The Rogue Republic: How Would-Be Patriots Waged the Shortest Revolution in American Historyby William C. Davis
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When Britain ceded the territory of West Florida— what is now Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida—to Spain in 1783, America was still too young to confidently fight in one of Europe’s endless territorial contests. So it was left to the settlers, bristling at Spanish misrule, to establish a foothold in the area. Enter the Kemper brothers, whose vigilante justice culminated in a small band of American residents drafting a constitution and establishing a new government. By the time President Madison sent troops to occupy the territory, assert U.S. authority under the Louisiana Purchase, and restore order, West Florida’s settlers had already announced their independence, becoming our country’s shortest-lived rogue “republic.”
Meticulously researched and populated with the colorful characters that make American history a joy, this is the story of a young country testing its power on the global stage and a lost chapter in how the frontier spirit came to define American character. The first treatment of this little-known historical moment, The Rogue Republic shows how hardscrabble frontiersmen and gentleman farmers planted the seeds of civil war, marked the dawn of Manifest Destiny, and laid the groundwork for the American empire.
"[A] compelling story . . . well written and deeply researched." —Library Journal
"Here [Davis] recounts the brief but interesting chronicle of the events and men who triggered the uprising against Spain, the establishment of a short-lived republic, and rapid annexation by the U.S. This is a well-done recounting of an obscure but ultimately important episode in our history." —Booklist
"Davis presents a well-documented account of ‘America's second and smallest rebellion,’ led by a simple storekeeper named Reuben Kemper . . . Davis tells this story with nuance and panache. This book exposes a nearly forgotten piece of America's history and character." —Publishers Weekly
"The Rogue Republic is one rollicking, good book. With his customary panache and eye for the telling detail, William Davis has deftly brought to life the too little-known but endlessly absorbing story of the short-lived West Florida Republic. What a treat for history buffs."
—Jay Winik, author of April 1865 and The Great Upheaval
"During the brief existence of the Republic of West Florida, the United States occupied territory owned by another nation. Finally, after two centuries, a prominent writer provides us with a fascinating account of this important, but little-known rebellion against Spanish rule. William C. Davis, a master of narrative history, presents us in The Rogue Republic with a cast of some of the most colorful, and sometimes shady, characters in the American West—adventurers who promoted Manifest Destiny before expansionism bore that label."
—John D. W. Guice, editor of and contributor to By His Own Hand?: The Mysterious Death of Meriwether Lewis; and coauthor with Thomas D. Clark of The Old Southwest, 1795–1830: Frontiers in Conflict
"The Rogue Republic is a story of a long-forgotten revolution when America marched westward. Impeccably researched and finely written, Mr. Davis's book is history at its best, replete with intrigue, colorful individuals, governmental machinations, murder, and mayhem. It is storytelling at its finest and a pleasure to read."
—Jeffry D. Wert, author of General James Longstreet and the forthcoming A Glorious Army
"The Rogue Republic skillfully tells the remarkable story of the rogues and dreamers who founded the Republic of West Florida in 1811 and then saw it absorbed by the United States. William C. Davis has salvaged for modern readers the pivotal moment when American expansionism evolved from Jefferson’s passive idealism into something a good deal more muscular, on the way to becoming downright larcenous."
—David O. Stewart, author of The Summer of 1787: The Men Who Invented the Constitution
"The Rogue Republic is an absolutely enthralling story, with a cast of magnificent, unforgettable characters and a dramatic narrative that will keep you reading from first word to last. Based on exhaustive research in primary sources, this brilliant book is a must read for all literate Americans."
—Stephen B. Oates, author of With Malice Toward None: A Biography of Abraham Lincoln
"Davis continues to turn out books on topics both significant and relatively unknown. All are superbly researched and written. Rogue Republic continues that tradition with a compelling history of how West Florida became a part of the United States. It provides a thorough, accurate, and readable history of a part of America’s past of which few people are aware."
—Robert M. Utley, author of Lone Star Justice
Davis (History/Virginia Tech; The Pirates Laffite: The Treacherous World of the Corsairs of the Gulf, 2005, etc.), presents a significant study of an obscure but highly revealing moment in American history—the declaration of independence by American settlers of the oft-disputed Territory of West Florida in 1804.
So much of the political conflict during the Federalist period involved territorial control. Nowhere was this more overt than the first American "Southwest," which at the time included what is now Louisiana, Texas, Alabama, Mississippi and the westernmost parts of Florida. The fluctuation of colonial ownership throughout the region reflected the larger geopolitics of European power struggles, even as the Louisiana Purchase should have settled any remaining disputes. Regardless of who controlled this vast wilderness, it was home to a pragmatic population of settlers, speculators and frontier opportunists, who lived equally comfortably live under Spanish, French or American jurisdiction—until it became uncomfortable. Thus was the case with the brothers Kemper—Nathan, Reuben and Samuel—who became involved in a failed business arrangement with an Ohio politician John Smith. When Smith ended his arrangement with the Kempers, whom he had hired to manage his mercantile endeavors in Spanish West Florida, a Spanish court ordered the surrendering of the Kemper property and their removal from the territory. The Kempers contemptuously defied the order, in part because they believed the finalization of the Louisiana Purchase would render the decision moot. A series of standoffs with militia eventually led to a full-on insurgency of American settlers against the Spanish rule, resulting in a very brief period of nationhood.
Not only does Davis cast a bright light into these murky corners of our national past, he does so with a grace and clarity equal to the best historical writing today.
