stable economy, his personality was ill-suited to the task at hand. He successfully negotiated treaties of friendship with the Choctaws and Chickasaws, but he was less fortunate in dealing with the Creeks who controlled the eastern half of the province. He attempted, with only limited success, to open trade with Spanish ports in the Caribbean.

However, even these meager accomplishments were more than offset by the governor's belligerent and overbearing manner. He constantly quarreled with the military over trivial matters and antagonized most of his administrative staff. On one occasion, he foolishly tried to arrest the commander of the post at Pensacola. Unfortunately, these controversies split the populace into two warring factions and compelled King George III to remove Johnstone in early 1767.6

Turmoil and confusion

The first governor's ouster ushered in a three-year interval of continuous turmoil and confusion. In short order, Johnstone's replacement, John Eliot, committed suicide, the crown recalled Montfort Browne, a controversial lieutenant governor, and bitter and needless conflicts over the governor's authority erupted between the executive and legislative branches of government. In the midst of these crises, the British ministry faced in 1768 the escalating costs of governing an enlarged empire and diminishing revenue from trade and taxes. It withdrew most of its troops from West Florida and left the inhabitants nearly defenseless.7

From commerce to agriculture

Not until August 1770, when Peter Chester became the fifth and last governor of the province, did West Florida begin to enjoy some stability. During his eleven-year tenure, Chester redirected the province's focus from commerce to agriculture and its attention from the coastal plains to the lower Mississippi Valley.

There were a number of reasons for the change in emphasis. First of all, lands along the eastern bank of the Mississippi, from the Yazoo to the Iberville rivers, were not only less vulnerable to foreign attack but they were also more fertile and more capable of producing better returns than the lands around Pensacola. Furthermore, the adjacent Choctaw and Chickasaw Indians were more friendly and less hostile than the eastern Creeks. Finally, the Mississippi River offered an inexpensive and convenient avenue for tapping the valuable interior fur trade and for importing English goods and African slaves.8

Land grants

Since most immigrants into the province were primarily interested in acquiring land, the British had to devise a policy for its orderly distribution and a systematic scheme of settlement. Initially, the British hoped to use the territory as a way to reward court favorites and loyal military service as well as to attract permanent settlers. A few of these initial grants were princely in size. For instance, the Earl of Eglinton secured 20,000 acres in the Natchez region, and Lord Ellibank received the same amount near Pensacola. Unfortunately, most of the early land grant recipients were more interested in speculation than settlement.

More attractive to actual settlers were the less generous grants of land made under "family" and "purchase" rights. According to these provisions, the master of a family was entitled to receive one hundred acres for himself and fifty acres for each person, including slaves and servants, who accompanied him, and he was also able to purchase up to a thousand additional acres at a reasonable price. All grantees were required, before receiving a clear title, to cultivate their acreage within a specified length of time, usually three to five years. As a result of these arrangements, settlement of the province, especially in the Natchez District, began to increase steadily until 1773 when the British government suddenly and unexpectedly withheld from the provincial governor the right to grant anymore land there.9

American Revolution

In 1775, with the outbreak of the American Revolution, the situation changed dramatically. The British quickly converted both Florida provinces into sanctuaries for Loyalists (Tories) escaping the ravages of the rebellion or for those wishing to continue living under the rule of "His Britannic Majesty." After 1775, West Florida enjoyed its greatest period of growth and attracted in the process a sturdy pioneer stock of loyal Englishmen and Scotsmen.10

Although neither of the two Floridas joined the American Revolution, the patriot cause, nonetheless, had a profound impact on West Florida. In early 1778, James Willing, a former resident of Natchez, led a band of marauders down the Mississippi River from Pittsburgh. They wreaked havoc from Walnut Hills (Vicksburg) to Baton Rouge upon everyone suspected of being sympathetic to England. Willing made Colonel Anthony Hutchins, a well-known Natchez Tory and British pensioner, his prisoner and forced the remaining inhabitants to take an oath of allegiance to the United States of America. With Hutchins and most of the pillage in hand, Willing and his followers proceeded to New Orleans where they hoped to secure loans and military supplies for the young republic.11

End of British rule

While Willing had wished to further the American cause, his raid had the opposite effect. It turned most of the inhabitants against the United States, and it exposed the vulnerability of British West Florida to foreign assault.

