While Texans are fiercely proud their state was once its own republic, and California celebrates the same former status on its flag, relatively few Louisianans know that a group of their forebears overthrew Spanish rule to carve out a tiny, independent nation 200 years ago. With the bicentennial coming up Thursday, historians and descendants of the rebels are hoping to change that.
"It is the most dramatic event in Louisiana history that has been so little recognized," said Sam Hyde, director of the Center for Southeast Louisiana Studies at Southeastern Louisiana University. "We have been lost to all the Cajuns and the debauchery of New Orleans, but it is a unique event that had a lasting effect on this area and others."
In the early morning hours of Sept. 23, 1810, 75 armed rebels slipped into the Spanish fort at Baton Rouge, and in what was described as a "sharp and bloody firefight," subdued the garrison. They lowered the Spanish flag and raised the Bonnie Blue Flag — a single white star on a blue field — that had been adopted for the new nation they called West Florida.
Three days later the rebels signed a declaration of independence and set up a government for the new nation that historians say included about 4,000 people.
The republic was one of three nations that joined with the United States as it expanded west during the 19th century. The others were the republics of Texas and California.
West Florida achieved its goal — annexation by the United States — 74 days after independence, said archivist Betty Tucker of Zachary, La.
Historians generally agree the republic included 8 Louisiana parishes still known as the Florida Parishes, and those completed what became the state of Louisiana in 1812.
"They were English speaking people, several were Tories, and they were sick of Spain," Tucker said of the rebels. "You had to be Catholic (under the Spanish), they had no rights, no vote. They were planning to join the United States from when they started their secret meetings in 1805," she said.
The rebels had also originally claimed all Spanish territory extending east through Mississippi to the Perdido River, which separates Alabama and Florida. But their ambitious attempt to seize Mobile, Ala., failed, and Hyde said people living in those areas outside of Louisiana never actively rebelled.
On Thursday, ceremonies marking the 200th anniversary of the revolt will be held at Old Fort San Carlos in Baton Rouge and a flag-raising is set at the St. Tammany Parish Courthouse in Covington. On Jan. 10, 2011, the bicentennial of the annexation of West Florida will be celebrated at State Capitol Park in Baton Rouge. Neither Mississippi nor Alabama are planning West Florida commemorations.
West Florida's residents were mostly farmers and tradesmen of Scottish and English descent. Its leaders dealt harshly with opponents to either independence or U.S. annexation.
"It was pretty violent," Hyde said. "In one case a man was burned alive."
Tucker said the revolution quickly faded from the state's memory.
"Most people think this was all part of the Louisiana Purchase," Hyde said.
Hyde recalled a confrontational phone call from former Louisiana Gov. Mike Foster during the anniversary of the purchase from France in 2003. Foster scolded him for pointing out that the annexation of West Florida was separate.
"He said, the coins are minted, the posters are printed, and from now on the entire state was part of the Louisiana Purchase!" Hyde said.
But the facts say otherwise. When the United States made the purchase in 1803, it was for French Louisiana and the Isle of Orleans. Areas north of Lake Pontchartrain and east of the Mississippi River — which include West Florida — had been Spanish.
Descendants of West Florida's founders are hoping the bicentennial will give the republic its proper place in history.
In 2002, Leila Roberts, great-granddaughter of Fulworth Skipwith, leader of the republic, donated the original copy of the West Florida Constitution to the Louisiana State Archives, said state archivist Ellen Brown. It's been on display at the Capitol this year.
David Norwood is a descendant of Bennett Hilliard Barrow, one of the rebellion leaders. He proudly displays in his home a small table marked by rings from wet glasses, which family lore holds were left by rebels who gathered to plot their rebellion. Next door is the family home, Highland Plantation, built in 1805, where the rebels gathered.
The year 1810 was a bad one for Spain. Not only did West Florida rebel, but the turmoil of the Napoleonic Wars sparked revolt in Spanish possessions throughout the Western Hemisphere.
"This is unknown history that is important to the rest of the nation," said David Norwood's wife, Cammie. "It started a rash of rebellions against Spain that stretched from Texas to South America."