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Read an Excerpt
Realm of Happiness
A FLATBOATMAN made an unlikely storekeeper, especially a flatboatman like Reuben Kemper. Six feet tall, powerfully built, hazel eyes burning from a heavily tanned face beneath brown hair, he looked more like a backwoodsman, and he always felt most at home outdoors in the world of men of action and hard work. He was no roughneck carouser like so many who plied the Ohio and its tributaries on their keelboats and broadhorns, but the life suited him and he never backed down from a fight. Still, he had ambition, education, and enough good sense to know that a boatman’s life was nothing but toil with no tomorrow. He never intended to start a revolution.
He had deeply ingrained Christian values. The Kempers were all Presbyterians, and when his uncle James Kemper became the first minister of that denomination in the growing community of Cincinnati, on the Ohio River, Reuben’s father, Peter Kemper, left Fauquier County, Virginia, in 1793 to follow. His five sons, who came with him, were all on the verge of manhood—Reuben, Presley, Samuel, Nathan, and Stephen. Reuben, born February 21, 1773, was the eldest and the one the others looked to as an example all their lives.
The Kempers taught their sons well, and Reuben’s literacy was above the average for his time and place. Certainly he and his brothers were well versed in Presbyterian dogma, and they helped fund the building of James Kemper’s church. Reuben himself may have felt an inclination toward the ministry as a young man, but the pulpit was too confining for his nature. He had not lived long beside the Ohio before the river drew him, and at various times he worked as a flatboat hand or barge hand on the Monongahela, the Allegheny, and the Ohio. In time he had charge of a boat, but first he learned about bookkeeping and commerce from a friend who supplied military quartermasters.
Inevitably, his close association with both the church and the river trade brought Reuben into the orbit of a figure destined to be central to his life; the revolution grew in no small measure from their relationship. John Smith of Virginia was the first Baptist preacher in Ohio. In 1790 the fifty-five-year-old Smith ministered at the Forks of the Cheat River in Monongalia County, Virginia, and then he took a new congregation at Columbia at the mouth of Little Miami River, six miles upstream from Cincinnati. Behind the large man’s customarily grave expression, Smith was intelligent, bold, a born leader with intense ambition, and torn in loyalty between church and commerce. At first he worked hard to establish the Baptists in the vicinity, but in 1798 he left the ministry to manage grain mills and mercantile establishments in Cincinnati and nearby Port Royal. There he brought in European manufactures, proudly boasting profits of 100 percent on his investment. He dreamed of land speculations on the lower Mississippi, where he intended to make commercial links for his Cincinnati concerns. Meanwhile he pushed for Ohio’s statehood and sought a seat in the legislature of the Northwest Territory, a step to higher office. In 1797 a visitor marveled that Smith seemed to be merchant, farmer, and parson all in one. A year later Smith hired Kemper at fifteen dollars a month to work in Port Royal. It was the first step on the circuitous road to revolution.
At the time Reuben Kemper started keeping Smith’s ledgers and accounts, his employer was almost ready to take the bold step of starting a store eight hundred miles downriver, near the Spanish frontier post at Baton Rouge. Merchants in New Orleans faced considerable pains getting goods the one hundred miles upstream to Baton Rouge, but a barge coming from Cincinnati could let the river current do the work and cover sixty miles or more in a day. With Napoleon at war with almost everyone, European goods bound for New Orleans and upriver markets often fell prey to the privateers of several nations. That shortage could work to the advantage of a resourceful merchant like Smith. He planned to fill a flatboat with goods, sell them downriver at his usual 100 percent profit, and then return to Cincinnati in 1799 to take the seat he had won in the Northwest Territory legislature. He could not do it alone, and he decided that his Port Royal clerk Kemper was the man to help him.
That fall Smith prepared a list of goods he believed would sell quickly: linens for clothing; silks for fine gowns and shirts; cotton and silk stockings; buttons; handkerchiefs from India; high-topped shoes; watch chains; fine hats; riding boots and saddles; and ninety pounds of white wig powder for the men who still wore wigs. To furnish the planters’ homes, Smith wanted to bring striped chintz for draperies; parlor mirrors and framed pictures; blankets; windowpane glass; china and flatware; candelabra for their tables; and carpets for their floors. He even determined to sell doorbells, fishhooks, and field glasses for leisure, as well as tools for all manner of work and repair. Smith’s list essentially declared that rude settlers were not to be his market. His targets were affluent planters with ready cash and credit, and he meant to tempt them with everything they could want.
In January of 1799 Smith gave Kemper cash and credit up to $12,000—a sum equal to $150,000 two centuries later—and dispatched him to Philadelphia, the great emporium of the East. By February Reuben was filling Smith’s order. When he finished in March he had spent £3,555, 2 shillings, and 10 pence, or $9,500.38. Then he consigned the merchandise to a shipper to get it to Port Royal, which cost another $1,000. On his ride back to Cincinnati, Kemper stopped in Zanesville, Ohio, and bought a large flatboat to send ahead to meet him at Port Royal. By early May the flatboat was loaded, and Smith and Kemper commenced the downward passage. There were not many places to visit, and as well supplied as they were, Smith and Kemper had little need to stop. A few days after they entered the Mississippi they came to the boundary of the newly created Mississippi Territory, established just the year before, after Spain’s 1795 cession to the United States. No doubt they landed at Natchez, capital of the new territory and a major trade outpost. Even though Smith eyed the Baton Rouge market, he needed to know people in wealthy Natchez as well. He would be cut off from his country in Spanish territory, and his closest link with his home would be Natchez and Governor William C. C. Claiborne.
