Hancock County as Part of West Florida

 …Communications during the Spanish Period
 
Russell B. Guerin and Marco Giardino, Ph.D.
 
Several years ago, the Hancock County Historical Society was presented with a collection of translations of Spanish documents dating from 1780 to 1811, essentially the period of domination of West Florida by Spain. The study is called "The Lower Mississippi Valley Database Project."
 
What is now Hancock County was once part of West Florida, which revolted from Spain in 1810 and formed an independent republic with a lone-star flag. As a separate government, it lasted 70 days, after which time it became part of the United States.
 
The translations are interesting to us for a number of reasons. First, they mention prominently such local areas as Pearl River, Cat Island, the Bay of St. Louis, Pass Christian and Pass Mariana. In addition, the letters give some insight regarding people living in our area and their ambivalence about who was governing them, as well as the structure of the government’s military posts.  
 
Some fascinating specifics include the names of the letter writers and people mentioned in them, such as Pedro Morin, possibly the progenitor of the now populous Moran family of Hancock County. Simon Favre, already familiar to most of us, comes across as a man much at the heart of international dealings and a trusted translator to the Choctaw nation; it is evident that at this time his allegiance was to Spain. Also, the Krebs family of Pascagoula and Philip Saucier of the Bay of St. Louis are often mentioned.
 
A separate analysis might be made from this study of the presence of “corsairs” in the Gulf and our local waterways. They would seem to include privateers and pirates, as well as ships possibly commissioned by the United States to intimidate the Spanish forces.
 
Considering some of the letters in date order, the first to be of local significance is dated February 28, 1805, sent by Saucier to Spanish Governor General Folch. It reads in part, “I have just learned from Pedro Morin, inhabitant of Cat Island, of the insult committed by an American corsair against that coast.” Besides the local flavor contained in this message, the facts that the intruder was American and the year was 1805 lead one to wonder whether this was an early attempt by the United States to show its interest in the area in more than a diplomatic way. This followed close behind the 1804 unsuccessful attempt by the Kemper brothers to break off West Florida from Spain.
 
Other historical reporting shows that the United States from the time of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 claimed that West Florida should have been included in the bargain, but President Jefferson was reluctant to go to war. Nonetheless, there were considerations of other methods of achieving eventual possession by the United States. It was hoped that such might come as a result of an invitation by the people. After the Louisiana Purchase, Governor WCC Claiborne posed the question, “Can no means be devised to obtain such a request? Nature has decreed the union of Florida with the United States.” [1]
 
 Other letters from the years between 1805 and 1810 continue to show stress. One in particular, dated August 5, 1808, described an action by four American gunboats that came to Cat Island. Their crew killed various cattle and other livestock belonging to Mr. Morin. Also, they went to Pass Christian where they killed a cow belonging to Jose Labat. In addition, the American captain of one vessel demanded that a Spanish schooner submit to an inspection, and was very angry when told he had no right in Spanish waters.
 
In 1809, the commandant of Mobile reported that an official of the United States navy on his way to Fort Stoddart caused him to wonder whether the American was sent “to alarm the troops that are stationed there.” The Spanish official then notified his compatriots at Dauphin Island and Pass Christian that they should notify him if there was the least incident of suspicion.
 
In March 1809, Pellerin of Pass Christian reported that five “canon launches of the United States” had passed, some of them anchoring in the Rigolets. There were enough sailors and soldiers on board to put up a defense if necessary.
 

Mississippi’s part in the West Florida Revolt

While the meaning of the 1805 letter from Morin and others cited above are subject to interpretation, the letters of 1810 are largely straightforward. One, dated June 8, mentions a “French Corsair,” but it highly possible that “French” meant the language of a crew out of New Orleans. In that case, the corsair went back and forth near Ship Island.
 
The actual invasion of Baton Rouge began on September 22, 1810. A few days earlier, on September 7, one Benjamin Howard, apparently of Pearl River, wrote to “Comandent” Simon Farver [sic],[2] to give a long, gratuitous analysis he had made of the feelings of local inhabitants. His letter indicates that Favre and the Spanish governor must already have news of the “Rebelion at Batton Rouge.” While the invasion had not yet commenced, there had been indications of hostilities.
 
Howard’s letter stated that he had taken an estimate of the percentage of inhabitants who supported the Spanish government, concluding that two thirds backed the “…ould Spanish law and are onely wateing for orders to Rise and quell them.” Howard described himself as a Spanish subject “Bound in Justis to my oath and my country.”
 
On October 20, Spanish official Cayetano Perez of Mobile wrote to Governor Folch, telling of a communication from Fabre [sic][3] regarding 300 men of the rebellion who had come to Pearl River, with the intention of marching against the posts along the coast. He reported a letter from Pellerin of Pass Christian, indicating that the people of his area did not wish to fight and that he had to retire to Cat Island. Perez made a similar finding and planned to go to Horn Island, having “no defense in this Post.”
 
