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“Fourteenth Colony: The Forgotten Story of the Gulf South During America’s Revolutionary Era” By: Mike Bunn

“Fourteenth Colony: The Forgotten Story of the Gulf South During America’s Revolutionary Era”

Author: Mike Bunn

Publisher: NewSouth Books

Pages: 304

Price: $28.95 (Trade Cloth)

Settlement, War, and Agriculture in West Florida Explored in New History

“Fourteenth Colony” is a book of history the common reader can really enjoy.

It is smoothly written, fully researched but not pedantic and chock full of information that is new to the reader and often startling. Bunn is very much the right person for this job. He is the director of Historic Blakely State Park in Spanish Fort and the author of many books and articles on early Alabama.

 Bunn reminds us that there were more than two dozen British colonies in North America in 1775 and only 13 rebelled. The rest went on to remain in the empire or fall to other European powers.

West Florida was a colony that did not rebel and, in any case, like East Florida, had only been in British control since British victory in the Seven Years War or, as it was called here, the French and Indian War, 1754-1763. That’s the war written about by James Fenimore Cooper in “The Leatherstocking Tales.”

The Treaty of Paris, 1763, awarded Florida to the British who took over from the Spanish who had been allied with the French. Finding the territory too large to administer, the British divided it in half, with St. Augustine the capital of more populous East Florida.

In this instance and in several others, Bunn tells of how the citizens had to make adjustments. I had always wondered how that worked. Generally, the citizens of a given settlement or colony were given a period of time. In the case of the takeover of West Florida — three months to pledge allegiance to the British Crown or 18 months to sell out and move if they chose not to pledge allegiance to their new king. This must have been very odd for them.

For some in Mobile, Pensacola and elsewhere this happened three times. Bunn tells us most settlers chose to remain. They had received tracts of land—which is why they had moved to the frontier in the first place—and they were so isolated that they tended not to be particularly political. There were no newspapers, little information about happenings in Europe or on the Atlantic seaboard and, for most, one king would do as well as another. There was little effective government anyway.

The new rulers wanted the settlers to remain. Colonists were valuable and the Indians were numerous and often terrifying.

West Florida, stretching from the Apalachicola River west to the Mississippi, had as its capital Pensacola. (This colony did not include southern Louisiana, and the city of New Orleans, which was still Spanish. The Louisiana territory, which Jefferson would purchase in 1803, was still French.)

Bunn takes some time to describe daily life in West Florida. Mostly, you would not want it. There were crude military outposts, old and rotten, crumbling.

The weather was, in those days before air conditioning and any other cooling measures, unbearably hot and humid, perfect for fevers and communicable diseases of every kind. One resident called it a “great oven,” Another is quoted saying it was "a grave-yard for Britons. Still another declared it "the most disagreeable and unhealthy place in America."

Interestingly to me, many of the settlers found the winters unbearable, with penetrating, damp cold, and some of these complainers had spent time in Britain or even Canada. And there were hurricanes!

Agriculture in West Florida was mostly a disaster. Advertisements meant to lure settlers to the area suggested the soil was rich, the Gulf full of fish and the woods teeming with game. These things are partly true. Further inland the soil is rich. But Bunn reports the settlers around Pensacola found the soil sterile and sandy, not suitable for what they knew how to grow. All wheat had to be imported. Cotton was not yet an important crop.

The major commerce was with the Indians for deer skins, traded with Indians for knives, axes, guns, and, sadly, rum. These skins, sent to Europe, were made into gloves and so on.

In 1763, Bunn reports, there were about 2,000 settlers and the population grew very slowly. There were 30,000 Creeks, Chickasaw and Choctaw combined. Settlers worried about rogue traders who got the Indians drunk and generally cheated and infuriated them. The Indians, always nervous about land encroachment, could have eliminated the settlers at any time. Bunn notes that one historian believed that during one 90-day period trading houses in Pensacola dispersed 30,000 gallons of rum. 

Bunn reports that by 1763 as many as 400,000 deer were killed annually in the Southeast. As when the skies were darkened by flocks of passenger pigeons, no one could imagine this resource could be wiped out; but it almost was. As the Indians' desire for trade goods increased, they organized hunting parties and went after the deer in a methodical way, even burning "swaths of land to drive deer into areas where they could be harvested more efficiently."

There is considerable reporting here of military campaigns back and forth through the territory, but the star is Bernardo Galvez who, in 1775, after the Revolutionary War began, marched east from New Orleans and conquered as he went, finally besieging and taking Pensacola in what would be the "greatest battle ever fought in Florida.”

The British attack on Mobile, which finally failed, was “the bloodiest day of the Revolutionary War in what became Alabama.”

Don Noble’s newest book is Alabama Noir, a collection of original stories by Winston Groom, Ace Atkins, Carolyn Haines, Brad Watson, and eleven other Alabama authors.