After Natchez, Kemper and Smith needed another two or three days to reach their destination. Forty land miles south of Natchez they passed Fort Adams, and then they crossed an invisible border at latitude 31° north, the southern boundary of the Mississippi Territory. Andrew Ellicott had recently finished the area’s survey, and some called the border by his name—the Ellicott line—but as Smith and Kemper soon learned, everyone who lived in the region knew it simply as “the line.” Beyond the line, they entered Spanish West Florida, and before the end of the month they pulled into the east bank and ran into the mouth of Bayou Sara. Smith had been there before, when he had first secured permission to open his business from Governor Carlos de Grand-Pré, commandant and chief magistrate in Baton Rouge. He had already rented a house to use as a temporary store in the little settlement called Bayou Sara.
This was a world very different from Cincinnati. Tiny Bayou Sara sat beside a leisurely stream once known as Bayou Gonorrhea, the origin of that name mercifully forgotten. It lay at the foot of a mile-long crest, atop which, about a mile inland, sat St. Francisville, which the Spaniards had first called New Valencia. Smith chose the location well, for produce came down Bayou Sara from the interior to the only landing amid miles of bluffs. One good road ran from St. Francisville twenty-five miles north to Woodville, Mississippi, and Natchez; a less traveled route led northwest through Pinckneyville just across the line; and another road ran south to Baton Rouge. There was money being made here. A forty-one-year-old New Yorker named John Mills and two others had founded the settlement on the landing in 1785. By 1790 other settlers had come but there were still only a few dozen. Chiefly, planters raised cattle and sold sugar, tobacco, and lumber for market products. Then, in 1794, Eli Whitney patented his cotton gin; this made large-scale cotton planting commercially attractive, and the lower Mississippi saw sudden and dramatic growth. At that time the region around Bayou Sara had 287 inhabitants, more than half of them slaves, working 22,000 arpents—an archaic French measurement equivalent to 0.84628 of an acre—planted in indigo, corn, and cotton. The corn helped to raise and fatten 2,400 head of assorted livestock, much of which were sent to the New Orleans market along with more than five tons of ginned cotton. Planters harvested oranges and pecans from their orchards, as well as hardwoods to sell to New Orleans builders and boatyards. No wonder Smith the Baptist expected to sell his wares quickly.
When Smith and Kemper arrived, Bayou Sara and the immediate vicinity had forty families totaling a hundred and fifty-five people, with seventy-three slaves. More telling than the numbers of people were their names. Of the heads of families, one was a Spaniard and two were French. The other thirty-seven were American or English, virtually all immigrants. Some Englishmen had come when Great Britain briefly held the territory, and others had arrived as fugitive Tories from the American Revolution; the few Spaniards and Frenchmen had filtered up from New Orleans. To become citizens, they had only to present themselves to the local alcalde or magistrate in order to secure the necessary permission.
Smith and Kemper arrived exactly a century after the French explorer Sieur d’Iberville had founded Baton Rouge, which was nestled on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi. Since 1763, it had been the administrative center of the region called West Florida, which the Spaniards divided into four districts. Bayou Sara sat in Feliciana, which meant “realm of happiness”; it was bounded by the Mississippi on the west, the Ellicott line on the north, the Amite River, which ran north to south, forty miles to the east, and a notional line between the Mississippi and the Amite some ten miles south of the Bayou Sara landing. Below that line was the district of Baton Rouge, which ran south along the Mississippi some fifty miles to the Bayou Manchac and east to the Amite. Across the Amite lay the much larger St. Helena District, extending all the way from the Mississippi line to Bayou Manchac, and eastward an average of more than thirty miles to the Tangipahoa River. Beyond the Tangipahoa lay the largest district of all, St. Ferdinand, stretching east to the Pearl River and south to Lake Pontchartrain. Springfield, on the Natalbany River, was the only real settlement in St. Helena, as almost all of the settlers lived in Feliciana and Baton Rouge, with clusters of isolated planters on the rivers in the other districts.
Europe’s wars and empires wrote their history on the region. La Salle claimed the Mississippi River and the vast regions in its basin for France, calling it Louisiana after his king. By the early 1700s the French had established a few settlements on the lower river and one at Natchitoches in the borderlands two hundred miles northwest of the future Baton Rouge, but they put their colonial capital at Mobile, on the large bay of the same name at the mouth of the Mobile and Alabama rivers. In 1718 they founded New Orleans, and four years later they moved their capital to that growing city. As the century’s conflicts wore on, France, Britain, and Spain traded titles in the region. At the end of the American Revolution, the territory from the Apa-lachicola River eastward, including the Florida peninsula, was Spanish East Florida. The Apalachicola west to the Mississippi became Spanish West Florida; Spain also held all of Louisiana west of the great river, as well as the future Mississippi Territory.
When the American Revolution ended, in 1783, perhaps as many as eight thousand British fugitives from what had been the American colonies lived there. The Spanish acquisition frightened most of them away, but about three thousand stayed and found a rather benign regime. Spain allowed—even invited—Anglo settlers to apply for grants of good land or to purchase it from current landowners. The applicant had to swear fealty to Spain and profess Catholicism, the latter a requirement that was rarely if ever enforced. Grand-Pré awarded the grants, then authorized his chief surveyor, Captain Vicente Pintado, to perform a survey once the grantee had picked a plot of vacant land. The average grant was 644 arpents, but it went as high as 800 for a large family, the intent being to create a settled population that could support and protect itself. The settlers had to occupy and improve their land for at least four years, which discouraged speculation; grantees also had to serve in a militia. After improving his first grant, a landowner could apply for another. With a secured title, the land could be sold, usually for one peso—a dollar—an arpent, with an average purchase of about 240 arpents. Some people grew sizable holdings, and by 1805 most farms ranged from 31 arpents to 2,000.