Two days later, Pellerin directly wrote to Folch, indicating a larger number. He stated, “the night of the eighteenth, Don Simon Fabre sent an inhabitant of Choucoupoula to advise me, that four hundred men of the rebels of Baton Rouge (mounted on Horses) have arrived up the Pearl River, with direction of this post,” meaning Pass Christian.
 
It is possible that Choucoupoula was an early name for the area of Bay St. Louis.
 
On the 21st, the letter continued, Agustin Lafontaine was advised by Favre to let people know that they were not in danger, at which news they returned to their homes from Cat Island.
 
Pellerin wrote to Folch on the 24th to report “a Gunboat of the United States in the Bay of St. Louis.” It had come from New Orleans. A few days later, Favre wrote to Pellerin to say “there was talk of an expedition against Mobile.” On the 30th, Pellerin wrote to Folch to complain that he has neither provisions for his troops, nor a vessel with which to escape in event of attack.
 
The inhabitants of Pascagoula did not fare so well as those from the Pearl River area, and possibly those of Bay St. Louis who had returned from Cat Island. This is evident by a November promise of 21 named persons of Pascagoula to continue to be dutiful citizens. This commitment was made to Francisco Hemeterio de Hevia, Commandant of Pascagoula.  It was prompted by destruction to their property and “tyranny exercised over us [by] an infuriated mob.” They appealed for the reestablishment of Government “as we are in a most destitute Situation without Protection of Government our property torn from us without our Consent and no redress.”
 
The promise was ended with the statement, “The Creolds [sic] of the Country are in favor of the Spanish Government.”
 
The leader of the invaders in the above was Sterling Dupree, listed as a claimant in West Florida at the time of the revolution.
 
About the same time, a November message from one Alexander Durant to De Hevia at Pascagoula saying that he heard that 1800 men were at McCoy’s “above the line,” possibly meaning the 31st parallel, and that they were intent on taking Mobile and Pensacola. The leader had warned the people that no harm would come to them if they stayed at home, “but them that don’t he will plunder them of ever thing.”
 
Durant’s conclusion was that “…men in my district is I believe willing to obey your orders No more at present.”
 
A document signed by Jose Collins of Pensacola on November 2 essentially told the same warning, except that it was said to be from Baton Rouge. It declared that “if the people would take possession of their Country, the Said Government would cease & their acts be null.”
 
The first direct communication from the rebels to the Spanish government left no room for equivocation. This was from Reuben Kemper, one of the leaders of the revolt, writing from Fort Stoddart to Commandant Perez of Mobile. In this letter, Kemper claimed to be authorized in effect to accept Perez’s surrender, in which case much blood would be spared, and Perez would be granted a rank by the West Florida convention equal to his Spanish rank. But Kemper and his brothers, who indeed had been given some authority, caused great ravage to the people and were recognized by both the American and the Spanish to be overly ambitious for his own advancement.
 
Kemper’s letter was dated November 3, 1810. The following day, Perez wrote to Governor Folch asking for orders. While he was concerned and mentioned 500 men supposedly ready to attack, he gave indication that Kemper may be bluffing. There was no indication that Perez would meet with Kemper’s demands.
 
Without doubt, there must have been numerous other letters within this group that are not available. In any event, history records that there was a relatively peaceful transfer to the United States. One letter that has been preserved was dated November 20, 1810, and was directed by Spanish Governor Folch to Mississippi Governor David Holmes. Though pledged to secrecy, Folch makes it clear that he has communicated with a higher official in Havana, “…the purpose of which is, that he will please address himself to the United States in order to treat with the Executive authority of same relative to the delivery of the Floridas in trust, until the occasion of a treaty, in which an equivalent to Spain, should be determined and agreed upon.” Folch ended with an appeal to Holmes to do all possible to prevent any more “robberies and depredations” (probably referring to the troubles caused by Kemper and his recruits), adding that in his opinion the inhabitants “are on the eve of becoming American Citizens."                                                                                                                                                                                        
 
In 1812, on April 8, President Madison proclaimed the addition of West Florida to be part of the United States. It may seem that this is essentially the end of the story of how what is now Hancock County became part of the US. Not so, however, as the new jurisdiction went East only as far as the Pearl River. Nonetheless, in August, Governor Holmes issued a proclamation making the entire Mississippi coast one county, to include “…all that tract of Country lying East of the Pearl River, West of the Perdido, and South of the thirty-first degree of North latitude.”
 
To some degree, our little corner of Mississippi remained in limbo until the Adams-Onis Treaty was concluded between the US and Spain in 1819. It was not ratified and proclaimed until 1821.
 

 


[1] Leroy E. Willie, West Florida and Its People
 
[2] This was a variant of the spelling of Favre, in this case, Simon Favre, interpreter between the Choctaws and the Spanish, as well as to the French and the Americans. He owned a plantation on the Pearl River, at the site that became the town of Napoleon.
 
[3] This was another spelling of the Favre name.