Transfer of Spanish West Florida to the United States

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The transfer of Spanish West Florida to the United States, resulting from the Adams-Onís Treaty (1819), took place in Pensacola, at Plaza Ferdinand VII, on July 17, 1821.


General Andrew Jackson of the United States Army had captured Pensacola three times prior to 1821; twice during the War of 1812, in 1813 and 1814, and once more during the First Seminole War in 1818. These campaigns highlighted the increasing weakness and waning power of Spain in the New World. Jackson's military actions in Spanish West Florida took place despite the fact that the United States was not in conflict with Spain: in his first two incursions into Spanish territory, Jackson was battling the British, who had landed troops in Florida during the War of 1812; in his final incursion, in 1818, Jackson was pursuing Seminole Native Americans from Georgia into Spanish-held Florida. The Spanish were understandably upset by Jackson's violations of Spanish sovereignty, and his brazen attack on Spanish-held Pensacola and Fort Barrancas (Jackson believed the Spanish were supplying the Native Americans), and there were calls for disciplinary action against Jackson from the top levels of both the Spanish and American governments. However, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams saw an opportunity, and used Jackson's actions to highlight Spain's weaknesses, taking an upper hand in the treaty negotiations that commenced soon thereafter, painting Florida as a trifling territory that was a burden on Spain:

Spain must immediately make her election either to place a force in Florida adequate at once to the protection of her territory and to the fulfilment of her engagements or cede to the United States a province of which she retains nothing but the nominal possession, but which is in fact a derelict, open to the occupancy of every enemy, civilized or savage, of the United States and serving no other earthly purpose, than as a post of annoyance to them.[1]

Under the terms of the Adams-Onís Treaty, Spain ceded all of Spanish Florida to the United States; this included Spanish East Florida, which comprised all of present-day Florida which is east of the Apalachicola River, and Spanish West Florida, which contained the portions of the present-day states of Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana south of the 31st parallel north, from the Apalachicola River westward to the Mississippi River.

On March 10, 1821, Jackson was appointed military governor of the Floridas by President James Monroe. The appointment gave Jackson broad power and authority:

The commission as governor granted him most of the governmental functions. He was legislator, executive, and judge. Specifically, he was to exercise 'all the powers and authorities heretofore exercised by the governor and captain general and intendant of Cuba, and by the governors of East and West Florida.' He was, however, denied the power to grant land or levy taxes. The vague law passed by Congress for the extending of authority to the Floridas had made mention of the powers of the first American governor of Louisiana, and Adams instructed Jackson that his powers were 'conformable to those which were entrusted to the Governor of Louisiana' on the first occupation. In that instance all important civil and military functions had been fused into the gubernatorial office.

—Doherty, Herbert J., Jr. (January 1954). "The Governorship of Andrew Jackson". The Florida Historical Quarterly. p. 6.

Jackson arrives in Pensacola[edit]

Jackson and his wife set out for Pensacola on April 12; however, they were delayed for some time at Blakeley and Montpelier (now Blackshear) in Baldwin County, Alabama, while awaiting the arrival of Colonel James Forbes, whom was bringing the transfer orders regarding West Florida from the captain-general of Cuba. On the way down the Mississippi River, Jackson met Henry M. Brackenridge, a lawyer and aspiring diplomat whom impressed Jackson to the point that Jackson appointed him alcalde (mayor-magistrate) of Pensacola upon the transfer of sovereignty. Upon arrival in Montpelier, Jackson sent Brackenridge and Dr. James C. Bronaugh, his friend and personal physician, to Pensacola to announce his mission and act as his representatives.[2]

With the arrival of Colonel Forbes and the transfer orders, formal discussions regarding the transfer opened between Jackson and Spanish commandant José Callava on June 9. Discussions stalled when Callava claimed that several cannon at Pensacola were not part of the fortifications to be surrendered; increasingly impatient, Jackson moved into Florida on June 15 and established his base of operations at Gonzalia, the home of Don Manuel Gonzalez, located fifteen miles from Pensacola. Callava thereafter vacated the governor's house and Jackson's wife Rachel was sent into the city to occupy it on June 28.[3] After further discussions the date for the transfer of sovereignty was set for July 17.

The transfer ceremony[edit]

Jackson entered Pensacola at half past six on the morning of July 17. After breakfasting with his wife Rachel and his staff, he proceeded to Plaza Ferdinand VII, where the formal ceremony took place at ten o'clock. An American officer described the events of the ceremony and that which preceded it:

The Spanish Governor's guard, consisting of a full company of dismounted dragoons of the regiment of Tarragona, elegantly clad and equipped, was paraded at an early hour of the morning in front of the Government House. About eight o'clock a battalion of the 4th regiment of United States infantry, and a company of the 4th regiment of United States artillery, the whole under the command of Colonel Brooke, of the 4th infantry, were drawn up on the public square, opposite to the Spanish guard, having marched into town from the encampment at Galvez' Spring. The usual military salute passed between them. Four companies of infantry from the American line, under the command of Major Dinkins, of the 5th infantry, were then detached to take possession of the Barancas [sic], which is nearly nine miles below this city.

At ten o'clock, the hour previously appointed, General Jackson, attended by his aids, secretary, interpreters, etc., crossed the green, passed between the double line formed by the troops of both nations, who simultaneously saluted him by presenting arms, and entered the Government House, where the formality of the transfer was soon dispatched, and the Spanish sergeant's guard at the gate was immediately relieved by an American guard. After a few minutes, Governor Jackson, accompanied by Colonel Callava, the late commandant, and their respective suites, left the Government House, and passed through the same double line of troops to the house which the Governor has rented for the temporary accommodation of his family. The Spanish troops were then marched to the place of embarkation — the American flag was displayed upon the flag-staff, and grand salutes were fired by the artillery company and the United States ship Hornet, a gun being given to each State and Territory of the Federal Union, not forgetting Florida, and the regimental band, and that of the Hornet, playing the ' Star Spangled Banner' all the while. In the course of the day a number of the citizens waited on the new Governor to pay their respects and offer their gratulations. The delivery of the Barancas was performed with a little more parade. The Spanish flag was lowered to half-mast. The American flag was raised to a level with it. Both flags were, in this situation, saluted by the Spaniards. After which, the Spanish colors were hauled down and the American ensign was hoisted. The Americans then saluted their national flag. The American troops made a fine and martial appearance, and the Hornet was gaily dressed.

—James Parton's Life of Andrew Jackson, p. 601-602.

Jackson's wife Rachel also offered an account of the events in a letter to her friend Eliza Kingsley:

At seven o'clock, at the precise moment, they hove in view under the American flag and a full band of music. The whole town was in motion. Never did I ever see so many pale faces. I am living on Main street, which gave me an opportunity of seeing a great deal from the upper galleries. They marched by to the government house, where the two Generals met in the manner prescribed, then his Catholic majesty's flag was lowered, and the American hoisted high in air, not less than one hundred feet.

—James Parton's Life of Andrew Jackson, p. 604.


  1. Johnson, Allen (1920). "Jefferson and His Colleagues".
  2. Doherty, Herbert J., Jr. (January 1954). "The Governorship of Andrew Jackson". The Florida Historical Quarterly. p. 7.
  3. Parton, James. (1861). Life of Andrew Jackson. Mason Brothers. p. 600.