Some of the new Spanish grants carelessly overlapped earlier British grants that Madrid had promised to honor. The usual corruption that appeared in any remote colonial administration made the situation worse. Rumors of extortion clung to Juan Ventura Morales, the temporary Spanish intendant, or governor, in New Orleans; Spain sometimes placed bored functionaries, men too lazy or venal to secure better posts elsewhere, in Louisiana and West Florida. Applicants who had gone to Morales for land grants told of his demanding bribes, and surveyor Isaac Johnson threatened to resign in 1799, telling Pintado that he no longer wished to deal with the intendant, as “I am thirty years too old to be fond of such politicks.”
Most officials sought honest, equitable solutions to title problems, even if it meant giving new grants on vacant lands to those with conflicting claims elsewhere. The result was the spread of a dynamic planter economy in which everyone raised something, many built some fortune, and a few acquired great wealth. Spain’s goal was not so much a happy population but rather a well-settled buffer to protect against the raiding Plains Indians to the north and west of Natchitoches and the new American nation flexing its muscles to the east.
Certainly the Americans eyed West Florida. No sooner did Britain cede it to Spain, in 1783, than the new United States offered to buy it for one million dollars. Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia claimed western borders on the Mississippi River. It seemed natural that sooner or later the rest of that territory should belong to the new nation. In fact, in 1795, by the Treaty of San Lorenzo, Spain acknowledged the claim of the United States to what became the Mississippi Territory: everything between the Mississippi and the Atlantic and from the Ohio to the Gulf, except the Floridas. Spain had minimal interest in East Florida at the moment, but West Florida controlled the lower Mississippi and the rich New Orleans market. The province was of little significance compared with Mexico or Texas, and Spain maintained it as a defensive buffer to protect Texas. As early as 1795 Madrid considered selling it, but not to America. There were beginning to be too many Americans there already.
Two of them at Bayou Sara now had a storehouse that bulged with all the goods they had brought down the river. On June 1, 1799, their temporary emporium opened to the anticipated floods of customers. They did not come.
A boom had seen land prices rise to three pesos an arpent by 1799, but forces already at work soon halved that. In Feliciana land values did not share the drop but remained static. That made planters conservative about the discretionary and luxury goods Smith and Kemper offered. Uncertainty over Europe increased their caution. Napoleon was building an empire, and Spanish Louisiana and West Florida could again become pawns in his bargaining. French Creoles living in West Florida gave planters concern, as did English settlers hoping for Britain to regain its lost territory. With that much unease, planters husbanded their pesos more than usual, waiting to see how Europe’s politics played out.
More immediately, Smith’s commitment to 100 percent profits probably slowed sales, and his impatient nature did not help. He had expected to sell his merchandise within two weeks, but by early June goods were not moving fast enough, and Smith decided to leave Kemper in charge of the store while he returned to Ohio. To ensure that Kemper had an incentive, Smith proposed a partnership. He valued his merchandise at about twelve thousand pesos, and in return for Kemper’s time and effort, he offered to share profits from its sale. For twenty-eight-year-old Kemper, the prospect of earning several thousand dollars to remain in the Feliciana must have seemed too good to be true. He could make enough to become a planter or even to set up his own store back home in Cincinnati.
On June 12 the two framed a three-year partnership whereby Kemper was to sell the stock and then pay Smith from the proceeds half the actual cost of the goods, half what it had cost to get the stock to Cincinnati, and half of the expenses of running the store. Kemper was also to pay Smith eight hundred dollars to settle his own and his brother Nathan’s open accounts at the Port Royal store. After that, all profits and losses were to be shared equally, and Smith anticipated sending more merchandise downriver once Kemper sold most of this first shipment. Smith even suggested calling the partnership Reuben Kemper and Company.
The customers came, but not enough of them, and far too many did not pay for what they bought. On the frontier, most mercantile businesses were run on credit, and Kemper and Company was no different. Nathan and Samuel came to help Reuben run the store, and as the seasons passed the ledger showed sales, but most of them on account. Some buyers paid in cash, but the Kempers carried more than 140 customers on credit, virtually all of them Americans. Among them the Kempers made friendships important in future years—Bayou Sara founders John Mills and John O’Connor, neighbors such as Colonel Frederick Kimball, and Isaac Johnson, an alcalde—a kind of magistrate—who founded Troy plantation. Padre Francisco Lénnàn of Baton Rouge and Father Charles Burke of Point Coupée across the Mississippi also charged with them.
Kemper kept the flatboat, expecting to need it when business got better. In January of 1800 he bought a forty-year-old Negro woman, which had to be an extravagance with just the three brothers in the household. Then on March 25 Reuben signed a mortgage with his customer Armand Duplantier for 1,260 pesos to purchase 630 arpents nearby, bounding Bayou Sara on the north and the Mississippi on the west. It was an ideal location for the river trade, but Kemper had only nine months to pay the debt. Kemper was not being prudent, and barely three weeks after he had bought the land, John Smith appeared. Tired of waiting for his money, Smith had decided to close the partnership. After posting public declarations, Smith petitioned on April 24 for a dissolution. As of July 24, allowing for the notice period, Kemper had to cease doing business on Smith’s behalf.