Although Hutchins was able momentarily to restore British control over West Florida, its hold was extremely tenuous. Consequently, Bernardo de Galvez, Spanish Governor of Louisiana, had little difficulty in seizing Natchez in 1779 and Pensacola in 1781.12

In the various treaties ending the American Revolution, Spain retained Louisiana and acquired the Floridas, while the United States gained not only its independence but also the territory east of the Mississippi River between the Great Lakes and the thirty-first parallel of north latitude. Unfortunately, Spain refused to recognize America's claim to the thirty-first parallel. Consequently, the southern boundary of the United States remained in dispute until finally settled in the Pinckney Treaty of 1795.

After some eighteen years of English rule, British West Florida ceased to exist, but its legacy would endure for some time.

Robert V. Haynes, Ph.D., is professor of history at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, Kentucky.

Posted September 2000

End Notes

1 The most recent study of the French and Indian War is Fred Anderson, Crucible of War: The Seven Years War and the Fate of the Empire in British North America, 1754-1766 (New York, 2000)

2 Cecil Johnson, British West Florida, 1763-1783 (New Haven, Conn., 1942), p. 6.

3 There are several accounts of British West Florida. The most useful are Bernard Romans, A Concise Natural History of East and West Florida (New York, 1775); William Bartram, Travels Through North and South Carolina, Georgia, East and West Florida (Philadelphia, 1791); and Thomas Hutchins, An Historical Narrative and Topographical Description of Louisiana and West Florida (Philadelphia, 1784). For the Natchez District, see Philip Pittman, The Present State of European Settlements on the Mississippi (London, 1770).

4 The Proclamation of October 7, 1763, is in Adam Shortt and Arthur G. Doughty, eds., Documents Relating to the Constitutional History of Canada, 1759-1791, 2 vols. (Ottawa, 1918), Vol. I, pp. 163-168. See also Clarence E. Carter, "Some Aspects of British Administration in West Florida," Mississippi Valley Historical Review Vol. 1 (1914-15): pp. 364-375.

5 Johnson, British West Florida, pp. 24-28

6 Robin F. A. Fabel, "George Johnstone of British West Florida," Florida Historical Quarterly Vol. 54 (1976): pp. 497-511; Johnson, British West Florida, pp. 225-260.

7 J. Barton Starr, Tories, Dons, and Rebels: The American Revolution in British West Florida (Gainesville, 1976), pp. 18-27; Johnson, British West Florida, pp. 61-82.

8 Clinton N. Howard, The British Development of West Florida, 1763-1769 (Berkeley, 1947), pp. 74-101; Johnson, British West Florida, pp. 132-138.

9 Clinton N. Howard, "Colonial Natchez: The Early British Period," The Journal of Mississippi History, Vol. 7 (1945): pp. 163-170; Johnson, British West Florida, pp. 115-131; Howard, Development of West Florida, pp. 50-101.

10 Starr, Tories, Dons, and Rebels, pp. 35-60; Robert V. Haynes, The Natchez District and the American Revolution (Jackson, Mississippi, 1976), pp. 27-49.

11 John Walton Caughey, "Willing's Expedition Down the Mississippi, 1778," Louisiana Historical Quarterly Vol. 15 (1932): pp. 5-36; Robert V. Haynes, "James Willing and the Planters of Natchez: The American Revolution Comes to the Southwest," The Journal of Mississippi History Vol. 37 (1975): pp. 1-40; Starr, Tories, Dons, and Rebels, pp. 78-114.

12 Haynes, Natchez District, pp. 77-130; Starr, Tories, Dons, and Rebels, pp. 118-244; D. Clayton James, Antebellum Natchez (Baton Rouge, 1968), pp. 22-27.

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