Smith’s action was not necessarily meant to be punitive. In fact, he retained the Kempers as employees to run the store and liquidate the partnership’s assets, a muddy arrangement requiring Kemper to account for sales of goods from the partnership separately from those sold solely on behalf of Smith. It took three months for alcalde John O’Connor and Mills to inventory the assets and liabilities of the defunct firm. Then O’Connor took charge of all of the assets and books of the partnership and turned them over to Isaac Johnson’s son John H. Johnson, and all remaining inventory reverted to Smith. Johnson was to get a proper evaluation of the goods and collect the debts owed to the partnership for the benefit of its creditors, and then he would split any remaining balance between Smith and Kemper, though Reuben had little hope of realizing profits. Still, over the winter the Kempers came to a new agreement with Smith. In February of 1801, before John Smith returned to Ohio to sit in the territorial legislature, he bought 240 acres on Bayou Sara next to O’Connor’s farm and two months later sold it to Reuben and Nathan. Smith employed them to sell some of his remaining goods unconnected with the old partnership and perhaps to market timber from the -property.
In September Reuben bought a barcaza, or barge, and the brothers went into business in what Reuben thought was a small way, using Smith’s property and their own new parcel. Reuben and Nathan were both able river men. They could use Smith’s storehouse; one of them would take a cargo downriver to New Orleans and return hauling cargo for their neighbors and goods to sell in their store, while the other would run the store itself. When Nathan married Nancy Whitaker, on July 24, 1801, Reuben took over the barcaza full-time so his brother could stay with his new wife. He named the barge Cotton-Picker and made several trips a year down the Mississippi past Baton Rouge, and also up to Natchez. They also sold timber from their land and had to appeal to Grand-Pré to protect them from neighbors who poached their trees and thieves who broke into their house and storeroom during their absences.
For the next two years the brothers made a living but neglected Smith’s affairs. Then in September of 1802 another store opened a few miles from Bayou Sara. John Rhea was rumored to be an Irishman but had lived in America for years before coming to West Florida. He owned a nearby plantation and in 1802 was an alcalde in his area, a peaceful man who liked the quiet of his family and his farm. His store drew business away from the Kempers.
Reuben was pursuing unpaid accounts as far away as Natchez and New Orleans, with few results. Still, he made useful business acquaintances in the latter, most notably the Irish-born land speculator and politician Daniel Clark, an early settler in the city who had a thousand arpents in West Florida and plans for acquiring many more.
There in New Orleans Reuben saw firsthand the latest effects of Europe’s constant turmoil and its ramifications not just for Louisiana, but for his own Feliciana and West Florida. In October of 1800 Napoleon pressured Spain to cede Louisiana back to France, without specifying the territory’s precise boundaries. Bonaparte promised not to sell Louisiana to any third party, but then war with Britain prevented Napoleon from taking possession. By late 1801 the retrocession of Louisiana became an open secret, presenting the new president, Thomas Jefferson, with a serious problem. He believed that anyone possessing Louisiana became America’s natural foe. Spain was difficult enough to deal with, but it was crumbling under Napoleon’s eagles. France represented an entirely different sort of threat.
All of this kept the smoky coffeehouses of New Orleans buzzing. Then on October 18, Juan Ventura Morales, the Spanish intendant of Louisiana, suspended the right of Americans to deposit their goods on New Orleans’ wharves for shipment, a blow to merchants and planters all the way up the Mississippi and Ohio. Just two months later and on orders from the intendant general in Cuba, Carlos de Grand-Pré, the Spanish commandant of the four western districts, prohibited commerce between inhabitants of West Florida and U.S. citizens. Americans still freely navigated the Mississippi to get produce to New Orleans, but now those flatboats could not stop or sell goods in West Florida and had to transfer their cargoes directly to American vessels in New Orleans without landing so much as a hogshead on the wharf. Outraged voices in Washington called for retaliation. “If this be peace, God give us war,” cried one congressman, who declared that the only question was whether it would be “a bloodless war of a few months, or the carnage of years.”
Jefferson hoped to avoid war but he wanted the territory and its control of the Mississippi, and he sent Robert Livingston to France to pursue a sale. A concurrent issue was whether West Florida would be included in the cession, since France understood Louisiana to include the Floridas while Spain maintained that it did not. Without West Florida, however, there would be no secure American hold on both banks of the lower Mississippi. Initially, Livingston and Jefferson’s secretary of state James Madison had assured the president that the Floridas were French and that they could negotiate a single price for everything. All diplomacy is murky, however, and both French and Spanish authorities subsequently adopted shifting positions. By March of 1803 Napoleon was receptive to American pressure for a purchase, and on April 30 the United States acquired a territory called Louisiana for $11,250,000. Jefferson still did not know if it included the Floridas, so he sent James Monroe to Spain to negotiate for them separately. The issue soon became so electric that French negotiators warned Monroe and Livingston that their even mentioning Florida would cause problems with Spain. In August Jefferson spoke of West Florida “whensoever it may be rightfully obtained,” indicating that it was acceptable to wait and press the issue later. With the constantly shifting canvas of European politics, another opportunity might well arise when Spain would feel more amenable.
People in New Orleans believed that West Florida was part of the Louisiana territory, since they remembered that it had been before 1763. Reuben Kemper’s view of the issue was probably much the same, especially since by this time events in his own orbit had left him irrevocably opposed to Spain and all things Spanish. He had ignored John Smith for too long. Now a senator for the new state of Ohio, Smith heard from friends in West Florida that his business was not being well managed. He petitioned the commandant Grand-Pré to appoint arbiters to examine the accounts kept by the Kempers, which the commandant did. Practice called for both litigants to nominate arbiters, but Reuben stalled, and Smith suspected that Kemper’s absences in Natchez and New Orleans were his means of evading Grand-Pré’s orders. For his part, Reuben felt Smith’s claims were unjust and that Smith had too much influence with Grand-Pré. Acting on that belief, he reasoned that if he delayed a decision until after the American takeover of the territory of Louisiana, which Kemper expected would include West Florida, then an American court would give him a fairer hearing. He also relied on the custom dictating that disputes over amounts larger than a hundred pesos were not decided by the local governor but had to go to a higher authority.
When Smith returned to West Florida in April of 1803 and Reuben had still not chosen arbiters, Grand-Pré allowed Smith to name them all himself. Naturally Smith chose friends, such as Isaac Johnson and surveyor Ira C. Kneeland. Johnson headed the panel and showed some concern for Kemper’s interests. Kneeland, however—though he was an honest man—got along with few of the Americans and feuded for over a year with the Kempers’ friend and neighbor Frederick Kimball. Hence it is not surprising that the tribunal found in Smith’s favor. On August 20 Grand-Pré ordered Kemper to pay $5,807 and as a partial settlement gave Smith a writ for Reuben’s own 240 acres. Grand-Pré gave the Kempers seven or eight months to vacate Smith’s property. Before leaving to assume his Senate seat, Smith authorized local civic leader John Murdoch to take the Kempers’ land.
Reuben Kemper protested the entire proceeding. His specific complaint with the monetary settlement is hazy, but it was probably due to the valuation of the partnership’s property. Attachment of his 240 acres was worse. He blamed Smith, but he blamed Grand-Pré and the arbiters, particularly Kneeland, even more. His reasoning is cloudy regarding the surveyor; he may have suspected Kneeland of showing favoritism, accepting bribes, or coveting Reuben’s timber, but whatever the case, Kemper later characterized the surveyor’s actions as “unworthy.” From this time forward Kemper blamed the Spaniards for putting him out of business. He felt a keen and unyielding sense of justice. Years later, at the close of Reuben Kemper’s life, one of his close friends remarked that he was “as sincere in his attachments as he was implacable in his resentment, when he felt that he had been injured or betrayed.” And Kemper’s resentment “was always felt by those against whom it was directed.” While Smith left for Washington having collected barely two hundred pesos, the Kempers faced ruin. Reuben still had the Cotton-Picker and could move on, but Nathan had a wife and a nine-month-old son. Since Nathan was not a party to the Smith dispute, his property would be safe from attachment, so in October he applied for his own thousand-arpent grant.
In November Reuben went to New Orleans to pay a debt, which put him in place to witness the handover of Louisiana. Jefferson had instructed William Claiborne, the governor of Orleans Territory, and General James Wilkinson to receive the property, but they could not arrive before France’s Pierre Laussat took over from Spain, and Jefferson feared that in the interim the Creoles might try to frustrate the transfer. Late in October he suggested that Laussat and American consul Daniel Clark raise volunteers to prevent any interference. Claiborne warned that a recent Caribbean slave revolt might inspire the slaves in New Orleans to seize the opportunity presented by a power vacuum. Clark believed he could raise three hundred reliable men, and he began, as all American business began in New Orleans, at George King’s coffeehouse, where Clark enlisted King, Kemper, merchant Benjamin Morgan, and others. He soon had between two and three hundred, virtually all of them family men except the perpetual bachelor Kemper. Pinning black cockades to their hats as badges of uniform, they presented themselves to preserve order. On the appointed day, they formed on the Place d’Arms while the Spanish military formed on the opposite side, and they observed the peaceful turnover. The next three nights they remained alert, and thereafter stood day and night guard. Several days of parties followed, and Kemper perhaps overenjoyed himself, for illness confined him until Claiborne and Wilkinson arrived to take possession of the territory on -December 20.
There was policy in Reuben’s assistance in the peaceful transition. Almost certainly he acquainted himself with Claiborne and with Wilkinson, who for the moment would be governor of the new territory. Like most Americans, Kemper believed the territory included West Florida, but Jefferson had settled for a passive assertion of ownership while allowing the Spaniards to remain in possession, a policy that left the American inhabitants of the province rather uncertain. That was not a problem for most of them, for the Spanish administration suited them well enough, but the Kempers were very unhappy indeed. Claiborne and Wilkinson could probably occupy the weakly defended districts without opposition. If they did, then a more favorable American administration could overturn Grand-Pré’s ruling and return their property. But the United States had to move quickly, for by the time Claiborne and Wilkinson arrived, the Kemper brothers had barely four months left to decide if they should abandon their Bayou Sara home or put themselves directly in confrontation with Spain.
Instead, Jefferson did not move at all, and Spain moved even slower than before. Though they lifted the bans on trade with American vessels, the Spaniards felt surrounded by the Americans above the line, west of the river, and below them in New Orleans. Knowing that virtually all of those Yankees also wanted West Florida only increased Grand-Pré’s uneasiness, and more worrying than that were fears that the Americans in his province felt the same. Spain was about to learn the danger of encouraging American settlers. They might be loyal only as it suited them, and efforts to halt more settlement could arouse the ire of those already there. Once opened, West Florida would be hard to close.
Some Americans had already caused problems with Spain’s surveyors. Arthur Cobb, hotheaded friend and neighbor of the Kempers, threatened Kneeland, calling him a “damned rascal & lyar,” adding that he and Pintado could both “go to hell.” Cobb’s brother William tormented another surveyor until the man complained that “my Head is greatly deranged upon acct. of the way that I am perplexed by Cobb.” In such an atmosphere, getting any surveys done was difficult. One surveyor spent so much time in the swamps that he quipped, “I am becoming I believe amphibious.” Worse, some settlers refused to obtain surveys, saying that no Spaniard should trespass on their property, and they petitioned Washington to guarantee their titles, which showed who they thought would soon be in charge. Delays on surveys angered landowners who were awaiting clear title to sell, and as a result some surveyors feared for their safety; one received death threats. In retaliation, in the fall of 1802, Grand-Pré backed off on grants. At the same time Pintado called a near halt to surveys and further ordered his surveyors not to survey any claims subject to litigation.
It seemed a poor time for Nathan Kemper to apply for a grant, but he got his thousand arpents, land on the Comite River that he had no intention of living on, for in January he leased it with the proviso that if he wished he could move to the land himself. The proviso may have been a means of making sure he had a place to live if he and Samuel left Bayou Sara, though April of 1804 came and Grand-Pré’s deadline to evict them from their property passed. The Cotton-Picker kept Reuben away for weeks at a time barging between New Orleans and Natchez, and even up the Red River to Natchitoches two hundred miles west of Baton Rouge, but surely he stopped occasionally to see his brothers. May came and Smith’s agent Murdoch still did nothing, so the Kempers remained with no other apparent plans.
If the Kempers hoped for action by Washington, they hoped in vain. Claiborne saw the American inhabitants of West Florida becoming restless under Spanish rule and sensed a desire for American annexation. Though most of the Spanish soldados in New Orleans left by early April, the boundary commissioner, the Marqués de Casa Calvo, and his personal guard remained, a foreign presence that irritated Americans. Claiborne and Wilkinson reiterated that the failure to press the West Florida issue did not mean the United States had abandoned its claim. Officially Washington would act as if West Florida belonged to it while doing nothing overt to take the province. Claiborne suspected that the local inhabitants might just do it for themselves.
Carlos de Grand-Pré missed none of this in Baton Rouge. His administrative capital sat on the first high ground north of New Orleans, a bluff thirty to forty feet above the river at high water, regarded by some as the finest town site on the Mississippi below Memphis. It was hardly the finest town. A visitor described Baton Rouge as “a dirty little town of 60 cabins crowded together in a narrow street”; half a dozen better frame houses lay scattered over a plain surrounded by woods. Another visitor thought it “a right French” village, every other house being a shop selling bread, tobacco, pumpkins, rum, and the like. A Frenchman and an Irishman kept two good stores, and a widow operated the best inn, serving an excellent gumbo at her table, where the conversation ran a babble of French, Spanish, English, and “American.”
Fort San Carlos sat on a plain north of the village, commanding a long view of the riverbanks to the south. Visitors disagreed on the shape of the bastion, perhaps because it needed constant repair. A Frenchman thought it a symmetrical six-pointed star. Pintado saw the fort as a multi-angular three-sided affair entirely open on its river face. The Spaniards depended on the height of the bluff to deter any assault from the river, and thus nothing but a thin palisade of pickets protected that side. In fact the ramparts were just earth from a ditch, or fosse, that surrounded the land side, with a stockade of pickets set vertically into the top. A number of small cannon, many of them in poor repair, covered both the river and the outer approaches. After forty years of peace, the Spaniards had neither the resources nor the inclination to maintain the works, and more than one visitor came away thinking it could not withstand a determined foe.
Grand-Pré had perhaps two hundred soldados and militia to garrison Baton Rouge. About ten miles southeast at Galveztown, at the confluence of the Iberville and Amite rivers, he had another small fort with only a dozen soldados and a few rusted old cannon. Grand-Pré himself typified the tangled history of the region. French by birth, he remained and transferred allegiance in 1783 when Spain took over West Florida, and thereafter held several administrative posts. He arrived in Baton Rouge as governor of the four districts at almost the same time as Reuben Kemper, and he involved himself in the community as a citizen as well as an administrator. He made friendships, engaged in civic affairs, and raised eleven children, several of whom married Americans, and was easygoing, fair in his administration, and popular. His superior Vicente Folch, governor of West Florida in Pensacola, thought him lax, but Grand-Pré better understood the tenor of the people in his domain and helped them as he could, especially after the Louisiana Purchase left him governing a mostly American community surrounded by American territory.
Despite a few American complaints, in 1804 justice in West Florida was more equitable than in most places. Syndics dealt locally with civil cases, with Grand-Pré as a first court of appeal, but citizens could appeal to Cuba, then Madrid, and ultimately to the king. All criminal cases tried in an alcalde’s court could be appealed to a governor’s court. Distant garrison commandants held court on suits for sums under fifty pesos, and precedent suggested that even Grand-Pré’s authority did not extend beyond a hundred pesos. The accused had a right to question his accuser and witnesses. Both parties in civil cases paid for the court’s time, with fees for every decree and document, and those petty fees could accumulate without limit until even the victor found little left to him. Some of the cases challenged fair judgment, often involving feuds like Kimball’s with Kneeland. Though legend depicted Spanish justice as corrupt and inefficient, it functioned well given the time and place and caused no discontent in 1804. In fact, Claiborne found that Americans preferred the Spanish approach to the jury system.
Little criminal activity troubled Grand-Pré prior to 1804, though with U.S. military posts not far above the line, deserters fleeing to West Florida presented a growing problem from 1800 onward. Havana wanted them arrested, but planters recoiled from reporting fellow Americans until early 1801, when deserters committed a rash of armed robberies and Grand-Pré had to raise militia to put down the “Dysorder & Scandal.” Thereafter deserters and criminals from above the line committed half of the robberies and virtually all arson, murder, and attempted murder in West Florida. In February of 1802, when Reuben Kemper discovered a corpse in a road, the possibility existed that the man had met death by violent means. After 1803, more miscreants fled to the enclosed borderland, and violent crime increased fivefold. The proximity of foreign borders encouraged West Florida’s own criminals to flee, and the government’s failure to apprehend a felon was a source of resentment when an American’s property had been stolen.
Grand-Pré also faced a problem with the introduction of more slaves, for the slave uprising at San Domingue in 1791 raised fears every-where. The proportion of African-born slaves in West Florida gave cause for concern, for they were considered more rebellious than second-generation slaves. Yet slave owners were among the wealthiest men in West Florida by 1803, holding more than twenty times the capital wealth of non–slave owners. Consequently Grand-Pré balanced concern for security with the interests of his more influential citizens.
Grand-Pré’s authority extended east only to the St. Helena and St. Ferdinand districts, where the Pearl, Tchefuncte, Tangipahoa, Natalbany, Amite, and Iberville rivers ran southerly into Lakes Pontchartrain and Maurepas, putting settlers there in easier reach of the New Orleans market than settlers in Feliciana were, though their plantations paled compared with St. Francisville’s. East of the Pearl, extending to the Apalachicola, the country was wild, sparsely settled, and unruly. One visitor described the settlers as “poor and indolent, devoted to raising cattle, hunting, and drinking whiskey.” The people impressed travelers as a wild race of few morals. No more than twelve hundred people lived along the Tombigbee, cut off from Natchez by more than two hundred miles of wilderness. In April of 1804 one local predicted “they will naturally become a banditti, fugitives from justice, and disturbers, of the peace.” They were “illiterate, wild and savage, of depraved morals, unworthy of public confidence or private esteem; litigious, disunited, and knowing each other, universally distrustful of each other.”
Only two real towns broke an expanse that stretched almost three hundred miles. Pensacola became West Florida’s capital after the Spaniards left New Orleans, but it had little to offer. Vicente Folch, governor of Spanish West Florida, doubled as both mayor of the town and its provincial governor, enjoying neither job. With white women scarce, as attested to by there being only sixty-one married white men in the community, the four hundred white bachelors in town had little to do, meaning Governor Folch was not the only frustrated man in town. The other community was Mobile, forty miles west of Pensacola on a wide and deep bay fed by the Mobile and Alabama rivers, and thereby much the more populated and prosperous settlement. Navigable streams from the interior of the Mississippi Territory brought produce down to market, while bay shipping sent consumer goods upstream, but the planters and consumers above the line lived in American territory; Mobile was Spanish. All trade depended on the goodwill of the Spaniards. People in the Mississippi Territory believed the Mobile District was included in the Louisiana Purchase, while Americans in the district were at odds with the Spaniards. American posts at Fort Stoddert on the Mobile, six miles above the line, and Fort St. Stephens, another thirty miles upstream, tried to keep peace.
Tempers flared when the Spaniards began stopping American vessels and charging duties on cargoes passing through. Claiborne predicted in April that “these proceedings will tend to settle the claim of the United States to West Florida or rather bring it to a speedy issue.” Meanwhile Claiborne acted as if West Florida already belonged to the United States and tried to establish its post offices, starting with Baton Rouge. Folch warned him that such an act would be an outrage and that anyone attempting to do that must look to the consequences. Washington advised Claiborne to appoint Spaniards to be his postmasters, thinking that would be seen as conciliatory even while it exercised American authority. Claiborne was more concerned about some of the Americans flocking to the new country. “Many adventurers who are daily coming into the Territory from every quarter, possess revolutionary principles and restless, turbulent dispositions,” he warned Jefferson that May. “These Men will for some years give trouble,” and “a few designing intriguing men may easily excite some inquietude in the public mind.”
Claiborne soon concluded that one of those intriguing men was Daniel Clark. There was a fortune to be made in land speculation, and Clark expected Claiborne and Wilkinson to help him. Wilkinson was every bit as venal as Clark, eminently corruptible, and he already had a history of playing America and Spain against each other for his personal gain, despite being a senior general in the U.S. Army. Clark gathered around himself a group of like-minded professional men whom Claiborne’s brother referred to as “a certain insidious Junto,” but Claiborne made it clear that he would not be a party to their schemes. He told Jefferson that Clark had more capacity for good and ill than any other man in the province, but “he pants for power.” The fact that Reuben Kemper was Clark’s friend could have suggested to Claiborne that Kemper was part of that “Junto.” Even if Reuben was not, subsequent events demonstrated to Claiborne and Grand-Pré that the Kempers were just the sort of men who would bring trouble to West Florida.
Meet the Author
The author of more than forty books, WILLIAM C. DAVIS is the director of programs at the Virginia Center for Civil War Studies. He is also chief consultant for the A&E television series Civil War Journal and teaches history at Virginia Tech.
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